Talks on United Arab Bloc to Shift Into High Gear

Hadash, Balad, United Arab List and Ta’al all lack new faces to inspire Israeli Arab electorate.

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Talks on creating a united Arab Knesset slate will enter high gear over the next few days in an effort to reach agreements by mid-month, after the Arab parties hold their primaries. But even if they succeed in doing so, whether the joint ticket will manage to bring Arab voters out en masse will depend greatly on the candidates chosen for this ticket.

No big surprises are currently expected in the form of new stars suddenly being parachuted into the joint ticket. Any new faces are likely to be key activists in the existing parties – Hadash, Balad, United Arab List and Ta’al.

Ta’al will continue being headed by MK Ahmed Tibi, who is also demanding a second slot on the joint ticket for his party. In UAL, the southern wing of the Islamic Movement recently announced plans to replace its existing MK, Ibrahim Sarsur, while in Balad, incumbent chairman Jamal Zahalka faces a battle to retain his title.

But the biggest question mark hovers over the Arab-Jewish Hadash party. Chairman Mohammed Barakeh has not yet made clear whether his recent resignation from the Knesset will be permanent, or whether he intends to run for leadership of the joint ticket. MK Hanna Swaid has already announced that he won’t run again, but the party’s fourth MK, Afou Agbaria, has yet to make up his mind.

Nevertheless, the expected absence of new faces from outside the political world is seen as a missed opportunity by many in the Arab community. A few days ago, a group of academic researchers who have been following the efforts to create the joint ticket called for the slate to represent all segments of Arab society rather than just the parties themselves, and to include candidates from outside the parties.

One of the leaders of this campaign, Dr. Asad Ganim, told Haaretz that in every election of the last two decades, the Arab parties (including Hadash) won support from only about 40 percent of eligible Arab voters, while about half of all Arab voters boycotted the elections to protest their leaders’ conduct. Thus Arabs are unlikely to turn out en masse unless new faces who aren’t party activists are included on the joint ticket, he said.

“These demands have support from within Arab society and mandate a response,” he added. “A reasonable response to these demands by the parties’ leadership will be the key to attracting voters to the polling booth on election day.”

People who have been following the effort to create a joint ticket also say the effort is focused mainly on determining the order of the candidates, not on drafting a joint platform that could mobilize party activists, who until now have viewed the other Arab political parties as rivals.

The academic researchers suggested that a series of vision statements for Israel’s future published by several Arab nongovernmental organizations in 2006 should serve as the basis of the joint ticket’s platform, even though various parties have reservations about certain aspects of these documents.

Supporters of a joint ticket say polls have consistently shown that a large majority of Arab voters favor unity. But opponents argue that a single ticket would win fewer seats than two rival tickets, each comprised of two parties, that would compete against each other and thereby generate excitement.

Almost all party activists, however, agree that adding new faces to the ticket (or tickets) will be hard, especially given the need to ensure representation for all the different demographic and geographic sectors of Arab society – from women to Druze, from the Galilee to the Negev. Several said the early election had caught the Arab parties “with their pants down,” leaving them no time to prepare properly.

Hadash approved continuing talks to form a united Arab coalition on Saturday. The star of Saturday’s meeting was former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who attended the meeting as a member for the first time. Hadash Chairman Barakeh’s announcement of Burg’s membership was warmly received by the council.

Burg said he has no intention of running for the Knesset, and stressed his objection to a unified list with a nationalistic agenda.

“Politically, I left the Jewish national arena because it turned nationalistic,” Burg said, adding that he does not intend to support another form of nationalism.