The loss of the Nazareth mayoralty in the March 11 recall elections marked the beginning of the end of the Israeli Communist Party in Israel. Ramez Jaraisi, the mayor for nearly four decades, lost to Ali Salam, who won more than 61% of the city’s votes.
Israeli Communist leaders in Nazareth accepted defeat and issued a statement six days later to congratulate the new winners, stating that they accepted the will of the people of Nazareth. They also promised to search hard for the reasons for their political setback. Jaraisi gained almost the same number of votes, 16,000, while his opponent (who was his deputy for years) won over the votes that went to other groups that competed in the first round against Jaraisi.
While the election campaign turned sectarian in the early stages of the election campaign, that Salam's "Our Nazareth" list was endorsed by well-known Christian leaders and clergy reduced much of the tensions. Many feel that the religious-sectarian issue was manufactured, rather than a real reflection of any Christian-Muslim tensions on the ground.
The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a coalition led by the Israeli Communist Party, has been the major political force for Palestinian citizens of Israel since it was created in this form in 1977. The Jabha as it is called in Arabic, or Hadash in Hebrew, has maintained an Arab-Jewish partnership despite the vast majority of its members and voters being Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Israeli Communists, through different coalitions, have maintained three or four members of the 120-member Israeli Knesset since the establishment of Israel.
Losing a powerful and important base such as the largest Palestinian city in Israel is a major political loss for the movement which has to figure out how it will deal with the new Israeli law that has raised the threshold of entering the Knesset to 3.25% — translated to roughly four seats. Hadash has currently four members in the Knesset, three Arabs and one Jew, but it is unclear whether the Democratic Front can enter the Knesset in the next elections without finding a coalition partner. Existing Arab parties in Israel are unlikely to make a coalition with an Arab-Jewish party, thus putting the Israeli Communist Party in a most intricate position. They can risk going alone and not entering the Knesset for the first time since 1948, or they will have to further alienate their smaller Jewish partners who have not been able to muster many votes in previous elections.
While Israeli Communists have largely toned down their Marxist ideology, they have been successful in representing a moderate voice for peace despite the polarization that has turned Israel’s Arab citizens to become much more supportive of Palestinian nationalism as a result of the continuation of Israel’s occupation. Since their establishment, Israeli Communists have maintained a two-tier political approach as the name of their coalition represents. They have been in favor of the two-state solution and fierce fighters for equality for the Arab minority in Israel and workers’ rights.
For Palestinian citizens of Israel, Hadash was for a long time the sole political party allowed to work in the public sphere. Political figures that rose to prominence through the Israeli Communist Party include ideologue Tawfiq Toubi, poet and former Nazareth mayor Tawfiq Ziad and novelist Emile Habibi.
In recent years, however, the Democratic Front has propelled new figures like Mohammad Baraka and Jamal Zahalka. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza know these new members of Knesset and appeal to them to intervene in solving day-to-day problems with the occupation. But while they are often effective in solving individual problems, they have not succeeded much in changing the trajectory of the Israeli occupation and settlement policy that has received legitimization in Israel’s top representative body. This failure has led many, especially among Islamists in Israel, to question the wisdom of being part of the Israeli electoral system and fighting for the few seats that are available to the Arab minority.
The loss of elections in Nazareth put an end to decades of control by Communists and their supporters. After the Nazareth elections, Israeli member of Knesset from the Islamic Movement Ibrahim Sarsour issued a statement calling on the losing party to learn the lessons for the national good of Palestinian citizens in Israel.
It can be argued that change is necessary and that being in power for so long tends to reduce effectiveness. But what happened in Nazareth last week will not stay in Galilee. It will have a profound effect on the Israeli Communist Party and on the Hadash coalition throughout post-1948 Israel. The big question will be whether they will learn the lessons of this reduced public support and act accordingly, or keep their heads in the sand and blame all except themselves for the status that they find themselves in.