For Israel's Left, Jewish-Arab Partnership 'Unwanted,' Activists Charge After Merger

Furious over downgraded representation for Arab lawmaker, some activists and politicians argue move will drive away Israeli Arab voters on March 2

Jack Khoury
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Meretz candidate Essawi Freige with party leader Nitzan Horowitz, Tel Aviv, December 2019
Meretz candidate Essawi Freige with party leader Nitzan Horowitz, Tel Aviv, December 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jack Khoury

Arab activists in both Labor-Gesher and Meretz are furious over the joint run announced by the two left-wing parties, seeing downgraded representation as a slap in their faces.

“In April, the Arabs saved Meretz, partly because of appropriate representation, with two spots in the top five,” former Meretz MK Esawi Freige, a previous contender for joint party leadership, said.

“Now, I find myself like an activist whose bulldozer was stolen and replaced with a shovel,” Freige said. He will be the highest-placed Arab candidate in the consolidated slate, taking the 11th spot. This is an explicit statement to Meretz voters in the Arab community that partnership with them is unwanted, he thinks. “One can’t talk about partnership and equal treatment of the Arab community without giving it realistic and suitable representation,” he said.

Freige does not dispute the democratic decision by Meretz to join Labor-Gesher, he says, but rather Meretz leader Horowitz’s choice to ensure the safe, 8th spot on the list for Democratic Union co-founder and retired general Yair Golan. Freige even suggested him and Golan should trade places – he knows that the chances for this are slim.

Leaders of the Joint List celebrate their success in the polls, Nazareth, September 17, 2019.
Leaders of the Joint List celebrate their success in the polls, Nazareth, September 17, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu

In contrast, the Joint List of Arab-majority parties did not conceal its satisfaction over the move. They sent their blessing to Meretz and Labor over the union, taking into account Israel’s larger political context, but also for probably boosting participation in the Arab electorate. “Members of the Zionist left who believe in Jewish-Arab partnership and in social justice are welcome to join the Joint List,” said Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman.

The issue of Arab representation in the two left-wing parties, particularly in Meretz, was very dominant in the April election. Meretz took 42,000 votes in the Arab community, including in Druze towns. With two Arabs in the top five seats, Freige and Ali Salalha, Meretz profited from dissension with the Joint List, which split into two parties ahead of the vote. Labor lagged far behind.

According to official figures released by the Central Elections Committee, the trend in key Arab cities is clear. In Kafr Qasem, where Freige lives, Meretz received 38 percent of the vote, with the other two Arab lists receiving 57 percent. In the September election, when the Joint List recombined into one list, the trend changed and Meretz, now having formed the Democratic Union in partnership with former PM Ehud Barak and Stav Shaffir, previously from Labor, dropped to 26 percent, with the Joint List getting 67 percent of the vote.

Although Meretz’s share of the vote is much smaller in other constituencies, the collapse in percentage points is similar in Taibeh, Umm al-Fahm, Shfar’am and Tamra.

A veteran Meretz activist told Haaretz that pushing Arab candidates down the list drives away Arab voters, with two possible parties serving as alternatives: The Joint List and Kahol Lavan. “We believe that many Labor and Meretz voters in Arab communities who do not vote for the Joint List will prefer Kahol Lavan over a niche party with pretensions of being left-wing. I don’t know how many people will vote on ideological grounds in the end, but when candidates come to Arab communities and say they’re for equality and partnership, what replies do they expect to hear?” he said.

Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg greets Arab voters in Kafr Qassem on Election Day, April 9, 2019.
Then Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg greets Arab voters in Kafr Qassem on Election Day, April 9, 2019. In the back, Essawi Freige.Credit: Uncredited

Among those opposing the left-wing union is former MK Taleb el-Sana, who formally still belongs to the Arab Democratic Party. He was in touch with Freige regarding a possible Jewish-Arab partnership. He told Haaretz that he’s not interested in being a candidate, but noted that there were talks with several Arab figures such as the former mayor of Sakhnin, Mazen Ghnaim. “With the formation of the union announced on Monday, it’s clear that Meretz and Labor behaved cynically, looking after their narrow interests. I think it shows the moral and ideological bankruptcy of these two parties, mainly Meretz,” he said.

“The entire idea of Jewish-Arab partnership has evaporated due to the narrow interests of protecting MKs in both parties”, el-Sana added.

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