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Israel’s Arab party’s new target: 20 Knesset seats

Members of the Arab Joint List say that if another round of election is held, their party will only grow stronger.
A picture taken on February 21, 2020, shows a portrait of PM Netanyahu (Left) and portrait of Arab Israeli member of the Joint List Ahmad Tibi (R) on a campaign poster, with Arabic writing reading "staying here" as a response to Netanyahu's Likud party campaign pledging for a government "without Ahmad Tibi", in the northern Israeli City of Tayyiba. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

While it is too soon to say whether the Likud and Blue and White parties will form an emergency unity government to confront the coronavirus crisis, one thing is clear: A minority government comprised of Blue and White and the Arab Joint List is no longer in the cards.

On March 10, Gesher faction head Orly Levy-Abekasis dropped a political bomb when she announced in a Facebook post — without informing her partners on the center-left Labor-Meretz ticket — that she would not vote for a minority government dependent on the support of Arab parties. She even hinted that she would not recommend Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as the country’s next prime minister. Her move stunned Labor Chair Amir Peretz who had moved heaven and earth in recent months to forge a partnership with her small Gesher party, fending off critics who warned that her heart was on the political right from where she hailed. Her decision could wipe out his long political career and could also be the last nail in the coffin of the Labor party.

The leftist Meretz party, which received Levy-Abekasis as part of its package deal merger with Labor ahead of the March 2 elections, and even agreed that she be in second place on the joint ticket after Peretz, is now conducting a damage assessment.

The merger of Labor, Gesher and Meretz, which pushed back the only Arab representative on the slate of candidates — Meretz member Issawi Freij — to the unrealistic 11th place, was perceived as a strange, eclectic ticket. That is probably one of the reasons that many Jewish Meretz supporters switched to a Joint List ballot this time around. For example, in the suburban Tel Aviv town of Ramat Gan, the number of Joint List voters doubled from 289 in the September 2019 elections to 573. In neighboring Givatayim, 325 residents voted for the Arab alliance compared with 179 in the previous elections. In Tel Aviv-Yafo, the Joint List got 11,413 votes in the March elections, compared with 8,446 in September.

The Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket was an ad hoc response to concerns that if the three veteran parties ran separately, only one of them, or neither one, would garner sufficient votes to be voted into the Knesset.

That was also how the Joint List was born prior to the 2015 elections when its four constituent parties feared they would fail to cross the electoral threshold raised to 3.25% in legislation sponsored by hard-liner Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman in a bid to keep the Arab parties out of the Knesset. The rest is history. After all, what does the nationalist secular Balad party have in common with the communist Hadash party? And what is the connection between the Islamist Ra’am party and the Ta’al party of Knesset member Ahmad Tibi? However, exigent circumstances forced them to overcome their many divisions and run together. And this time around, they even got stronger, with 90% of the vote in Arab towns and villages. Arab turnout was also unusually high, almost equaling the Jewish one for the first time since 1999.

In the run-up to the March 2 vote, Israel’s third elections of the past 11 months, the Joint List set a target of 15-16 seats in the 120-member legislature. They achieved the target and its 15 seats constitute a significant bloc that prevents Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government comprised of his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies.

On the other hand, the disappointing performance of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket, seven seats in all, was a fatal blow to Israel’s “Jewish” political left. And then came Knesset member Levy-Abekasis and delivered the knockout punch, leaving Gantz with insufficient Knesset backing to form a minority government. Unless an emergency unity government is formed, Israel will probably be forced into a fourth election later this year.

Still, it is worth noting the condition Gantz set on March 12 for his agreement to join a unity government with Netanyahu to confront the epidemic. Gantz demanded that the Arab Joint List be included in the emergency government as an integral part of the center-left political bloc that he heads, even if Netanyahu does not appoint an Arab minister. This is an interesting turnaround for the man who refused to consider any partnership with the Arabs prior to March 2 and his fellow party leaders spoke of their desire to achieve a “Jewish majority” in the elections.

After recovering from the shock of Levy-Abekasis' flip, a growing number of left-wing voters began advocating for a joint Jewish-Arab faction — in other words, a union between the Joint List or parts of it with Meretz and perhaps with Labor. My colleague Akiva Eldar wrote this week in Al-Monitor, “The political constellation created by the latest elections offers an opportunity to build a Jewish-Arab coalition and foster Jewish-Muslim reconciliation. The political-social infrastructure of this partnership could be based on accepted democratic principles, such as equal opportunity, narrowing of socio-economic gaps, cultural autonomy and an end to the occupation.”

However, as good as such ideas are, political reality has different ones in mind. The Joint List as well as Labor-Gesher-Meretz were formed as default options to save their constituent parties from political demise. The Joint List has come a long way since, and is now the third-largest Knesset faction after Likud and Blue and White. Knesset members Ayman Odeh, Tibi, Mtanes Shehadeh and Mansour Abbas, the chairs of the Joint List’s four parties, no longer have any reason to seek a partnership with Meretz or Labor in order to save them from an additional defeat. On the contrary. Its unsentimental, calculated goal now is to win over additional voters disappointed with the results of the eclectic Jewish left-wing slate and expand their power further, even to as many as 20 Knesset seats.

A March 11 opinion article by Hadash Knesset member Yousef Jabarin on the leftist website Siha Mekomit offers a glimpse of the Joint List’s intense sense of accomplishment and the improbability of a new Arab-Jewish slate. “Anyone who thinks the Joint List’s only political horizon is a choice between Netanyahu and Blue and White Chair Benny Gantz is wrong. … We must serve the Arab population better in Knesset committee debates and parliamentary activity, but often our work outside the walls of the legislature is no less important.”

In other words, Jabarin is saying that having finally convinced the state’s Arab citizens that the Joint List is their only viable political alternative, the alliance must now continue along the same lines and dedicate itself to improving the lot of the 21% Arab minority. Jewish-Arab partnerships can be achieved within other frameworks, and the Joint List has no reason to burden itself with the failing Meretz party, Jabarin believes.

A senior Joint List source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that for now, a minority government is out of the question, and not only because of Levy-Abekasis’ betrayal. Therefore, the source added, the Joint List is preparing for a fourth election. “We do not need Meretz or Labor to strengthen our ranks,” the source said. “They may end up standing in the way of the new target we have set ourselves if, indeed, additional elections are held. If Netanyahu wants another round of elections, we will tell him, 'Tfadal' ['Please' in Arabic]. The Joint List’s numbers are growing with each election and it has managed to convince the Arab voting public that despite the significant differences among the Arab parties, we have managed the alliance wisely, serving as loyal representatives of the Arab citizens, and posing a serious and substantive obstacle to Netanyahu, who cannot now form a government that will continue to incite against us.”

On the evening of March 12, Netanyahu grabbed Gantz in a tight virtual embrace to steer him toward an “emergency government.” Gantz will probably be unable to resist and may not even continue to demand the inclusion of the Joint List. If such a government is formed, it will likely serve for a limited time after which Israelis will once again head for the ballot boxes. Maybe then, the scenario to which the Joint List impatiently aspires will play out, changing Israel’s political map.

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