Heading into the March 23 Knesset election, Israeli Arab society has sunk into despondency the likes of which hasn’t been seen for quite some time. And it is actually coming after years of hope for change among Arab Israelis.
The very establishment in 2015 of the Joint List of four Arab parties was an impressive achievement. The coming together of four rival parities was an inspiring development among Palestinians outside of Israel and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The subsequent split in the Joint List into two party slates ahead of the 2019 election was a wake-up call to the parties’ leaders. They quickly came back together, paving the way in the last election to an all-time achievement of 15 seats Knesset seats.
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But it also set its downward slide into motion. Bucking its usual custom, the Joint List recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz be tasked with forming the government, something that the parties hadn’t even done when Yitzhak Rabin was seeking to form a government. But the Joint List got the cold shoulder from Kahol Lavan in response.
Against the backdrop of growing frustration among Arab voters, a new figure began to emerge into prominence – Mansour Abbas – who until then had been in the shadow of Joint List Knesset members Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi. Abbas’ United Arab List, one of the four parties that constituted the Joint List, had always pursued a pragmatic approach. Now he has decided to punish the Jewish left and to challenge the three other Joint List parties – Hadash, Ta’al and Balad.
In an effort to rack up achievements on issues relating to personal safety and housing, both of which are of particular concern in the Arab community, Abbas approached associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to work together.
United Arab List Knesset members also broke with most of their Joint List colleagues and voted against a bill to bar sexual orientation conversion therapy. Prior to that, most Joint List Knesset members had voted as a block on civil issues and their voting patterns hadn’t attracted particular attention.
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But Abbas took advantage of the sensitivity in the Israeli Arab community regarding LGBT issues to differentiate his United Arab List party from his three Joint List partners. Since then, every United Arab List statement has highlighted a Muslim religious aspect.
The UAL began functioning as an independent faction, as was apparent with its members’ absence from December’s vote on the dissolution of the Knesset and as could be seen from Netanyahu’s appearance before the Knesset Special Committee on Eradicating Crime in Arab Society, which Abbas chairs.
In addition to disagreement on matters of principle, personal animus further reduced the prospects for healing the rift within the Joint List. The conditions posed by the UAL, mainly relating to issues of religion and state, did not provide a basis for negotiations, and a proposed compromise by the Balad party that Joint List decision making be made by majority vote threatened to leave Abbas without influence. Ta’al party leader Ahmad Tibi, who tried to mediate the dispute, was forced to choose between Abbas – his “natural partner” – and Hadash and Balad.
The United Arab List members emerged not terribly enamored with the Joint List and chose last week to go it alone in the coming election, meaning that the Joint List is now comprised of Hadash, Ta’al and Balad.
Abbas’ search for prominent names for his slate resulted in the promise of a high spot on the list for former Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghanayim, who had run in 2019 as a Balad candidate of the Joint List but was not elected to the Knesset at the time. Further down the slate of United Arab List candidates are less familiar names of activists who are due to work the field for grassroots support. “We’re relying on the base, the conservative public, which wants to have an impact,” a United Arab List source said.
At least from outward appearances, party members aren’t concerned about polls that forecast the party’s downfall, but they know it’s a gamble – perhaps the largest since the founder of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, decided that the southern branch of the movement would run in Knesset elections.
The connection between Abbas and Netanyahu has changed the entire political map: After the prime minister embraced the Arabs, everyone has been following suit – from New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, who broke away from Netanyahu’s Likud, to parties further to the left. Many parties view the splintering of the Joint List as a chance to attract Arab votes.
On the bright side, from the perspective of the Arab public, the current state of affairs might encourage a higher Arab voter turnout. But there’s also the chance that it will lead to a scattering of Arab votes, endangering the small left-wing parties and reduce Arab representation in the Knesset. In such a scenario, Mansour Abbas, the man who wanted to exert influence over Netanyahu, might find himself facing Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party, in the next Knesset.