The Joint List’s decision last Friday not to sign a surplus votes agreement with Meretz has dominated the political discourse on the Arab street. Opinions in favor and opposed to it are being heard from every side.
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List members chose not to issue an official response to the criticism of Meretz and its chairwoman, Zehava Galon, over the move (“Meretz has proved that it is the only party that believes in true Jewish-Arab solidarity. I hope this isn’t the decision that will condemn us to another four years of Netanyahu’s rule,” she warned). Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh all but apologized in a Facebook post he wrote and expressed support for the agreement, but explained that there was not enough time to reach agreements with all the list’s factions.
Tactically, maybe it would have been right to sign the surplus votes agreement (in which two parties agree to pool “surplus” votes, so that the larger contributor of them can potentially gain an extra Knesset seat), in accordance with the approach led by Hadash and the United Arab List, which thought such a move was electorally proper and also conveyed a positive message to the democratic camp in the Knesset.
But officials of Balad and the Islamic Movement believed the move would frighten voters away and that many activists would “strike” on election day, although they did not rule out future cooperation with Meretz. We will know on March 17 whether this was a mistake or not.
What is most worrisome about the actions of the past few days is the response of some left wingers, including Galon. Without getting into the condescending approach Galon and her party members took toward those who may be future partners, the claim that not signing the surplus votes agreement (once more, the Arabs are to blame) will lead to a victory for Netanyahu and the right wing is demagoguery – and wrong. If Netanyahu and the right win, that will be a clear message that the Jewish majority in Israel chose it because the leftist camp did not dare offer a political alternative and avoided stating its position clearly, for fear of losing votes.
Since October 2000, Israel’s Arab citizens – who voted for Labor’s Shimon Peres en masse in 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999 – have taken a step back with regard to the trust they feel for Israel’s political establishment, and their voter turnout has declined from one election to the next. With the establishment of the Joint List, there is a spark of hope that maybe there will be change, and that there will be a basis for a large democratic peace camp in Israel.
All the polls indicate that the decrease in Arab-Israeli voter turnout has been halted and that an upturn is evident, which worries the right wing and also Meretz, which is predicted to only scrape over the electoral threshold. The members of Joint List are spending as much time in Tel Aviv and the center of the country as they are in Arab towns and villages, to speak with the left wing and democratic camp, and convince them that they are not an enemy or a fifth column, but rather partners traveling on the same path.
While some members of Meretz and the left are trying to portray the refusal to sign a surplus votes agreement as a sign that everything has fallen apart, this is not the case. On the face of it, it seems that all Odeh and his fellow members have done in the past month was nullified the moment an agreement was not signed. That is condescension and the attitude of a lord and master toward his subjects. Israel’s Arab citizens do not need to thank the left for existing, or prove their loyalty to its values every time they get up in the morning.
The left is not doing the Arabs a favor by voting against racist laws or the disqualification of MK Haneen Zoabi. Rather, it is doing a favor to a state that hopes to preserve its sanity and democratic values. Through their Knesset representatives on the Arab lists, including Hadash, the Arab citizens voted time and again for every peace plan, every socially just law and every decision that could have closed gaps and brought equality closer.
Officials of Meretz and the Zionist left wing ought to remember that, since Yitzhak Rabin, it has been Israel’s left, not the Arab citizens, that have proved the disappointment.