Two Parties, and No More

In the hours that remain until the deadline for submitting Knesset slates, the leaders of the Arab parties must make painful decisions.

Raising the electoral threshold to 2 percent for entry into the 17th Knesset endangers the Arab parties, because it is not clear whether they will be able to make it into the Knesset. There are surveys showing that the three Arab parties - United Arab List, Balad and Hadash - are likely to get more than 2 percent of the votes, but in light of the gap that sometimes exists between polls and real-time results, and because in this case there is no great distance between being and ceasing to be, this danger must be treated as a tangible matter.

Slightly more than 24 hours before the deadline for parties to submit their Knesset slates, the alliances among the Arab parties have yet to be finalized. Even though the goal of raising the electoral threshold is to generate greater stability in the political system by merging political resources, it seems that as long as the issue relates to the Arab parties, the required response is delayed.

The Arab MKs are among the most diligent of all Knesset members. The coalitions do cause them to fail whenever they try to advance laws that benefit the Arab public, but nonetheless their presence in the Knesset is very important. One reason is that they serve as officials to whom their constituents can turn. Some of the Arab MKs have managed to use parliamentary and other tools to advance various issues of importance to the Arab and general population. As Knesset members, their requests to the establishment are treated differently than requests from other public figures who are not members of the parliament.

It is also quite important to have Arab parties represented in the Knesset because of the way it influences the way the Jewish public relates to Arabs. The authority-loving media treat MKs with more respect, and it's desirable that the public get a daily reminder that the Arabs too - close to a fifth of the country's citizens - participate in the political game. This is particularly true in the present election campaign, as there are increasing calls for disengaging from Arab citizens of Israel in the Triangle region. Wouldn't it be more difficult for the Israeli public to "disengage" from Umm al-Fahm or from Kafr Kara if a resident of one of those communities were serving in the Knesset?

A survey conducted a few months ago by the Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation found that 50 percent of the Arab population consider personal interests to be the primary reason Arab parties are unable to merge.

But even if personal interests do play a role, it's difficult to ignore the ideological aspect. There are two key players on either side of the Israeli Arab political map: the Israeli communist party (the major force in Hadash) on the left, and the southern branch of the Islamic Movement (the major force of UAL) on the right. It's difficult to expect that those who have such divergent ideologies will merge with each other, but the third force in Israeli Arab politics - National Democratic Alliance (Balad), headed by MK Azmi Bishara - could join one of the other two parties.

In general, Arab politicians react contemptuously to the calls for unification, especially those that come from the Jewish population. "Why don't the Jewish parties merge?" MK Mohammed Barakeh, chairman of Hadash, asked defiantly a few weeks ago in a meeting with Haaretz. Bishara also sees the calls for a merger as patronizing, but still considers that there are grounds for such a move.

In the hours that remain until the deadline for submitting Knesset slates, the leaders of the Arab parties must make painful decisions. It's clearly not easy for Hadash to cooperate with Balad, and it's not easy for MK Ahmed Tibi's Ta'al faction of the Hadash-Ta'al list to cooperate with UAL. The standing of two former MKs, Hashem Mahameed and Mohammed Hassan Kanaan, must also be taken into account. Nonetheless, despite the difficulties and ideological differences, Arab elected officials can be expected to decide in favor of running on two lists, not three, for the 17th Knesset.