Israeli-Arab parties try to hold on to votes after breakup of Joint List

February 27, 2019 by Ariel Ben Solomon -
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The coalition of four Arab Parties known as the Joint List was disbanded because of political infighting and rivalries, and now will run as two separate two-Party blocs, which could damage their prospects for the coming election among the Israeli-Arab public.

Israeli parliament members Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi outside the Elections Committee, where political parties running for a spot in the April 9 Israeli elections present their party list, on Feb. 21, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The Joint List was formed in 2015 and gained 13 seats in the previous Knesset session, making it the third largest party.

Shaheen Sarsur, who has been involved in Arab politics for more than a decade and currently serves as a parliamentary consultant to Knesset member Taleb Abu Arar of the Islamic Movement’s parliamentary party—the United Arab List—told JNS in an interview that the breakup of the Arab Joint List of parties came about after many problems between them.

Sarsur predicts that each of the two Arab blocs could each get from between four and six seats.

Asked if the Arab parties would join a left-led government in order to bloc Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a coalition, Sarsur ruled out the Arab Parties joining any government. “But the Arab parties could serve as a safety net for a left-wing government so that it could pass certain legislation,” he added.

Netanyahu’s campaign is seeking to paint rivals former Israel Defense Forces’ Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid as weak and left-wing, and looking towards the Arab parties for support.

The Arab parties themselves would not agree to join any government, even if it meant keeping Netanyahu from power, said Sarsur.

And in any case, Lapid rejected forming a coalition after the elections with the Arab parties, but without the Arab and ultra-Orthodox parties, it is unlikely that Gantz and Lapid’s new Blue and White Party could form a coalition.

Around 140,000 votes are needed for a party to meet the minimum threshold of 3.25 percent to enter the Knesset, estimated Sarsur. The threshold was raised to 3.25 percent in 2014 and led to the Israeli-Arab parties to unite into the so-called Joint List.

Some real bumps along the way

It was never smooth sailing for the Joint List; internal bickering over power and ideologies beleaguered its members.

The four Israeli Arab Parties are the United Arab List (UAL), the Communist and supposedly secular Hadash (with a minority Jewish presence), the Arab nationalist Balad and Ta’al, which is known as Ahmad Tibi’s Party.

Tibi had been expected to unite with UAL, but in a surprise move went with Hadash, led by Ayman Odeh, taking the second spot. Odeh and Tibi are two of the most popular Arab politicians in Israel, but had been known as competitors, not partners, until now.

“I had expected Tibi to unite with the Islamic Movement’s parliamentary faction,” noted Sarsur, adding that it is likely that Hadash offered Tibi a more attractive offer than UAL.

Sarsur explained that the weak polling by Balad meant that it was desperate to maintain unity and did so by uniting with UAL.

Controversial long-time Balad head Jamal Zahalka and Knesset member Haneen Zoabi decided to step down, but Zahalka is likely to maintain strong influence over the Party. Former Knesset member Basel Ghattas was forced out of politics and entered jail after being convicted of smuggling cell phones to Palestinian security prisoners.

“The Arab public feels frustrated and angry because the Joint List was busy with personal issues and did not do enough to help the Arab public,” asserted Sarsur.

Because of the infighting and bickering and turnover in the Arab parties, the far-left Meretz Party is making a play for the Arab vote.

Meretz Party chairwoman Tamar Zandberg said on Sunday that her party was actively seeking Arab votes during an interview on the Israel Hayom-i24NEWS weekly election broadcast. “We expect to gain support from [the] Arabs and Druze,” she said.

Arab Meretz Knesset member Issawi Frej, who hails from Kafr Qasim, told JNS that unlike his colleagues in the Arab parties, “I chose a party with real Jewish-Arab partnership—a party that recognizes that it is our duty as Arabs and Jews to work together for society as a whole.”

The Christian vote

Shadi Halul, an Israeli Christian military captain (res.) who ran for the Knesset in the past on Yisrael Beytenu’s list and currently a fellow at the Philos Project, told JNS that the Christian vote is around 93,000 strong, with maybe around 60 percent, or around 50,000 actually voting.

The Christian votes are spread out among the Zionist Parties and the various Arab parties.

Halul, who is also the head of the Christian IDF Officers Forum, which helps recruit and support Christians serving in the Israel Defense Forces, said that “Christians have only one choice, and the current reality in the Galilee region and the larger Middle East is one where the ‘Arab Islamic winter’ of oppression will help turnout Christian votes in Israel in favour of Zionist parties.”

Halul, from the Galilee, successfully led a struggle a few years ago in Israel to be registered on government documents as Christian Aramean, instead of Arab. Halul founded the Aramaic Christian Association in Israel a decade ago and helped recruit Christians into the IDF. In 2017, he founded the first Aramaic Christian pre-military program.

Asked about the failure of the Joint List to remain together, Halul said it broke down because “the unity was fake from the beginning.”

“The Arab sector has many movements, but the strongest are the Islamic ones,” he said. He noted that the only reason the Communist Hadash or the Pan-Arabist Balad were able to join together under the Joint List was because they feared of not making it into the Knesset on their own.

“Many Israeli Christians understand that their future is not in the Arab parties,” he said, “but in being integrated into Israeli society by voting for Zionist parties.”

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