Arab Parties Presenting United Front - Up to a Point

Raised electoral threshold may actually benefit rival factions at Israel's next election, tentatively scheduled for March 17.

Gil Eliahu

Late last Wednesday, as Knesset faction leaders convened in order to determine the date of the upcoming election, MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) submitted two proposals. The first called for avoiding a snap election and postponing it by several months. The second was to delay implementation of the new law that raises the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent, so it would not apply to the upcoming election. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein replied that the first proposal was irrelevant, and that he would look into the second one.

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According to Knesset sources, after the session was over Edelstein talked to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), whose reply, as delivered by MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) consisted of one word: no. The required percentage will be 3.25 of valid votes cast, up from the previous 2 percent.

Zahalka admitted to Haaretz that his appeal was based on the fact that the Arab factions are not really prepared for an election. Everyone realizes that holding an election in three months requires hasty organization. Raising the threshold bar requires Arab factions to make a difficult choice: going it alone or uniting.

Last Tuesday, Arab MKs convened for a meeting that was intended to discuss the Jewish nation-state bill. The agenda changed due to the dissolution of the Knesset. Instead, the MKs discussed the possibility of running as one list in the March 2015 election. They agreed to a photo op at the start of discussions, but barred journalists from the session itself.

The photo was released within minutes, mainly among the Arab media – it is rare to see all of the Arab MKs around one table. The show of unity was aimed not only at overcoming the electoral threshold, but also in response to the wishes of the Arab public, which has been feeling under threat and assault lately. Following the photo op, all that was left was to prepare the way for unification, or, at least, for a sincere partnership.

As yet, no one knows how the multiple and serious fractures within the Arab community can be bridged. Only last week, an epic battle erupted between Hadash and Balad, following harsh words uttered by outgoing Hadash chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh against MK Haneen Zoabi and Balad’s founder, Dr. Azmi Bishara. Since these words were spoken in an interview with Haaretz (Hebrew edition), the headline in Balad’s newspaper read: “Barakeh ending his career in the arms of Haaretz, bootlicking the Israeli Zionist left.”

Hadash, on the other hand, cannot forget the bitter campaign waged by Balad against it during the last local authority election in Nazareth. As if they didn’t lack local reasons to squabble, events in the Arab world have provided further ideological fodder. The Islamic Movement in Israel celebrated the 2012 electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while Hadash celebrated its downfall a year later.

Despite this, on Tuesday there was serious discussion about running as one list in the coming election. One participant said the atmosphere at the meeting was positive, with a clear decision not to run as three separate parties (Balad, Hadash and United Arab List-Ta’al). The goal was to run as one or at most two parties. “It’s not only because of the threshold, but also due to the public atmosphere and the fascist right that is already threatening the Arab presence in this country,” says Hadash secretary-general Aiman Ouda. “If we want to gain our public’s trust, we must demonstrate unity – we are ready to be very flexible.”

Ouda was slated to join the Knesset in light of the retirement of MK Hanna Swaid. But with the dissolution of the parliament, he will have to go through another election campaign.

The prospective MK says most of the effort will be geared at increasing voter turnout. “We must get as many people out as we can, since if the extreme right is trying to establish a state for only one nation, we must pull in the other direction and get as many MKs as we can into the Knesset,” Ouda said.

Talk of a united party has accompanied every election campaign, but reasons were always found to oppose such a move. Up to now, it didn’t happen mainly because each party was convinced it would get in. This time, though, things are different.

Dr. Nihad Ali, a sociologist from the Western Galilee College and the University of Haifa, believes that raising the electoral threshold is actually good for Arabs. “I, together with University of Haifa professors As’ad Ghanem and Sami Samocha, submitted a document calling for raising the electoral threshold, since it would promote Arab unity. This was a clear demand made by the Arab community in surveys we conducted over the years. Most of the Arab public wants a united front so that one – or at most two – lists will encourage people to come out and vote.”

According to Ali, the Arab public wishes to integrate into Israeli society on equal terms, but is insulted by the prevailing racist atmosphere. “If the nation-state bill had passed, there would have been a call, including from me, to boycott the election. One can’t participate in elections in a country that determines, in a Basic Law, who is a first-class and who a second-class citizen. Under such circumstances, Arab parties would lose their significance and become a pitiful fig leaf.”

Ali uses the term “double orphanage” when describing the situation of Israel’s Arabs. “Israel doesn’t want us and the Palestinian national movement cannot integrate us. We remain orphans.”

Officials in the Arab parties believe there will be two Arab lists in the upcoming election: Hadash will run with Ta’al, and United Arab List with Balad. Recently, there were calls to include nonpolitical figures, but this is unlikely to happen given the numerous contenders. It’s difficult to bring in an outsider “star” to Arab parties, as occasionally happens in the Jewish parties.

Key figures in Balad and Hadash estimate that if a single united list is assembled, each party will have to swallow its pride and make serious concessions, so two lists is the more likely scenario. A source in United Arab List-Ta’al said that, so far, there is no agreement on a common list, even though that is the wish of Arab voters. Each respective party believes it will garner enough votes on its own to pass the threshold, so it doesn’t feel under pressure. There is, however, a desire to combine forces in order to increase Arab representation, so all options are being studied.

Attorney Osama Saadi, the secretary-general of Ta’al, says his party is an important political force in the Arab community. He says “this must be reflected in any joint list – things in the future will not continue in the same way as before.” Ta’al will request two realistic slots in any coalition that is eventually assembled.

Presenting one united list (or two) will serve as the opening salvo in the drive to increase voter turnout. In the last election, between 53 percent and 56 percent of eligible Arab voters cast a vote. MK Basel Ghattas (Balad) says, “If we can draw out 70-75 percent of eligible voters, Arab representation in the Knesset will grow substantially, which could alter the state of things. Thus, unity and laborious groundwork are the keys to success.”

Unity is not the only challenge facing Arab parties – calls to boycott the election are also being heard. The northern branch of the Islamic Movement has long boycotted Israeli elections for ideological reasons. They are joined by young people who have despaired of elections, stating their protest and nonconfidence in Israel’s democracy. Such people have been prominent in every public event or protest in Arab society in recent years, especially with regard to the Prawer Law (the forced relocation of Negev Bedouin into centralized communities) and during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

Journalist Majd Kayyal, who was interrogated by the Shin Bet security service after attending a conference in Beirut, believes the public struggle of the Arab community should be taken out of the Knesset. He believes in “waging a legitimate public protest, within the confines of the law and freedom of speech. We say that whoever wants to vote can – but not for Zionist parties, which do not serve our interests. Public protest is essential, since we can’t rely on the Knesset as the only tool for obtaining rights.”