In the recent Israeli elections, the parties representing the Palestinian citizens united in one list: the Joint List. It has attracted more external enthusiasm than internal. Authors like Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury praised the list, endorsed it, and even suggested it as a model for elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet, Arab voters—Netanyahu’s alarmism notwithstanding—did not go to the polls in droves. Lacking any element of fierce inter-party competition, the movement of voters on election day was slow. It seemed to reflect the general mood of Arab disenchantment with Israeli formal politics, and skepticism with respect to its utility.
The general skepticism is reflected in the steady decline of voting turnout in the last few electoral campaigns–fifty-six percent in the previous elections, in line with the long-term historical decline. The list did not succeed in getting the voter turnout to reach seventy percent among Palestinian citizens of Israel, as its proponents hoped. The turnout seems to have increased by less than eight percent, to sixty-three percent, from the last elections. It remained lower than the turnout amongst the Jewish majority (general final turnout 72.3 percent). The List succeeded in guaranteeing the representation of existing parties in the Knesset, which seemed in risk after the increase in the threshold for representation. Yet despite all the rhetoric about the historic nature of the unification of the lists, it increased Arab representation in the Israeli parliament by only two seats, to thirteen, more than the eleven the lists had separately before unification.
The list’s campaign used slogans like, “the third [political] power,” and promised to be more influential and effective in Arab representation. Yet these slogans are hard to reconcile with the most optimistic estimates, which promised fourteen or fifteen member seats in the Knesset. Why would an addition of two members to the current eleven transform Palestinian political representation from marginality to influence? What explains the rhetorical excitement around the Joint List and to what extent does it overlap with political realities? Is it a model?
Put simply, the List is the wrong antidote, addressing the symptom rather than the root cause. It represents the highest achievement of formal political representation and–simultaneously–its bankruptcy. For years, many had hoped for the unification of the lists: both to reduce internal rifts and to increase representation given broad agreement of general goals. As such, the unification of Islamist, communist, and nationalist parties into one list–against the backdrop of ruthless and bloody sectarianism in the Arab world–seems like a dream come true, a hope to nourish. Yet, this apparent success brings the concept of Arab representation in a Jewish state to its logical end, exposing its emptiness to full view. In this sense, the list’s success is what might hasten the eventual demise of the idea of representation. Paradoxically, those who opposed the List and called for boycotting the elections, may end up the unintended beneficiaries over the long-term from this experiment of political unification.
In what follows I make the following arguments: First, the Joint List and its celebration exemplify a fetishization of representation to the detriment of participatory and organizational efforts. Second, this List advances the illusion of influence through formal politics to the detriment of extra-parliamentary influence. Third, the focus on the List and its celebration distracts us from the main question of inclusion in a colonial structure and focuses instead on exclusion from political representation. Like for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the main issue for Palestinian citizens is one of inclusive subordination. As the study of colonial legal history elsewhere demonstrates, inclusion can produce the effect of subordination no less than exclusion.
Between Representation and Organization
The main problem in terms of Palestinian politics inside Israel–and perhaps beyond–is the overemphasis on top-down, formal representation at the expense of bottom-up communal organization. The parties knew that they had to unite. Otherwise they, or at least some of them, would have perished. So they sidestepped the primary disagreements. We may praise this sidestepping as a sign of maturity. But avoiding those disagreements meant that the unity would be merely an empty vessel, a formality with no substantive element. The prioritization of representation and the sacrifice of principles at its altar lead to the fetishism of representation. Accordingly, representation appears to be the ultimate end, as if it had the power to fix the substantive issues merely by virtue of the formal structure. It remains to be seen how the components of the list will address these substantive issues: the approach towards the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo accords, the one state/two state debate, the approach towards the Arab Spring, as well as disagreements between secularists and Islamists.
