The downfall of a largely right-wing government, by a vote of 49-47, particularly one headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, should have been an impressive political achievement that the Joint List could present to its electoral base. In practice, however, it is facing the March 23 election more bloodied and internally divided than ever.
The vote that resulted in the dissolution of the Knesset brought the internal rifts in the Joint List back to the surface. Eleven members from three of the four Joint List parties – Hadash, Balad and Ta’al – voted against protracting the current Knesset after its failure to pass a budget. But the four Knesset members from the United Arab List party headed by Mansour Abbas abstained. The UAL rejected out of hand the claim that the abstention was done in coordination with Netanyahu, but colleagues from the other three parties are far from convinced.
The Joint List is facing the prospect that it could break apart. Similar to the situation in April of 2019, this time, the four parties could end up running on two separate slates of two parties each. Another possibility is that the United Arab List will run alone and risk falling below the minimum four seats required for Knesset representation.
In any case, Joint List members are also concerned that the internal rift could dramatically affect voter turnout and drive their supporters to other parties, including the left-wing Meretz party or even right-wing parties, such as Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party.
This concern was apparently confirmed by the most recent election poll. Most of the recent polls show the Joint List with 11 Knesset seats, four fewer than they have in the outgoing parliament. Internal Joint List polling has also shown an increase in Arab support for the Zionist parties.
Senior members of the four Joint List parties embarked this week on preliminary discussions over their continued cooperation and have carried out in-depth polling to gauge the mood of the Israeli Arab public. One of the most explosive issues that will likely be raised in the discussions is the allocation of seats among the parties on the Joint List’s Knesset slate. Hadash, which leads the Joint List, would be expected to oppose any changes. The other parties, particularly the United Arab List, might insist on revisions.
Even if the four parties decide to run together, the residual tensions aren’t expected to dissipate, and major players in the Joint List acknowledge that they will have a hard time publicly showing a united front.
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The problem surfaced again on Tuesday, when the government was due to bestow official status to three unrecognized villages in the Negev. The proposal ultimately failed, under pressure from Likud cabinet ministers, but prior to that, there was a battle among Joint List factions over credit for the achievement. United Arab List members claimed it was their doing, while the other three Joint List parties insisted that the credit belonged to them, and to the work of civil society organizations and local mayors.
Despite claims that the UAL has drawn close to Netanyahu’s Likud, party members insist that they are “not in anyone’s pocket.” That is also how they explain their decision to abstain in the vote that resulted in the dissolution of the Knesset.
The March election, UAL believes, won’t benefit the Arab public in Israel and may even hurt it, at a time when the Arab community is dealing with increased rates of the coronavirus and of violent crime. Members said they don’t expect the election to create any major changes to the political map and if there are such changes, they won’t be for the better. It’s preferable to work with a weak government than a post-election narrow right-wing one, they said earlier this week.
If the United Arab List decides to run on its own or to link up only with Ta’al for electoral reasons, the election campaign would be expected to change substantially. Issues that are considered explosive in the Arab community, such as LGBTQ rights, could resurface, intensifying internal disputes and ultimately perhaps driving away voters. Joint List officials said they fear a breakup of the list would lead many voters to stay home on Election Day.
During the last election campaign, Joint List presented a very high bar. It claimed that the 15 seats that it received would enable it to lead to substantial change in Arab society and Arab politics, including even Netanyahu’s political downfall. In practice, the slogans and promises were not translated into action. The blame may not rest on its shoulders alone, but it will have a hard time convincing the public that next time around, the Joint List will be able to do what it hasn’t done up to now.