What hope do Palestinian citizens have in the Israeli parliament? Given the political dominance of the Israeli right and a slew of discriminatory laws, Palestinians are fighting an endless uphill battle with little upside. It’s been that way for five decades but the last two election cycles have thrust the issue into sharp focus and decisions made now by the Palestinian leadership could be a turning point in the upcoming general election in September.
In 2015, four Palestinian parties joined together in an alliance that came to be known as the Joint List. It won an impressive 13 seats in the parliament. For a brief moment, it looked as though the main Palestinian parties, which have long been split internally over religion and socialism, would lose their dominance in the Knesset. Representing more than 20 percent of Israel’s population, a unified block of Palestinian votes could have launched a flurry of activity, including bills to curb Israeli expansion in the West Bank and win more rights for Palestinian citizens, even though no Palestinian party has ever joined a governing coalition in Israel’s history. But the moment was ruined and then lost to infighting, as so often before in the last 60 years.
The bitter disagreements left the Joint List in disarray. The group split with the socialist Hadash party at the head of one bloc and the religious, nationalist Balad party leading the other. The Palestinian voting population responded with apathy. Results in the last election in April were harrowing: fewer than half of eligible Palestinians voted, down from 64 percent in the 2015 election. Together, the parties won 10 seats as the Israeli right consolidated its parliamentary gains.
What a difference three months makes. With the Israeli right tearing itself apart and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ever more frantic attempts to hold on to power, the Joint List saw its chance and regrouped. Banding together under a renewed alliance, the Joint List is promising better results in the upcoming election, with leader Ayman Odeh declaring it can “overthrow the right-wing government” and stop Israel’s increasingly vicious racism and annexation.
Leaving aside the rhetoric, it is time for Palestinian citizens of Israel to consider their options more carefully and acknowledge the systemic obstacles that have been placed before them. This could be a moment of great transformation in the struggle for equal rights and dignity in Israel.
From land polices to the right to commemorate their history, Palestinian Israelis face institutionalized discrimination that echoes America’s segregation laws and aspects of apartheid South Africa. Land ownership is just one example among many. According to Israel’s basic laws – the country has no formal constitution – public land can be controlled only by the state, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Development Authority. As per its own policy, the JNF leases land only to Jews. Given that 93 percent of land in Israel is public and overseen by one of these entities, Palestinian citizens are effectively blocked from leasing the majority of land in their country.
There are myriad other laws that place the Palestinian population outside mainstream Israeli society and obstruct their full participation as citizens. One has to wonder why Palestinians keep engaging with the Israeli government at all.
At this moment in its history, the character of the state of Israel is unmistakeably right-wing. The international community no longer believe it when Israeli diplomats say Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Western liberals have grown tired of Israel’s claims to liberalism, which now appear unfounded. The mask has been ripped off and the aggressive racism at the heart of the Israeli state project is laid bare for all to see.
Palestinian citizens have a unique opportunity to use this change in perception to rally support internationally for their cause. Rather than fight an uphill battle in the Israeli parliament where the cards are stacked against them, they must focus on building international partnerships which can apply external pressure on Israel to mend its failed democractic experiment. This is not to say that they should abandon the political system altogether or boycott the process but there must come a realization that the constant infighting for little concrete change is draining and ultimately pointless.
Whether Netanyahu will hold on to power in the September election is unclear but the country’s rightward shift will certainly continue. With a sympathetic partner in the White House, the Palestinians should expect yet more legislation from Israel which is both aggressive and explicitly racist.
Abba Eban, the famed Israeli diplomat and scholar, once said that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. When the international community is beginning to discuss Israel in terms of its racism and its resemblance to an apartheid state, now is the time for Palestinian citizens to make their voices heard and to tell the world what it is really like living in democratic Israel. And it will pay much larger dividends than fighting unwinnable battles in the Knesset.
Joseph Dana is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact. He is based between South Africa and the Middle East.