A month ago, Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List of predominately Arab parties, was relatively unknown among the public. Ever since the Arab parties united, however, and formed a single list, he has become a popular interview subject on all of the political news shows. He has even been mentioned as a possible leader of the opposition if, after the elections, the two largest parties — Likud and Zionist Camp — form a unity government, and the Joint List is the third-largest party. The scenario, considered highly unlikely, is based on polls that predict the party will win 13 seats, or in other words, more than either HaBayit HaYehudi or Yesh Atid.
Much has been written about how Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who pushed to raise the electoral threshold to reduce Arab representation in the Knesset, actually ended up forcing the Arab parties to unite in a single list, fulfilling the wishes of most of the people that these parties represent. It was Liberman of all people who enabled the Arab parliamentarians to overcome deep-rooted ideological differences and personal rivalries to create a single, large list. And this happened while Liberman himself was floundering in the polls because of the criminal investigations involving senior members of his own party.
It's already obvious that the Joint List will be one of the most prominent phenomena of the election and the subject of long discussions. Whether the party reaches its own 15-seat goal, or whether it reaches the finishing line with just 12 seats, a large, united Arab faction in the Knesset will undoubtedly have significant impact on the political system in general and the Arab public in particular.
In the past, Arab Knesset members made headlines mainly for their well-publicized and vocal feuds with Knesset members from the right. Other than that, they functioned in four small, competing factions, a factor that prevented them from wielding the full power that their 11 seats gave them. In a break with the past, Odeh has already announced in public interviews that the Joint List will demand the chairmanship of major Knesset committees such as the Finance Committee and the Interior Committee, to ensure that the Arab sector gets its slice of the budgetary pie. He has also said that in exchange for recommending that the president pick Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog to form the next government, his party will present a long list of budgetary demands and public statements it expects to hear, to bring about a real change in awareness among the Israeli public.
So, for instance, the Joint List plans to advance Knesset legislation that will recognize Nakba Day as a day of national mourning for Israeli Arabs, commemorating the community’s displacement as a result of Israel’s independence. This could pose an enormous challenge to the Zionist Camp and present Herzog with a complicated moral and political dilemma.
Nevertheless, despite high expectations and flattering polls, there is considerable doubt whether the four distinct parties — the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), Ra’am, Ta’al and Hadash — can remain united after the elections, even if the Arab public wants them to. According to a Feb. 20 poll in Israeli daily Haaretz, 70% of Israeli Arabs want their representatives in the Knesset to focus more on improving their welfare and economic circumstances and less on the Palestinian national struggle. Some 60% of the respondents state that despite the proclivity of their representatives to sit in the opposition, they would like to see them as full coalition partners.
The enormous expectations that the parties’ unification has created among Israeli Arabs places a heavy burden on the shoulders of its future Knesset members. At the same time, the Zionist Camp also hopes that the new list will be big enough to change the balance of power between the two blocs and provide Herzog with the support he needs to prevent the right-wing bloc from forming a government. This would be a repeat of what happened in 1992, during Yitzhak Rabin’s second term as prime minister. Obviously, Herzog will not risk making explicit public statements about this so as not to lose voters who lean right. On the other hand, his campaign is keeping a close eye on everything that is happening in the Joint List.
Professor Asad Ghanem of Haifa University’s School of Political Sciences is an authority on comparative politics and a highly regarded veteran researcher of Arab society in Israel. He supported the consolidation of the Arab parties into a single list, but in a conversation with Al-Monitor he warns against missing a historic opportunity. In his opinion, while the parties may have united, their agenda remains unclear. Instead of offering a new kind of politics, all the party is actually doing is ensuring job security for veteran Knesset members
“Instead of sitting down together to decide on a common platform and to commit themselves to achieving certain goals, all they have is slogans. They just cut and pasted phrases from the platforms of the various parties. Unfortunately, they didn’t do a serious job. I would have expected them to map out the Arab public’s most pressing problems, and there is no shortage of them. They should have said, for instance, that they were committed to eradicating corruption in local government, to dealing with violence, to improving education, to solving the problems of the Negev Bedouin. But no, they didn’t write a new platform. They have no program. All they have is slogans. We can’t keep blaming all our problems on the state. There are some things that we can tackle ourselves. It’s still not too late to put together a work plan,” he said.
Nor does Ghanem share the Arab candidates' optimism as the elections approach. “I know the Arab street," he said. "I live there and I'm intimately familiar with its voting patterns. The problem is that they think they will automatically win 14 or 15 seats, but I think they are wrong. It is not enough to say, ‘We are Arabs, so vote for us.’ The public, and young people in particular, wants to hear a lot more than that. People want to know what the plan is. I get the impression that Arab Knesset members aren’t reading the polls properly, or the mood in the street for that matter. I believe that the final outcome will be much lower.”
He added, “There is a real fear that the Joint List will split up immediately after the elections. That is also a deterrent. On the one hand, there is a change. There is something different and new. On the other hand, I don’t see anything being done to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Jacky Houri is a veteran reporter on Arab affairs for Haaretz and the news editor of the only private Israeli-Arab radio station, Radio Ashams. Unlike Ghanem, he claims that the lack of a real campaign is part of a deliberate strategy, and the consequence of there being no competition between the list’s constituent parties. Houri said, “In the Arab street, we have gotten used to the normal competition between Arab parties over the same votes. Now there is no more competition, and it gives the sense that there is no campaign. Apart from that, I understand that they intend to focus on organizing for election day and using their budgets to get the vote out. They simply plan to follow their lists and go house to house to get people to the polling stations. In that sense, this is the right strategy to take.”
Houri also feels that these elections provide an opportunity to bring about real change to the Arab representation in the Knesset, but that this opportunity could also be missed. “There is no doubt that there is an opportunity here, and the Arab sector understands that. There is a sense that the list’s representatives realize that economic and civil issues are of more interest to our public than the conflict with the Palestinians. This is expressed in the campaign itself and in election gatherings. I believe that winning more than 13 seats will prevent the Joint List from breaking apart after the elections. They will recognize the new power they have and will not want to disappoint the public. If, however, they receive less than 12 seats, the backstabbing and ugly accusations will begin among the parties, and it will all fall apart. Everything depends on the results,” he said.