Palestinians and the Israeli Elections: Spring of Hope Amid Winter of Despair

Joint List’s success offers a glimmer of hope for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

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Joint List head Odeh, March 17, 2015.
Joint List head Odeh, March 17, 2015.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab

It was the worst of elections. It was the best of elections. It was the winter of despair but also the spring of hope. Such is the nature of Israel’s highly fractured and divided political landscape that election night can deliver a number of winners, as well as multiple losers.

Leftist Jews in Tel Aviv and elsewhere wandered around dazed and shell-shocked by the news that Benjamin Netanyahu had not only survived but that Likud had put a six-seat lead between it and its nearest rival, the Zionist Union, despite what the opinion polls had forecast.

Although Palestinians shared the left’s revulsion toward Netanyahu’s velcro grip on power, compounded by the fear of what further damage a strong far-right alliance could cause them, Arab voters in Israel were also in high spirits. In fact, there was jubilation in Nazareth and other Arab towns and villages at the news that a coalition of Arab (and progressive Jewish) parties had made the unprecedented achievement of finishing third in the election.

Less than two months after it was formed, the Joint List – an unlikely and once-improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish progressive leftists and Islamists – had managed the previously unimaginable and become the Jewish State’s third-largest party.

This apparent unity in Arab political ranks spurred Palestinians in Israel, who had grown increasingly disillusioned and apathetic toward the political process in recent elections, to go out and vote, including many who had never done so before. For example, Tamer Nafar of the socially aware and politically active Palestinian hip-hop band DAM recorded a pre-election video in which he raps about having never voted in his life, until now.

Some voters hoped that the Joint List would put Arabs on Israel’s political radar and force their Jewish compatriots to notice them. “I want Israelis to realize that they do not live in Europe, that like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East,” one voter asserted.

And the Joint List has certainly succeeded in putting Arabs on the Knesset’s map. “I’m delighted with their performance,” Diana Buttu, a prominent Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and activist, told Haaretz. “They ran an honest, democratic campaign, unlike Netanyahu’s.”

Netanyahu’s bid for re-election raised eyebrows and drew accusations of scare-mongering and racism, from both Jews and Arabs. In addition to his well-rehearsed and repeated warnings about the imminent and “existential threat” from notional Iranian nukes – which he has been rehashing at the American Congress since 1996 – Netanyahu talked, like a paranoid Middle Eastern despot, of an unholy alliance of foreigners and leftists out to unseat him.

Moreover, when the polls forecasted that Likud was falling behind, Netanyahu sought to galvanise the party’s traditional but increasingly apathetic support base by tapping into its fears. “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls,” he warned ominously, in one of the election’s ugliest moments. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

This contrasts sharply with the measured, inclusive campaign spearheaded by the Joint List’s leader and perhaps Israel’s fastest-rising political star, Ayman Odeh. With his background in the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party, he has moved the Arab coalition he heads away from identity politics and toward questions of universal social and economic justice.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” he insists. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

With Arabs being the most underprivileged segment of Israeli society, they are the focus of a 10-year program devised by Odeh to narrow inequalities. “It’s a win-win, as any economic boom within the Arab community will bring economic prosperity to the whole of Israeli society,” he explained. Taking a leaf out of Martin Luther King’s civil rights handbook, Odeh even plans a march to Jerusalem to raise awareness of this program.

Odeh’s Joint List also intends to champion the cause of their Palestinian compatriots in the occupied territories. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” he said. “And we believe that only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden.”

But Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not holding their breaths for any improvements to their lot. While many praise the Joint List and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even endorsed it, Palestinians generally doubt that the Arab coalition can overcome the ultranationalist, right-wing juggernaut.

Despite this, there is a line of thinking among Palestinian activists that the ideological honesty of a hard-right government may make life worse for them, but it will work out better in the long term because it will lead to more international isolation for Israel and prompt more countries to view it as a pariah.

“[This is] a much better outcome than the so-called left-wing government that disguises itself as a lamb with the cover of the international community, yet perpetuates the status quo and continued colony building in Palestine,” one Jerusalemite said, reflecting this sentiment.

In Gaza, where the differences between most Israeli parties are hair-splittingly small, “people are not hopeful at all,” says Majd Al Waheidi, a young journalist who rose to prominence during last summer’s war. “[Ordinary] people in Gaza don’t really care or differentiate between Israeli parties ... They say all of them are the same enemy who denies our rights and freedom,” she elaborates. “Maybe there’s a sense of frustration because Netanyahu has made it again, but this frustration is only between intellectuals and experts who know the threat of Netanyahu on Gaza.”

Buttu is more upbeat. “I am under no illusions that the Joint List will be able to be miracle workers: The tide of racism is too high,” she says. “But they will push back and, as always, push for an end to Israel’s military rule, blockade over Gaza and colonization of the West Bank.”

For the Joint List, the going will be both tough and unclear. “They face an uphill battle. They obviously won’t join any coalition as they cannot be partners to the occupation, but they will be front and center in pushing back against the racist legislation,” adds Buttu.

On the other side of the aisle, even the Zionist Union is unlikely to reach out to the Joint List, even to block Netanyahu, if history is anything to go by, as no Arab party has ever been invited to join a ruling coalition before.

The best hope for the Joint List having any parliamentary clout is a “national unity” government (President Reuven Rivlin’s preferred outcome), which would leave it in the unprecedented position of leading the opposition. But if Netanyahu succeeds in his determination to form a right-wing, ultra-nationalist coalition, this would place the Zionist Union at the helm of the opposition, putting the Joint List out in the cold or, at most, in a supporting role.

Regardless of whether it leads the opposition or not, some are convinced that the Joint List will have negligible influence on Israel’s politics. “[It] is going to have zero influence through parliament on Israeli domestic or foreign policies,” says the prominent Israeli dissident New Historian Ilan Pappé.

Conversely, the Joint List is likely to have a profound impact on Palestinian politics, argues Pappé. “The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian representatives in the Knesset are formations based on a certain Palestinian strategic logic that adheres to the two-state solution as the only way forward,” he maintains. “As the chances and prospects of such a solution seem to disappear daily, we are all in need of a new strategy.”

And this new strategy? A civil rights struggle which will deliver “a true ANC-type of leadership to follow and be part of, for a better future,” believes Pappé.

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