The Arab Joint List Can Either Exploit Trump's Plan in Its Favor, or Let the Opportunity Slip

Some feel that the discussion over the Trump plan and heightened political issues could actually raise the voter turnout of Arab citizens in Israel

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Joint List lawmakers arrive to give their recommendation to the president of whom should be given the mandate to form a government, September 22, 2019.
Joint List lawmakers arrive to give their recommendation to the president of whom should be given the mandate to form a government, September 22, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Ahead of Israel’s third election within a year, the Joint List of Arab parties is wrestling with a conundrum: whether to place U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East “peace plan” at the center of its campaign.

The party had suspended its deliberations on the issue for a couple of weeks while awaiting the High Court ruling on whether to allow Knesset member Heba Yazbak to contend. Barring her would have created a crisis: Balad, as one of the four parties comprising the List, might have decided to boycott the election. Now that she has been allowed to participate, the List means to step up its campaigning, which has been relatively sleepy and muddled so far.

In the last two elections the List focused on civil matters, including violence in the Arab community, the law cracking down on building offenses (Kaminitz Law), and the budget slated for development of Arab towns. In the last two weeks however the Trump plan, including the proposal to transfer the “triangle” to Palestinian sovereignty, have become the main issue in the Arab Israeli circles. The plan and exchange of territories being the main topic at all meetings they held.

Trump and Netanyahu’s plan to eradicate the two-state solution indeed makes the political issue all the more burning,” said party Knesset member Aida Touma-Suleiman. The issue is all the more burning because the plan includes moving and withdrawing citizenship from 300,000 Arabs, she says, adding “that proves there can be no civil rights without full, equal citizenship.” If anything this is driving both Arab and Jewish voters who oppose the occupation to cast their vote as far from Netanyahu as possible, she said.

The Trump plan has also led to a broader debate in Arab civil and intellectual circles. “The Trump plan creates a new challenge for the List,” said Prof. Amal Jamal of the Tel Aviv University Social Sciences Faculty. “The plan indirectly justifies abolishing the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, or suggests conditional citizenship. The Joint List cannot ignore this policy and has to draw attention to the issue.”

The party could place the matter at the heart of its campaign, Jamal says, adding, “even the most burning civil issues take second place against negation of citizenship and such substantial change for hundreds of thousands of citizens.”

Prof. Amal Jamal of the Tel Aviv University Social Sciences FacultyCredit: Yaron Kaminsky

Where Jamal sees a challenge, others view the Trump plan as pure gold for the Joint List, explains Dr. Hana Sweid of the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, in the sense that it brings the political issue back to center stage, he explains. The Trump plan brought focus to the debate about political solutions: “The plan’s presentation, with all the risks it entails, including its implications for the area of Wadi Ara, forces everybody to present a different plan,” he says. It could be at the level of the Arab local governments in the area, he says. However, they need to present a vision and working plan to the Israeli public as well. And that could serve the Joint List, if it does it right, Sweid says.

In the last two election campaigns, especially ahead of the September round, the Joint List felt that political issues deterred Arab voters, especially younger ones. Now some feel that the discussion over the Trump plan and political issues could actually raise the voter turnout.

“What could play in the Joint List’s favor is the fact that the idea of attaching 'the Triangle' to a future Palestinian state was met with reservations among the broad Israeli public, and has been met with absolute rejection in the Arab community,” says Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahyai of The Israel Democracy Institute. “It’s about opportunity for the Joint List to transmit political and nationalist messages to the wider Israeli public, stressing Palestinian nationalist emotion, which does not contradict with the citizenship of Arabs in Israel. It’s time to put an end to this contradiction.”

Prof. Mustafa Kabha, a historian and resident of Wadi Ara and Joint List strategy advisor, agrees that the Trump plan requires a new approach versus the previous elections. “The slogan ‘tear down the deal of the century’ was heard in the last campaign, but the plan’s presentation and support of the two big parties for it requires a clear vision to be presented,” Kabha says. “That should be exploited electorally to bring in more voters.”

This time, the political issue isn’t a generalized one: it could personally affect hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens of Israel directly.

Rula Hardal, assistant professor of Political Science at Al-Quds University, says the Joint List should be reexamining its policies not only because of the Trump plan. “What’s happening in Israel today regarding the state’s treatment of Arab citizens isn’t only rejection, discrimination, racism and denial of rights anchored in law,” she says.

“It’s simply fascism, which demands that we all – including the members of the Joint List reexamine our own path.” Discussion of the Trump plan could spur voters or deter them, depending on the alternatives that the Joint List proposes, Hardal says. But at this stage, she fails to see in the Joint List any “serious thinking, desire or intention to stop and rethink their agenda.”

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