Analysis

The Joint List, Reborn, Must Now Win the Trust of the Israeli Arab Public

The fate of this newborn lies mainly in the hands of the fourth pillar of the old Joint List: Balad, which has yet to decide whether to join the union

The leaders of the United Arab List, Hadash and Ta'al announce the rebirth of the Joint List, July 27, 2019.
Rami Shllush

The press conference Saturday at which the Joint List announced its reformation was far from festive. The heads of the slate’s three parties – Hadash’s Ayman Odeh, Ta’al’s Ahmad Tibi and United Arab List’s Mansour Abbas – were all too aware that the Joint List was rebirthed through a complex Caesarean section rather than the natural birth that they had hoped for immediately following the dissolution of the Knesset in May.

This premature infant, born after a difficult pregnancy marred by complications, must remain in an incubator for at least 24 hours before it can be determined whether the baby will have significant developmental problems.

The fate of this newborn lies mainly in the hands of the fourth pillar of the old Joint List: Balad, which has yet to decide whether to join the union. Over the past several years, the party experienced crises that ate away at its support. In the coming days, it will determine which direction it will turn. Senior party figures don’t hide the fact that fierce internal disputes are preventing them from deciding whether to rejoin the alliance.

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Some of the party’s members long for the days when it was led by its founder, Azmi Bishara, who fled Israel after he was suspected of spying for and providing aid to Hezbollah. Balad’s institutions are still alive and kicking without him, but there is no single dominant figure to tip the scales.

Party chairman Jamal Zahalka, and the chairman of its Knesset slate, Mtanes Shehadeh, need to choose between three main possibilities by Thursday: linking with the Joint List, where they upgraded the Balad senior representative’s seat from the third slot to the second; giving up its demand to receive the 12th spot on the list and running separately; or giving up the Knesset race altogether and advancing its non-parliamentary work.

If Balad joins Hadash, Ta’al and the United Arab List, the Joint List and its members will focus on regaining the faith of the Arab public, as its mission is to increase Arab voter turnout to 70 percent. This goal, which Joint List leader Ayman Odeh declared during the press conference, is very lofty compared to Arab voter turnout during the April election: About 50 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and about 28 percent of those voted for Zionist parties. The challenge of getting Arab voters into the polling stations will be even more complicated considering their disappointment in their Knesset representatives, whose squabbles led to the disbanding of the Joint List in the last election.

In the event Balad runs alone – or not at all – there is a scant chance that the attempt to boost voter turnout beyond 50 percent will work. Balad is by no means the main factor in mobilizing voters on September 17, but a second round of elections in which the Joint List is not so joined may weaken the drive of Arab voters. 

Potential voters describe feelings of despair and revulsion at the Arab parties that pretend to represent them. In meetings with voters, each of their candidates enumerates a long list of heavy topics on the agenda. They start with the issue of personal safety and rising violence in Arab society, pass through building and planning and jurisdiction in Arab areas and conclude with the nation-state law and the peace plan laid out by the Trump administration.

They also talk about the need to expand Arab representation in politics and bringing change to Israel’s political map. But it’s unclear whether the Arab public will buy what they’re selling, if what dictated the establishment of the Joint List is ego and the science of keeping their Knesset seats. Regaining their faith will take a lot of work.