Druze Candidate Quits Democratic Union, Warns Arabs Won't Vote for Barak

Ali Salalha says party failed to take him seriously and that former prime minister Ehud Barak will drive away the Arab voters it seeks to win over

Ali Salalha in March 2019.
Gil Eliahu

A Druze candidate on the Democratic Union slate tendered his resignation on Tuesday, warning that Arab voters will not back the party in this month's election in light of its inclusion of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (For the latest election polls – click here)

Ali Salalha, who comes from the Druze village of Beit Jann, had been placed in the 20th spot on the slate, essentially erasing his chances of making into the Knesset. (If the polls are at all accurate, the Democratic Union's representation in the Knesset will be in the single digits.)

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“These people didn’t take Ali Salalha seriously,” he said, protesting the decision not to give him a higher spot. “All of a sudden you drop the media star of the previous election, the legendary school principal that made the Druze school system the best in the country?”

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In the last election, Meretz, the party that makes up part of the Democratic Union, garnered only four Knesset seats. Without the support of Arab voters, it would not have passed the electoral threshold. Salalha claims that his placement in the fifth spot on the Meretz slate made a significant contribution to saving the party, even though he ended up not making it into the Knesset.

“I saved them; I threw them a lifeline in the last election. I brought them 23,000 votes – 10,000 Druze voters and 12-13,000 Arab voters, including Bedouin in central Israel, Abu Ghosh, the north – where didn’t I get some?” he asked.  

“I saved them, but they gave the credit to Esawi Freige,” he said, referring to the Meretz lawmaker.

Only a few months ago, Salalha – the highly acclaimed and accomplished principal of the comprehensive high school in Beit Jann –  was the surprise of the primary election held by Meretz, when he managed to squeeze into the top five, bypassing better-known figures on the left.

Mertez was the only Zionist party to place an Arab (Freige) and a Druze (Salalha) near the top of its list. This week, he sounded disappointed. “When Meretz negotiated with Ehud Barak [on forming the Democratic Union], they didn’t take me into account,” he said. “Are you mad? I brought you 10,000 Druze votes. Who did the Druze vote for before? For the right. For Likud, Lieberman, Shas. I brought them with me and you put me in the twentieth spot?”

Salalha now refuses to say who he’ll vote for.

The Democratic Union is hoping to increase the support of Arabs and Bedouin to the tune of one to two Knesset seats. Salalha doesn’t believe the party will manage to get significant support this time, following its merger with Ehud Barak, due to lingering animosity towards him since the events of October 2000, in which 13 Arabs were killed in riots while he was prime minister.

“We Druze have no problem with Barak, but the Arabs do,” Salalha said. “They voted Meretz when I was there, before the merger. After Barak moved in, I hear Arabs saying that they won’t go with him.”

Some party members are hoping that leaving the old Meretz letters on the voting slips of the Democratic Union will help recruit Arab voters despite the animosity towards Barak.

Freige, who is charged with recruiting Arab voters, estimates that the party will garner a significant number of voters. “I’m very sorry our friend Ali left us in this difficult moment, in which we should all be united for a common cause,” he said, adding that “this is a moment of truth for us. It’s regrettable that people are abandoning ship in moments of crisis. I believe that we have a sufficient number of good people who will continue along our path, reaching the goal we desire.” In the days remaining before the election, he’s going from community to community, from gathering to gathering, in an attempt to increase the extent of support for his party. On Wednesday, he led two rallies in Rahat along with his colleague, Stav Shaffir.

Another party member who is close to Barak rejected claims that he was a red flag for Arab voters: “The October events happened 18 years ago. Many potential voters were young children at the time and don’t remember those events. Most of them bear no ill will towards Barak for that. For older voters as well, the objection to Barak diminished following his apology for those events. This doesn’t mean he has no detractors, but the reality is less complicated than what has been claimed.”

Alongside the sharp drop in voter turnout in Arab communities and the decline in support for Arab parties, center-left parties are trying to recruit precious votes specifically in Arab, Druze and Bedouin communities. The Democratic Union, Kahol Lavan and Labor are talking about attempts to gain two Knesset seats each as part of their campaign.

The head of Labor-Gesher, Amir Peretz, predicted recently in a conversation with Haaretz that his party will succeed in this task.

Internal surveys conducted by the party indicated that 48 percent of voters for the Joint List alliance of Arab parties would vote for Labor-Gesher as a second choice if that option were possible. Peretz is scrambling for votes among Bedouin tribes, political activists and local council members who promise to bring more supporters to the polling booths on Election Day.

In contrast, someone from another party who works in the same communities said that “Peretz is in for a rude awakening in the Arab community.” They said that Kahol Lavan is strong on the ground, particularly in Druze and Bedouin communities, and the Democratic Union may also get between one and two seats in these communities.

Kahol Lavan estimates that it will get significant support there, despite a right-wing campaign focusing on security issues and declarations about joining a unity government. One source says that “the party had considered declaring that it would repeal the nation-state law, which would significantly increase the number of Druze voting for us. In the end it was decided that such a declaration would hurt us with moderate right-wing voters. We therefore commit to changing the wording of the law or to promoting a parallel law that will recognize the status of minorities in Israel.”