Arab Parties Plan to Fight Right-wing Bid to Squeeze Them Out of Knesset

Niche organizations on both sides of the political divide defiant over plan to raise electoral threshold.

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There was no surprise among the Arab political parties at the agreement between Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise the Knesset electoral threshold to 3.25 percent of the vote, as part of the so-called governability bill whose final readings are to be heard soon.

Arab political figures said the right wing is trying to ensure its continued parliamentary majority by clearing the plenum of Arab MKs as much as possible. But they say the move could come back to haunt the right, because the Arab parties will find a way to unite into one or two election lists and campaign on the slogan that the right and Lieberman don’t want Arabs in the Knesset. That, they say, will bring out their voters en masse and end up actually increasing the Arab presence in the legislature.

In this context, Arab political activists suggest holding municipal and Knesset elections on the same day – a proposal the right wing strongly opposes because Arabs vote in much greater numbers in local elections than in national ones.

However, within the Arab parties some activists say that if the right wing succeeds in turning Arab representation in the Knesset into a mere token, there is no point even in serving in the Knesset.

“As usual, Netanyahu doesn’t keep his promise and he gave in to Lieberman, and this bill expresses the antidemocratic nature of the government and the coalition,” said Hadash chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh. “This is not an administrative decision but a political decision reeking of deep-seated racism.”

United Arab List-Ta’al chairman MK Ahmed Tibi said Lieberman’s fondest dream is a Knesset without Arabs, and the governability bill is trying to achieve that.

“This is an essentially antidemocratic bill because Israel is a multicultural society,” said Tibi. “The electoral threshold should be lowered, not raised, to allow parliamentary representation for minorities. The small parties, including the Arab parties, were never the factor that hurt governance, but rather the big parties and the coalitions.”

Balad chairman MK Jamal Zahalka called the decision a cheap attempt to create a right-wing majority by distancing its opponents from the Knesset. “You don’t have to be a genius in math and politics to realize that reducing the number of Arab MKs will perpetuate the right and kill any possibility of replacing the government, and that is not only an ‘Arab problem.’”

Zahalka said Balad would work together with the other Arab parties to defeat the bill, and at the same time “will continue to lead the initiative to unite the Arab factions to run in the next Knesset on a joint list.”

In last January’s Knesset election, with the electoral threshold at 2 percent, 268,000 votes went to parties that didn’t cross the threshold – around 7 percent of all the valid votes. Of those parties, Otzma Leyisrael got closest to making it, with 1.76 percent of the vote. Former MK Michael Ben Ari, who was second on the Otzma Leyisrael slate, vehemently objects to raising the electoral threshold.

“This is not about governability, this is a sure path to dictatorship,” he told Haaretz. Ben Ari insisted that Otzma Leyisrael would once again run independently in the next election, and not merge with another party.

“We have a statement to make, and our statement will be expressed in that fashion or in some other fashion,” he said. “The reality is that next time, there will be a party to the right of Habayit Hayehudi. [Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali] Bennett doesn’t want anyone to his right, but we will be there, whether we cross the threshold or not.”

Former MK Chaim Amsellem, who headed the Am Shalem list (which also failed to enter parliament), is convinced that raising the threshold won’t prevent him from making the Knesset next time.

“Of course Shas will support such a law to prevent me from returning during the next round, but I’ll be back,” he said. “We are in a war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and we can’t give up.”

Green Leaf chairman Yaron Lerman said it would be difficult for his movement to merge with another party, since no other party has positions remotely similar to those of his. “I think it will bring down voter turnout,” he said. “We did an internal survey among our voters on Facebook, and many of them said that if there was no Green Leaf-Liberal List option, they wouldn’t vote.”

By contrast, Efraim Lapid, who headed a new pensioners party called Dor Bonei Haaretz in the last election, supports raising the electoral threshold. “It would be good to have big parties, as a result of which they wouldn’t have to form coalitions from six, seven or eight parties,” he said. He admitted, however, that it was unlikely retirees could run successfully any more as an independent party.

MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) at a Knesset debate on banks' discrimination against Arabs.Credit: Emil Salman

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