Alliance of Israeli Arab Parties Shows Cracks After Contentious Knesset Vote

Member's role in annulment of vote on opposition measure sharpens differences ■ Lawmaker says faction 'going from crisis to crisis' since government formed in May

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Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas speaks at the Knesset chamber, October 21, 2020.
Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas speaks at the Knesset chamber, October 21, 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

On Tuesday, a day before the incident in the Knesset chamber in which Speaker Yariv Levin annulled the results of a vote in favor of a measure introduced by the opposition – with the consent of Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas – members of Abbas's Joint List faction met in closed session.

On the agenda at the alliance of majority-Arab parties' meeting: a discussion of the continued erosion of the faction’s strength. Some of those present described heated tones, tough remarks and finger-pointing over poor management that they said was affecting the Joint List’s electoral base.

“We don’t need polling data. We are aware of it. It’s clear that we are slipping,” one Joint List lawmaker told Haaretz. “Since the establishment of the government [in May], the List has gone from crisis to crisis.”

The members of the Joint List say the crisis began after the March election, when the faction recommended that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz be tapped to form the government. Then, the Joint List, comprised of four parties that ran on a joint slate, confronted internal disagreements over its attitude towards the LGBTQ community, with some segments of the party objecting to a ban on so-called conversion therapy.

There was also a dispute over parliamentary procedure involving assistance to university students, and then Wednesday’s incident, in which Abbas, who was chairing the Knesset session at the time, agreed to revoke the results of the first vote in favor of the committee of inquiry into suspected corruption in Israel’s purchase of submarines from Germany, in concert with Knesset Speaker Levin, who is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Joint List members celebrate winning 15 seats in Israel's March election, March 2, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Also of concern are the coronavirus pandemic and a growing wave of violence in the Israeli Arab community. The lawmakers in the Joint List, part of the Knesset opposition, have had to face the fact that their influence on public discourse and government decision-making was limited.

“The Joint List’s campaign linked the increase in its representation [in the Knesset] to its capacity to influence the political agenda in Israel and even to decide who would be the prime minister,” a researcher on Israeli Arab society, Mohammed Khalaila, noted. “But Netanyahu remained prime minister, and the Arabs remained outside the circle of influence.” That, Khalaila said, has been the main source of frustration among the Israeli Arab public and the trigger for disaffection toward the faction, despite its sizeable showing in the March election.

Ali Haider, who researches politics and the Arab community, agreed. “The Joint List misrepresented its possible influence inside the Knesset, but didn’t recognize the depth of the structural problem with the kind of political system in Israel, which is excluding the Arab population from fundamental decisions,” he said. “The Arab public expects transparency, coordination among the parties, a connection with the community, the creation of new strategies in the fight [and] well-planned work that contributes to a solution to problems.”

Haider’s remarks were echoed in the internal Joint List deliberations on Tuesday. “I don’t know if it’s because of the coronavirus or something else, but the feeling is of a disconnect between the Knesset members and their base, and it finds expression in decisions or votes taken without any preparation or proper public advocacy,” said a longtime member of the Joint List who served in the past on the faction’s public advocacy team.

The focus of the criticism is differences of opinion over how the faction deals with the government coalition. Among those coming in for criticism on that score is Abbas, someone who is seen as the “weak link” and who is in regular touch with members of the coalition. Wednesday’s joint statement with Knesset Speaker Levin on the revote on the committee of inquiry prompted public criticism of Abbas from within the Joint List, and what was said behind closed doors was also said in public.

“I agree that there has been slippage, but the main problem is not coordination among the factions but the general handling of things – over where the Joint List is prepared to take its diplomatic and political stance,” Knesset member Heba Yazbak of the Joint List’s Balad faction told Haaretz. “In this context, I mention Abbas, who took the discourse to an unacceptable level. We are an opposition, and we are supposed to present a diplomatic and political position. We are not mayors whose job it is to pursue contacts for various services. Therefore, I think there’s an urgent need to ammend our stance. There will always be political disagreements inside the Joint List, but we also need a uniform framework of cooperation. The approach that Knesset Member Abbas is taking can’t create such a framework.”

‘Not in anyone’s pocket’

“I don’t have time for fiery, populist politics,” Abbas said in response to the criticism. “I am not the topic and I’m not in anyone’s pocket, either on the right or left. I talk to everyone and try to have influence. That’s the purpose of political cooperation. On Tuesday, we sat for long hours as a faction and came to understandings that we can set out on a new path. Today, they’re coming out against me as if I cooked up a deal with Likud, after I expressed my opinion on a procedural matter regarding a Knesset vote. I worked hard for the Joint List to be created and I will continue to, so that it remains close to the goals for which it was formed.”

The chairman of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, refrained from expressing criticism of a fellow member of the faction, but he too understands that there has been slippage in the strength of the Joint List and acknowledges that the management of the faction has contributed to this.

“I won’t go into numbers,” he said. “It’s true that there’s a problem, but we are not in a situation of collapse. The damage is reversible if we act correctly. The trend that began in the past two weeks of internal discussions, including personal-level meetings, will continue. I believe that the Joint List can maintain its strength and even grow, if it acts correctly.”

The Joint List’s Knesset faction chairman, Ahmad Tibi of Ta’al, another of the list’s four constituent parties, agreed with Odeh’s comments. “We are four parties and what we have in common is greater than what divides us,” he said. “Sometimes there are exceptions and mishaps. Compared to other factions, our situation is reasonable. There have been a few mistakes recently, as a result of which we have had a string of meetings and conversations. We are trying to improve and make things better.”

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