A dispute over the rotation agreement is threatening to split the Joint List, Israel's only Arab-majority party, which was founded when the four Arab parties merged into one ahead of the 2015 Israeli general election.
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The spat has led the party's members to level accusations at each other and has created distrust that could be insurmountable in the next election.
The four parties comprising the Joint List – Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al – reached a rotation agreement two and a half years ago. They decided that the first three would each have four representatives in Knesset, while Ta’al would have one.
The resignation of lawmaker Basel Ghattas from the Balad party after he was indicted for smuggling cellphones to security prisoners in Israeli jails reshuffled the order of the list and undermined the original arrangement. Ghattas was convicted in a plea bargain and has began serving his two-year sentence earlier this month.
All Joint List members insist they are committed to the formula; the dispute is over how to implement it.
The problem lies in the pre-agreed positions on the party slate. The Joint List won 13 seats in the election, and as part of the agreement, lawmakers Osama Saadia of Ta'al and Abdullah Abu Maaruf of Hadash, who currently hold the 12th and 13th spots on the list, were supposed to step down after half a term to make way for the next two on the list: Joumah Azbarga from Balad and Saeed Al-Horomi of UAL.
However, Ghattas' resignation lost Balad one of its four slots, and the party has no reserved positions until the 19th place on the list.
Balad believes that the agreement should be implemented according to its original format. That would force three candidates, who placed 16th to 18th in the Joint List, to withdraw their candidacy.
Hadash said it was prepared for Abu Maaruf to resign but would not withdraw Yusuf Elatawne, who is in the 17th slot.
Ta'al has made Saadia’s resignation contingent on withdrawals by Elatawne and UAL's Ibrahim Hijazi, in the 16th slot. Only then would it withdraw their candidate in 18th place.
UAL demands that the agreement be executed so Al-Horomi enters the Knesset. It is however prepared to discuss withdrawing the candidacy of Hijazi.
Two months ago, a special committee that had been integral in formulating the agreement and creating the Joint List was reactivated. On Sunday night, it announced that it approved Maaruf resigning by Thursday and said it expects Saadia to follow suit. Balad and Ta’al expressed dissatisfaction with the announcement, while Hadash said it applauded Maaruf’s willingness to step down. Hadash stated that in contrast to Ta'al, it was adhering to the agreement.
The parties’ inability to resolve the dispute has led to growing criticism within the Arab community.
“Given the situation, everyone has to compromise,” said Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ganaim, who heads the council of Arab mayors. “Judging by the mood, it seems elections will be called next year, so any compromise now will lead to better representation for everyone in the next election.”
Ganaim added that Arab mayors see the Joint List as providing important leverage for getting what they want from government ministries, “and it’s a pity it should all fall apart over a rotation agreement.”
Ever since the last election, the Joint List has been plagued by disputes among its component parties over how to respond to terror attacks and to the Syrian civil war. The parties are also at odds over domestic issues such as the government’s plan for economic development in Arab towns. But never before has the party threatened to split apart, much less over a technical issue like a rotation agreement.
Nevertheless, Prof. Mustafa Kabha, who was involved in creating the Joint List and formulating the rotation agreement, said he isn’t rushing to eulogize it.
“None of the parties wants to bear responsibility for failure and its ramifications,” he said. “We need to act transparently toward the public and understand that in the end, there are limits to its patience and its faith in the reconciliation efforts, which are still continuing.”
The parties themselves are well aware of the public criticism and the implications of failing to resolve the crisis.
Dr. Mansour Abbas, deputy head of the Israeli Islamic Movement’s southern branch and a member of the UAL, said he feared that if the crisis isn’t resolved, the public’s response would be growing calls to boycott the elections, due to lack of faith in the Arab parties in particular and the political system in general.
“We won’t let the ticket fall apart, and I don’t even want to think about this,” responded MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad), even as he admitted that every day of delay in implementing the agreement causes damage to the Joint List’s image and its credibility with its voters.
“In our view, the Joint List is a strategic goal, and we won’t give up on it,” agreed Hadash Secretary General Mansour Dehamshe.
Nevertheless, he added, Hadash insists that the agreement be implemented exactly as written. This means the MKs in the 12th and 13th slots, Abu Maaruf and Saadia, must resign, he said, and “only after that will we discuss any other option.”
Ghassan Abdullah, a member of the Ta’al party’s central committee, retorted that the entire agreement must be honored, “without deals that will ensure five seats for UAL or five for Hadash and only one for Ta’al, which doesn’t reflect its true strength among the public.”
“These mutual accusations create the impression that the whole dispute is over games about seats and budgets, and that this isn’t about a strategic partnership,” complained attorney Ali Haider, a researcher of Arab society. “The ticket’s components must put an end to this dispute and turn to dealing with the real issues that keep the Arab community awake at night, first and foremost racism, violence, house demolitions and the occupation.”