Analysis

New Election in Israel Is the Golden Opportunity for Arab Parties

Arab Israeli leaders are planning to restore the Joint List, but if they don't band with Jewish parties to present an alternative to Netanyahu, they can forget about change

Ahmad Tibi alongside Shlomo Karhi and MK Miki Zohar at the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 28, 2019.
Emil Salman

The decision of the Arab parties to vote in favor of new elections was expected, despite the internal disagreements in Hadash-Ta’al and the United Arab List-Balad. The parties support for new elections was the result of the clear message they received from their voters.

In the April 9 election, voter turnout in the Arab community fell to less than 50 percent, and United Arab List-Balad received only 3.3 percent of all the votes cast, just 0.05 percent above the minimum vote threshold to enter the Knesset. The Arab parties won 10 seats in the present Knesset, compared to 13 in the previous one when they ran together as the Joint List. Moreover, 27 percent of the voters opted for Zionist parties, and Meretz in particular.

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Since the 2015 election, the parties making up Joint List have made every mistake possible: the individual actions of Knesset members, battles for credit between the Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh and MK Ahmad Tibi, and an amateurish rotation agreement that eroded the public’s trust. And as if all this was not enough, in the end the parties dismantled their cooperation because of battles over ego and who deserves more Knesset seats. This is what finally emptied the wind from the sails of tens of thousands of Arab voters, who gave the Arab community’s elected representatives their biggest achievement ever in the 2015 election.

When facing a low voter turnout in Arab society on election day, the parties were forced to beg voters to save them from collapse. Only then did the MKs understand that it was not enough to wave the red flag called the nation-state law and warn about the far right led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir to win support.

The four parties now believe things can only improve after reaching such a low point. Yesterday they began unofficial talks to recreate the Joint List. The election results and the split of the votes between the parties is still fresh and painful. The egos of the MKs have been shattered but are not expected to be a major factor in the negotiations – as in the last election.

The parties expect that the negotiations to put together a new slate will switch into high gear after the end of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday vacation, toward mid-June. Until then, each of the four parties will have to make a decision about primaries: Whether to hold an internal primary or keep the slate they ran with in the last election to save time and focus on campaigning.

The four parties know that in order to restore voter trust, the Joint List must guarantee representation for the Arabs of Negev. The fifth and seventh spots on the United Arab List-Balad slate remained outside the Knesset in the last election, and the massive pressure from political activists in the south on the Arab parties was a major consideration for the party to vote for new elections in the preliminary vote in the Knesset. It seems the Arab parties also realize that they will have to look for new forces that are not affiliated with any specific party, and that simply rearranging the order of the candidates on the slate will not suffice.

Another step the parties will have to take is to present a clear vision for the public they represent, which will include operative plans for burning issues in Arab society – and first and foremost the battle against crime and planning and permits for legal construction. These are civil issues that also interest Jewish Israeli society. If a fruitful dialogue can be conducted, it is not unreasonable that the Arab parties will manage to enlist Jewish parties for this battle too, and create a true partnership.

Still, one must remember that Arab citizens in Israel are a minority, and alongside their banding together – as strong as it may be – must come an initiative from those who claim to present an alternative to right-wing rule in Israel. If they continue to see the Arabs as the enemy and not partners, then even a renewed Joint List will not bring about a real change in the Israeli political system.