Arab Leaders Slam Joint List Party Infighting, Warn Rift Could Impact Election

Parties within the Arab-majority list are endangering Arab unity for personal, technical and financial reasons, say critics

Joint List politicians discussing Israel's proposed nation-state bill in the Knesset on July 30, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The dispute within the Joint List party over non-implementation of a Knesset seat-rotation agreement has sparked growing of criticism from Israel's Arab community in the past few days, and calls for a compromise. Mutual recriminations by members of Israel's only Arab-majority party have created an atmosphere of distrust, say leaders of the community, which could damage its prospects in any future election.

Haaretz reported Monday that Balad and Ta'al – two of four parties, including Hadash and the United Arab List, which merged to form the Joint List, ahead of the 2015 Israeli general election – are demanding to implement the rotation agreement now. Joint List members insist that they are all committed to the agreement, but are arguing over how to implement it. They are also apparently aware of the growing public criticism and implications of failing to resolve the crisis.

“Given the situation, everyone has to compromise,” said Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ganaim, who heads the council of Israeli Arab mayors. “Judging by the mood, it seems elections will be called next year, so any compromise now will lead to better representation for everyone in the next election.”

Ganaim added that the mayors see the Joint List as wielding important leverage on behalf of the community vis-a-vis government ministries, “and it’s a pity it should all fall apart over a rotation agreement.”

Since the last election, the Joint List has been plagued by disputes among its member parties over how to respond to terror attacks and to the Syrian civil war. The groups are also at odds over domestic issues such as the government’s plan for economic development in Arab towns. But never before has there been a possibility of the party splitting apart – especially over a technical issue like the parliamentary rotation agreement.

For his part, however, Prof. Mustafa Kabha, a member of the national committee that helped to create the Joint List by selecting its members and formulating the rotation arrangement, said he isn’t rushing to eulogize the Joint List yet.

“None of the parties wants to bear responsibility for failure and its ramifications,” he said. “We need to act transparently toward the public and understand that in the end, there are limits to its patience and its faith in the reconciliation efforts, which are still continuing.”

Dr. Mansour Abbas, deputy head of the Israeli Islamic Movement’s southern branch and a member of the UAL, said he feared that if the crisis isn’t resolved, the community’s response would include calls to boycott the general elections, due to lack of faith in the Arab parties in particular and the political system in general.

“We won’t let the ticket fall apart, and I don’t even want to think about this,” responded MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad), even as he admitted that every day of delay in implementing the agreement causes damage to the Joint List’s image and its credibility with its voters.

“In our view, the Joint List is a strategic goal, and we won’t give up on it,” agreed Mansour Dehamshe, secretary general of Hadash.

Nevertheless, Dehamshe added, Hadash insists that the agreement be implemented exactly as written – meaning the MKs in the 12th and 13th slots – must resign. “Only after that will we discuss any other option,” he said.

Ghassan Abdullah, a member of the Ta’al central committee, retorted that the entire agreement must be honored, “without deals that will ensure five seats for UAL or five for Hadash and only one for Ta’al, which doesn’t reflect its true strength among the public.”

“These mutual accusations create the impression that the whole dispute is over games about seats and budgets, and that this isn’t about a strategic partnership,” complained attorney Ali Haider, a researcher of Arab society. “The ticket’s components must put an end to this dispute and turn to dealing with the real issues that keep the Arab community awake at night, first and foremost racism, violence, house demolitions and the occupation.”

The four parties comprising the Joint List reached a rotation agreement two-and-a-half years ago, whereby the first three would each have four representatives in Knesset, while Ta’al would have one. Today, Hadash has five seats and Ta’al has two. Tensions among the groups were exacerbated after MK Basel Ghattas of Balad resigned his seat; he was subsequently convicted in a plea bargain agreement in March, for fraud and breach of trust, providing means to carry out terror acts, smuggling electronic equipment to security prisoners in prison and delivering a forbidden document.

The origins of the crisis lie in the pre-agreed positions on the party slate. The Joint List won 13 seats in the last Knesset election, and as part of the agreement, MKs Osama Saadia of Ta’al and Abdullah Abu Maaruf of Hadash, who currently hold the 12th and 13th spots on the list, were supposed to step down after half a term to make way for the next two on the list: Joumah Azbarga from Balad and Saeed Al-Horomi of UAL.

However, after Ghattas’ resignation Balad lost one of its four slots, and the party has no candidates on its slate until Niveen Abu Rahmoun, in the 19th spot.

Balad members believe that the agreement should be implemented according to its original format, which would force three candidates, in the 16th to 18th places on the Joint List slate, to withdraw their candidacy.

Hadash said it was prepared for Abu Maaruf to resign, but would not withdraw Yusuf Elatawne, who is in the 17th slot.

Ta’al has made Saadia’s resignation contingent on withdrawals by Elatawne and UAL’s Ibrahim Hijazi, in the 16th slot. Only then would it withdraw their candidate in 18th place.

UAL demands that the agreement be executed so Al-Horomi enters the Knesset, although it is prepared to discuss withdrawing the candidacy of Hijazi.

Two months ago, a special committee which had been integral in formulating the agreement and creating the Joint List originally was reactivated. On Sunday night, it announced that the panel approved Maaruf's resignation by Thursday and said it expects Saadia to follow suit. Balad and Ta’al expressed dissatisfaction with the announcement, while Hadash said it applauded Maaruf’s willingness to step down. Hadash stated that in contrast to Ta’al, it was adhering to the agreement.