A euphoric atmosphere filled the Abu Maher conference hall in Nazareth last Saturday, as more than 15,000 people attended the opening campaign rally of the Arab parties’ Joint List. Activists from Balad, Hadash, the Islamic Movement and Ta’al sat side by side – a sight many in those parties would have deemed impossible just a few months earlier. The speakers’ promises flowed freely.
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Indeed, a new Haaretz poll of Israeli Arabs shows the Joint List winning as many as 14 Knesset seats in next month’s election.
But in the stairwell a few meters away stood two young men from the Nazareth area who weren’t political activists, and they sounded decidedly less euphoric.
“There’s undoubtedly a good atmosphere, but we want to hear more details – what they’re planning for us young people, where we’ll build a home and how we’ll work,” said one. “We don’t want to liberate Palestine, we want jobs; we want to earn a living.”
Nor are they alone in this view. The Haaretz poll found that 70 percent of Israeli Arabs care much more about bettering their socioeconomic lot than about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Yes, we do hear that,” MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) said in an interview with Haaretz this week. “We live among our people and understand the daily needs. We deal with this all the time – housing, employment and women’s employment. The problem is that the public doesn’t hear about it, because the media, including the local Arab media, looks for the screaming headlines about Gaza. ... I expect the media to change its attitude, because the media is what influences public opinion.”
But even as they point an accusing finger at the media, Joint List activists understand that they, too, must do more. “People ask us questions in the field every day, and sometimes they expect immediate answers, and we don’t have them yet,” one campaign activist acknowledged.
The Haaretz poll, conducted by the Statnet research institute, also found that many Israeli Arabs would be happy to see their MKs in the cabinet. In fact, more than 60 percent of respondents said they want the Joint List to join the governing coalition, and only about half conditioned this on the government being led by Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog.
Dr. Yousef Jabareen, No. 10 on the Joint List, insisted that his ticket doesn’t rule out joining the government; the problem, he said, is that the Jewish parties have historically excluded the Arab ones when forming a coalition. “Everyone remembers that Ehud Barak got overwhelming support from Arab voters in the  prime ministerial race, but afterward refused to even conduct negotiations with Hadash and the Arab parties,” he noted.
And what are the chances that things will be different after next month’s election?
“The Arab public will oppose any government that continues the occupation and the policy of discrimination,” Jabareen asserted. “That’s the reason for our sweeping opposition to a government headed by [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and Herzog’s positions as of now are also very far from constituting a basis for the Joint List’s entry into the government.”
Jabareen argued that historically, the Arab parties’ ability to be part of a “blocking majority” – a group of 61 MKs that blocks a prime ministerial candidate from forming a government – has achieved much more for Arab voters than the occasional Arab minister has done. While no Arab party has ever joined the government, a few Arabs have served in the cabinet as representatives of non-Arab parties.
“It seems to me that sitting in the government isn’t an option under the current political circumstances,” Jabareen added. “That’s also our electorate’s position.”
But based on the poll results, it’s not clear that his electorate fully concurs. Almost 50 percent of respondents awarded low marks to the existing Arab MKs’ performance, and their main complaint was the failure to solve their day-to-day problems.
Earlier this week, three members of the Joint List – MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), Jabareen and Aida Touma-Suliman – visited the Negev village of Hashem Zana and met with representatives of the area’s unrecognized Bedouin villages.
“We’re on the verge of despair,” said Mika’il al-Hawashla, a member of the council of unrecognized villages. “We don’t want loud-mouthed MKs who hunt for headlines; we want more and more work on the ground – to come with concrete proposals and knock on the establishment’s doors.”
“Sometimes we have the feeling that an Arab MK or representative goes up to the podium, shouts, goes down and nothing happens,” he added.
Every day, al-Hawashla charged, houses built without permits are demolished in the unrecognized villages. “Just this week, we received hundreds of demolition orders.”
He said he has been going door-to-door in recent weeks urging people to vote, but “the first thing they ask is, ‘How will that help? How will that prevent the demolition or expropriation?’ And we’re also asking the candidates that: Where are you taking us?”
Nevertheless, the candidates can derive satisfaction from one of the poll’s findings: Voter turnout among Israeli Arabs is likely to rise from 56 percent in 2013 to 62.4 percent. And when pollsters sought the reason for this increase, 58 percent of respondents said the Arab parties’ decision to run on a joint ticket was the most important factor.
Not surprisingly, about 60 percent of respondents thought the Joint List should recommend Herzog as the next prime minister. But 11 percent thought the ticket should recommend Netanyahu, though it’s possible that this group consisted mainly of Druze, who serve in the army and identify much more with Israel.
On Monday, when the Joint List’s candidates met in Nazareth to discuss the questions they have been getting from their voters, they were presented with a study done by Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research. The study, based on previous election results, found that Arab voters are well aware of the difficulties Arab parties face in the Knesset and understand that they’re voting almost by definition for an opposition party. Nevertheless, it also found that the main motive driving Arab voters to the polls is the desire to further the domestic interests of the Israeli Arab community.
Dr. Mtanes Shihadeh, who conducted the study, predicted that the joint ticket, combined with the rise in the electoral threshold that prompted its formation, will likely increase Arab voter turnout. Nevertheless, he added, voters must still be convinced that their MKs will further their goals.
Also expected was the Haaretz poll finding that an overwhelming majority of Arab voters – 344,000 – plan to vote for the Joint List, compared to 29,000 for Zionist Union, 29,000 for Meretz, 12,000 for Likud, 9,000 for Yisrael Beiteinu and 4,000 for Habayit Hayehudi. These 344,000 voters translate into 12.4 Knesset seats.
But adding in undecided Arab voters, plus Jewish voters backing the Joint List, could get the ticket as many as 14 seats.