A meeting in Ramallah on Wednesday between the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and representatives of the Joint List of predominantly Arab political parties that finished third in Israel's recent election had a symbolic meaning greater than the political clout of the two sets of politicians in their respective domains. Blurring the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank affirmed a common identity between Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and those who live under its occupation, analysts noted, at a moment when debate over the viability of a two-state solution has intensified.
“They have reasserted their identity not just as Arabs, but also as Palestinians,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, of the members of the Israeli parliament who had, according to local media, met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
“There is a sense among all Palestinians that they are one people, whether citizens of Israel and called Arab Israeli, or refugees in Lebanon, or living in Gaza or the West Bank or Jerusalem,” Elgindy added.
The Joint List's haul of 13 Knesset seats in last week’s election was an unprecedented level of representation for Arab citizens in Israel's legislature. One in five of Israel's 8 million citizens is a Muslim or Christian Arab, a minority that has long complained of discrimination.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied his own base to the polls last week by warning them that "Arabs are voting in droves." The Joint List, in fact, was formed by four small predominantly Arab parties that would likely have been excluded from parliamentary representation by a law that raised the minimal threshold — an outcome that many saw as thwarting the law's intent.
Hatem Kanaaneh, a retired doctor living in Galilee currently on a tour in the United States to promote his book, "Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor's Tale of Life in Galilee," said he has never before seen this level of unity among Arab citizens of Israel.
"Prior to this round, in every election the small Arab factions really spent most of the time in the run-up to elections arguing with each other and criticizing each other," Kanaaneh said. "This is the first time they didn't have to spend energy on that and put it towards addressing really significant issues for the entire community."
Clearly, Palestinian leaders in Ramallah have taken note. Joint Arab List party chief Ayman Odeh and other Members of Knesset (MKs) including Jamal Zahalka, Masud Gnaim and soon-to-be MK Saadia Osama attended the meeting in Ramallah, the Jerusalem Post said.
The meeting between Palestinian leaders from both sides of the boundary mirrored the blurring of the Green Line that has been a feature of Israeli politics for decades, with Israel having defied international law to permanently settle hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“The Israelis have been blurring the Green Line for almost 50 years in a territorial and political sense, using settlements and putting their citizens in occupied territory,” Elgindy said.
“It was inevitable that the Palestinians would respond," he added. "Now that the idea of two states is becoming more and more difficult, we have blurring of the Green Line happening among Palestinians at a demographic and political level.”
The result could be more coordination of protests, where campaigns by Palestinians inside Israel are adopted by those in the West Bank and Gaza, and vice versa.
Kanaaneh noted that the Joint List is leading a march on Thursday from Israel's southern Negev desert to Jerusalem in solidarity with the Bedouin communities threatened with relocation by the government.
"That's a significant event I think that probably wouldn't have happened without this united front, and the Joint List sticking together," Kanaaneh said.
Elgindy said the unification of Arab political parties in Israel at this time is especially important in light of Netanyahu making clear his refusal to countenance a Palestinian state as long as he's in office.
“Younger Palestinians on both sides of the line are more and more inclined to not believe in two states but to believe in the idea of equal rights for all in the same land," Elgindy said. "But their leadership hasn’t yet caught up.”
Although Abbas and the United States have consistently emphasized negotiations with Israel to achieve a two-state solution, Netanyahu on the campaign trail made that approach difficult to sustain when he promised voters there would be no Palestinian state on his watch — prompting a rebuke from the White House.
After winning the election, Netanyahu backtracked on those statements, but Palestinians — and the White House — have reacted with skepticism. Even when he first spoke of a two-state solution, Netanyahu had premised that on preconditions that were unlikely to be met.
Despite Netanyahu's statements, Abbas said his “hand was outstretched for peace,” according to MK Gnaim. Abbas said he was also watching the political developments in Israel to see if there would be an opportunity to renew negotiations, the Jerusalem Post reported.
The meeting in Ramallah drew criticism from some Israeli politicians, including Likud Central Committee Chairman MK Danny Danon, who told the Jerusalem Post: “The members of the Joint List haven’t even been sworn in to the Israeli Knesset yet and they are already going to their political patron (Abbas).”
“Rather than concerning themselves only with the people of the (Palestinian) authority, the time has come for them to make time for the crises and problems among the Arab population (in Israel) and help solve their daily issues,” Danon added.
But those fears were probably unfounded, Elgindy said, and Abbas called on the coalition to focus on solving the problems of Arab citizens of Israel rather than working for an end to the occupation.
Abbas said he “appreciates our struggle for peace, but called on us to handle the problems of the Arab population in Israel,” Gnaim said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “Ninety percent of our activities are aimed at internal matters and only ten percent are dedicated to the peace issue and foreign policy.”
Whether the Joint List will help restart stalled negotiations or focus on problems facing Arab citizens of Israel, the fact that the coalition is now the third largest political party in Israel is significant itself, Elgindy said — especially in contrast to the “dysfunctional” Palestinian leadership.
“This is a moment where Palestinians in Israel have reached political maturity, and the fact that they could overcome their differences, have the discipline and organization to run a very effective campaign, and shown that they weren’t giving in to victimhood and the boycott psychologies that have perpetuated the Palestinians’ marginalization,” Elgindy said.
“I would expect that this group, the Joint List, will become more and more influential in not just Israeli politics, but also in Palestinian politics — especially when you have this real leadership vacuum on the Palestinian side.”
Kanaaneh added that the Joint List's ability to speak to the wider Israeli community on behalf of the Arab minority might change the wider Israeli community's perception of Arab citizens.
"I'm hoping that the Israeli public will get to see us for the citizens we are," Kanaaneh said. "It's our destiny, it's our fate, to shove democracy down Israel's throat against its will."
With wire services