Two of the disagreements are of crucial significance. One is the nature of political representation, since some parties in the Joint List conceive it as the ultimate end. Secondly, political parties disagree vehemently on the question of national organization outside Israeli formal structures. The leading party in the List (al-Jabha) opposes the idea altogether and proposes Jewish-Arab cooperation rather than “segregation.”
Against the backdrop of these disagreements, this unity looks shallow. Yet this shallowness seems to fit well with the general populism dominating the Israeli parliamentarian scene. The general decline in the quality of the Israeli Knesset in the last decade influenced the question of Arab representation. This decline, and the accompanying rise in populism, is the outcome of the influence of money on electoral politics and the influence of the media, and social media in particular. Sheldon Adelson’s freely distributed newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, virtually destroyed all the other competing newspapers and sustained the public’s right-wing shift and Netanyahu’s grip on power. The more successful members of the Knesset are the most virtuosic, and the more skillful in attracting media attention.
Under these conditions, the Arab members have little to do other than to compete for the image, the voice, and the Facebook “like.” Theatrics are the only remaining option once one realizes that the Israeli political system excludes Arab representatives from cabinet coalitions or even sensitive Knesset committees. This marginality is also manifest in the unfeasibility of recruiting enough votes to legislate on important matters that directly relate to the Palestinian minority. More than older forms of populism, this new populism is mediated electronically. As such, it does not qualify as an act of organizing the community. Its effects seem to be limited by the width of the laptop’s screen and the online surfing-time–a digital populism for a digital citizenry.
Shallow unity and an over-emphasis on representation were clear prior to and immediately after the elections. During the electoral campaign, as Rami Mansour–the editor of the popular website Arab48–noted, components of the List simply imported the older division between moderates and extremists. Instead of an external division between parties, now it is reproduced as an internal division within the Joint List. In Israeli rhetoric this line runs between those who are labeled nationalistic, and those who emphasize Arab-Jewish cooperation and adopted a pacifying rhetoric, even in the face of extremist and racist attacks during televised debates. In one post-election moment, members of the List disagreed on how to act during the national anthem in the opening session of the Knesset. Some of them left, but a sizeable number, the “moderates,” stayed.
More importantly, the old debate about Land Day was not resolved. Two weeks after elections day, the commemoration of Land Day seemed emaciated. Lacking any general strike, which leading political forces opposed, Arab leadership stripped it from its protest framework. Instead, they turned it into a symbolic commemoration and a backward-looking rather than forward-looking action. This effectively suggests that the struggle over land is a matter of the past, not of the present and future. Lacking serious organizational efforts, participation in Land Day marches was limited and less than satisfying. Lacking a representative and elected Follow-Up Committee, an umbrella group that includes parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political groups, the Committee could no more than announce several marches by different parties. The unity of the Joint List did not lead to joint efforts.
Pierre Bourdieu noted long ago the tension between representation and participation, with the former substituting for the latter and ultimately undermining it. This emphasis amongst the Palestinian minority on representation is somewhat understandable given the salience of national leaders, on the one hand, and the focus of these leaders–and their parties–on representation. To begin with, representation is easier than the hard long-term collective work and the frustrating experimentation that accompanies it. Moreover, the elections caught most parties by surprise and they did not have much time to prepare for it. They suffered from many internal organizational difficulties within their structures, including splits and disagreements. The primary reasons are bitter disagreements about handling party positions in the local municipal elections which preceded the national elections, and fierce disagreements regarding the events in the Arab world, especially Syria.
But the emphasis on national leaders is not unique to the Palestinian minority inside Israel. National leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., in the context of the Black struggle for civil rights in the United States, were certainly important. But grassroots organizers like Ella Baker were no less important. Indeed, such organizers, not national leaders, initiated many of the remarkable actions of courage in the 1960s. Baker argued for the need to organize people from the bottom-up, so that they could be self-sufficient, rather than dependent on leadership and top-down direction. This approach to organizing is crucial given the precipitous decline in the conditions of the Palestinian citizens inside Israel, manifest in high poverty rates and mounting organized crime.
