'We Can't Do It Alone': Arab Slate Launches Campaign to Win Over Jewish Votes

In a crowded Tel Aviv venue, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh has 'a very clear message: Nobody can understand what it means to be a persecuted minority like the Jews can'

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh at a campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.
David Bachar

Virtually the entire leadership of Israel's Arab-majority parties’ Joint List crowded into a packed space in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood Tuesday evening. Several dozen sweaty guests and activists surrounded the dais. They had come to launch a new campaign to get Jews to vote for the Joint List.

The event was held under the slogan “A joint struggle, a joint future.” In an unusual move, all the speakers were asked to speak in Hebrew. Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh was in an excellent mood. He wandered through the crowd, waving his arms, hugging everyone who crossed his path. 

He estimated that in April’s election, when the four parties comprising the Joint List split up and ran on two separate tickets, they attracted some 8,000 Jewish voters combined. But in a recent poll, he claimed, the number of Jews who said they planned to vote for the Joint List jumped to at least one Knesset seat’s worth – the equivalent of 140,000 voters. Now, he is seeking to increase the party’s Jewish support to two or three Knesset seats.

Odeh posited two paths to the Jewish voter’s heart – a belief in Jewish-Arab partnership, and Jews’ willingness to side with a persecuted minority. “We’re coming to Tel Aviv to send a very clear message: Nobody can understand what it means to be a persecuted minority like the Jews can,” he said.

Crowd at a Joint List campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.
David Bachar

>> Israel's Arab parties join forces, but their union lacks a message | Opinion

“We, Arab citizens, especially following the nation-state law, feel like a persecuted minority,” he continued. “Every moral person has a moral obligation to stand beside the Arab minority, especially at this time.”

“I’m thinking,” he added, “of a Jewish citizen who disagrees with us 100 percent, but says to himself, ‘Even if I disagree with everything, I’ll stand beside them and support the Joint List.’”

Very few Tel Aviv voters supported the four parties comprising the Joint List in the last election. Of the nearly 270,000 people who voted in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which has a relatively large Arab population, a mere 6,198, or 2.3 percent, supported either the Hadash-Ta’al ticket or the United Arab List-Balad one.

Joint List leaders at campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.
David Bachar

But it’s not just in Tel Aviv that Jews declined to support them. A cursory glance at the results of the last election shows that in many Jewish communities, the Arab parties won only a handful of votes. In quite a few kibbutzim, for example, not one person voted for an Arab slate.

At Tuesday’s event, Joint List members flooded the audience with a medley of messages – protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “ethnic cleansing program” in the Gaza Strip, criticism of the Meretz party for “posing as the left” while forming a joint ticket with Ehud Barak and expressions of genuine concern for Israeli Arabs’ socioeconomic status.

>> Read more: This Zionist is voting for the Arab parties that reject Zionism | Opinion ■ The Joint List, reborn, must now win the trust of the Israeli Arab public | Analysis

The crowd roared its scorn for Netanyahu when Odeh attacked his performance as prime minister. “Since the establishment of the state, since 1948, there hasn’t been anyone – prime minister or [ordinary] minister – who has incited against us like Netanyahu,” he said. 

Iman Khatib Yassin (center), the first women to represent the Islamic Movement in UAL, at a campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.
David Bachar

He then surprised the audience by criticizing the shortage of Jews on the Joint List’s Knesset ticket – only one in the top 15 slots. “I’ll tell you a secret: It isn’t Arab-Jewish enough,” he said. “There’s no doubt this needs improvement.”

Recent polls show that the Joint List is still having a hard time repeating its great achievement in the 2015 elections, when it won 13 Knesset seats. As of now pollsters are giving the slate between nine and 11 seats.

Odeh is hoping for a 65 percent turnout in Arab communities in next month’s election, after voter participation reached a nadir in April, with less than 50 percent of Arab Israelis exercising their right to cast ballots.

In an effort to attract Jewish voters, the Joint List has marked another objective in the campaign – reaching out to other disadvantaged groups such as the ultra-Orthodox and the Ethiopian Israeli community, in an effort to develop solidarity with them and make a commitment to work on their behalf in the Knesset even if they don’t vote for the Joint List.

MK Ofer Cassif holds a sign reading "I am a partner" at a Joint List campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019.
Dudu Bachar

Balad chairman MK Mtanes Shehadeh couldn’t hide his enthusiasm at the opportunity to speak before a Tel Aviv audience. “I must admit that I’m a bit excited about this,” he said, adding, “I’ve had a few encounters with Israeli society but not the amount that’s with us here now.”

When he addressed the audience, he said, “The Arab population can’t do it by themselves. This sinking into the abyss, into a fascist, anti-democratic state, will harm everyone. We want the support of as many people as possible among the Jewish population who will be persuaded that this is the real solution.”

MK Aida Touma-Sliman fired up the crowd. “Whoever doesn’t want to see Netanyahu should go the furthest possible from Netanyahu. We are the furthest away from him. Here they won’t sell you out on September 18 and they won’t give up on you.” 

She said Netanyahu should be prosecuted, not because of the indictments pending against him, but for his crimes against the Palestinian population. “We don’t want him as prime minister, and if it were in our hands, he doesn’t deserve to even be a Knesset member,” she said. “He has a chair reserved for him in prison for all the injustices he’s committed."

She later added, “We want to manage the campaign in your names: Against the occupation; against the crimes of the settlers and the settlements. We want to be there to oppose what’s been called the Deal of the Century. We saw yesterday what kind of deal they’re planning, the ethnic cleansing of Gaza’s people.”

Iman Khatib Yassin, the first woman candidate to represent the Islamic Movement in the United Arab List, introduced herself to the audience as an “An Arab, religious woman who’s proud of herself.” She asked the audience, “Do you know the meaning of Salaam Aleikum? That all of us can have peace.

"That’s the blessing of Islam. I want to talk about our life here. I look at you and see the light at the end of the tunnel. I truly hope that the day will come in the not so distant future when that light will broaden to include all of us and will allow us to see the truth about the lives of all the citizens here. Of all the people. The reality we’re in obligates all of us to look inside ourselves and ask what kind of life we want for ourselves and our children.

“We have been fated to live on this small piece of land,” she continued. “It’s small enough to swallow us, but so very wide so it can accept all of us. I personally was born here; the dirt is that of my grandfathers and grandmothers. I have no intention of leaving.”