The Clans Are Coming to the Knesset

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Campaign billboards of Arab-Israeli parties United Arab List and the the Joint List in Rahat, Israel, last month.

A lot has been said about the Arab community’s voting patterns in the recent Knesset election. From the moment the results were published, the terms “abstaining” and “supporting from outside” have been given primacy on every news broadcast. But among all the issues that have preoccupied the Arab and national media, one important issue hasn’t received enough attention – the replication of the clan (hamula) pattern of voting from the municipal to the national level.

Despite the changes that have altered the face of the Arab community in recent decades, the clan system that controls most Arab local governments has managed to survive while donning modern garb in the form of clan-based “primaries,” use of social media, and the inclusion of women and younger people on clan tickets (albeit without any real ability to exert influence). The benefits that flow from local governments to the clans, including appointments, illegal discounts on municipal taxes and inflated commercial contracts, help preserve the high-functioning but antiquated clan machines.

For years, the traditional Arab parties haven’t played a key role in local Arab politics. Their waning power doesn’t permit them to go head-to-head against the clans in most towns. Thus, instead of offering an ethical political alternative to the clans and denouncing tribal voting, the national Arab parties support the clans in local elections, or at least stay out of the municipal arena, in the hope of winning the jackpot of clan-based voters in Knesset elections.

Given this reality, promoting or supporting legislation to ensure good governance and reduce the power of the clan system would be like cutting off the branch on which the Knesset members sit. On the contrary, given the cooperation between the parties and the clans, it’s predictable that MKs would promote the interests of local governments in their current format.

In recent years, when the Arab parties ran together on a single ticket, the parties reduced their dependence on the clan system and the clans’ leaders. But in the last election, this dependence returned in full force, devoid of any restraints of political correctness or shame. Each side gets something from the deal, and values are cast aside.

Given the low Arab response to the parties’ calls to go out and vote and their lack of any connection to the voters in some towns, support from the clans was a strategic asset for the parties. Senior members of both Arab tickets unhesitatingly announced support from clans, and MKs even participated in clan-sponsored political rallies. Instead of speaking directly to the voters, the parties used clan leaders as intermediaries, out of an awareness of their electoral power and exceptional ability to get out the vote (an ability not devoid of pressure and coercion).

As recompense for this support, both sides understand that MKs are expected to largely comply with requests by clan leaders, including intervention in issues that may seem minor at first. In this context, we have more than once witnessed MKs acting as genuine lobbyists for the clans in an effort to ensure that this reservoir of votes is theirs on Election Day. And as part of this deal, the parties avoid criticizing the clan system and its failures in running the local authorities.

In what we view as a direct benefit to the clan system, members of Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al party (part of the Joint List) worked with MK Moshe Arbel of Shas during the last Knesset’s brief term to advance legislation that would make it easier to appoint relatives to local government offices, demonstrating a frightening indifference to the problems of corruption and nepotism in Arab towns. Mayors appointed through the clan system boasted of their cooperation with Arab MKs in this effort to curtail the ban on appointing relatives, which they see as an injustice.

The desire to curry favor with the clans quickly made it to the national level and translated into a total abstention from battles against government corruption and for proper administration. This disappointing cold shoulder toward the fight against corruption happened again in early 2020, when Tibi and United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas abstained after a motion by Likud’s Haim Katz for parliamentary immunity to prosecution on corruption charges. They did so even though at that time, the Joint List had hoisted the banner of replacing the Likud-led government.

In recent months, according to a report by journalist Amit Segal, Abbas has spoken out on the cases against Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and expressed a willingness to vote for a bill that would prevent sitting prime ministers from standing trial. This saved Netanyahu from justice, on the grounds that there is no religious prohibition on what he did – even though Arab and Islamic tradition is laden with ethical teachings that prohibit bribery and fraud and denounce corruption.

These positions send a message of acquiescence or indifference to governmental improprieties. And if this is their attitude toward corruption in the central government, it’s no wonder the parties are remaining silent about trials and convictions of Arab mayors on corruption charges.

In the last election, there was a clear pattern of clan-based voting. Aside from the many announcements of support from clans and dependence on the clan system, which is presided over by mayors, political rivals at local authorities exploited the split between the Joint List and the United Arab List. In several towns that have been split for years into two rival clan blocs for local elections (a conflict that sometimes degenerates into serious violence), one bloc supported the United Arab List and the other the Joint List. For the clan leadership, the last election was an opportunity to regroup and sustain the atmosphere of competition with the rival clan.

The political parties, which are expected to unite different parts of the public around a political and moral idea, and which boast of promoting a democratic platform that transcends sectoral boundaries, are essentially sacrificing these values on the altar of clan loyalties. The mounting internal criticism following the election results is focusing on the effectiveness of the media campaigns and on management and political questions, but regrettably is completely ignoring this moral failure.

One would expect the parties to offer the public a democratic-political-ethical alternative rather than this shameful groveling before the clan leaders, which only perpetuates the clan-based rifts and helps position the clan as an influential player in national politics.

Attorney Nidal Hayek is executive director of Lawyers for Good Governance, an NGO that promotes good governance among Arab local authorities. Attorney Mohamad Kadah is a member of the group's legal team.

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