Between Boycott and Preparing for Boycott:
Another related issue is the question of boycotting elections. Every electoral campaign rehearses the debates between those who seek to “influence” through voting; and those who seek to boycott because they do not want to legitimate. I have pointed out in the past the simplifying polarization in the debate: influence cannot be reduced to parliamentary representation as the main or exclusive medium. Palestinian citizens do not legitimate Israel only through participating in elections. This means that there is a need for a broader strategic thinking that is not single-focused on elections.
The Joint List feeds into this debate by advancing the illusion of influence. Given the rhetoric accompanying the electoral campaign and given the increase in the number of representatives, there will be a higher expectation for achievements. But there is no apparent reason why this list may fare better than previous representatives. Thus, high hopes may be quashed quickly and could lead back to the general trend of skepticism towards formal political participation.
The discrepancy between this rhetoric of influence and the rise in right-wing Zionism is striking. Every elections cycle the Arab parties claim that the outgoing Knesset was the most racist of all Knessets. Since the 2000s it has been a common occurrence to witness right-wing attempts to disqualify Arab politicians. Thus far, the only response has been to defend representation and insist on it. The question becomes whether there exists a red line in which the disadvantages of Arab representation in an increasingly racist and right-wing Knesset outweigh the benefits. For if representation is sought at any expense, this feeds into fetishism.
If the answer is yes, and the moment is approaching, then it is puzzling why there is no preparation for the moment in which boycott becomes feasible or necessary. The main argument against boycott is that it may create a political vacuum, which could be utilized by co-opting forces from within the establishment. But one can resolve this concern over vacuum by creating extra-parliamentary institutions that channel political will. In this manner, boycott becomes a political option, rather than an act of despair from politics. Another argument is that boycott needs a strong and collective force to be influential and meaningful. Yet, again, political forces can guarantee this only by preparing for it. One cannot neglect it, and then point out that there is no readiness for this option.
Between Sovereignty and Exclusion:
Deceptive rhetoric often conceals disagreements between the parties forming the list. Despite some similarity in the rhetoric, there are deep disagreements. All the parties in the list use the rhetoric of “indigenous people.” Nevertheless, looking deeper than the rhetoric reveals that only a minority takes it seriously. If indigeneity entails challenging state sovereignty, then the problem is less one of exclusion, but one of inclusion in a flawed and unjust sovereignty. The Arab citizens are always-already included in an exclusive structure. Therefore, the Israeli attempt to exclude Arabs from formal politics and the Arab reaction by insisting on inclusion, and forming the Joint List to guarantee representation, is merely part of the larger picture. Reducing the whole to the part reifies representation. This reification is evident in the reduction of influence and legitimation to the elections.
One major instance of the focus on the symptoms rather than the colonial nature of the state is the debate around the Jewish State Bill, which the elections delayed. The focus was on “identity” or “definition,” through claims of ethnocentrism or an increase in religious character. The arguments against the bill used concepts like fascism, democracy, minority rights, and exclusion. But these claims are insufficient. Claims regarding “religion” are an internal Jewish debate about the nature of Jewishness, not about its existence. Likewise, the focus on “fascism” represents the problem as one concerned with the right-wing side of Zionism, rather than Zionism itself, with its aberrations rather than its mainstream. But fascism is not unique to religious states, and its critique in the Israeli context co-exists with support for war.
Furthermore, “democracy” contains an irreducible element of representing the dominance of national and cultural majorities. The critique of “Jewish and Democratic” in the Israeli context suggests a contradiction between Jewishness and democracy. More Jewishness, in this formula, means less democracy. Nevertheless, Jewishness is also internal to democracy and is not merely an external element to it that has a zero sum game with it. Consequently, the focus on democracy does not challenge the ways in which a democratic formal structure reproduces hegemony. Moreover, the focus on democracy eliminates the violent and bloody act of founding democracy.
Therefore, the focus should be on sovereignty, rather than identity. The question of representation seems to distract us from this pressing question.