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Weakened by split, Israel's Arab parties must work the field

After years of campaigning on social media and in TV studios, Arab politicians are now rallying for support in Israel.

Israel's Arab Balad party launched its election campaign Sept. 24 with a gathering of supporters and activists in the town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye that claimed over 1,000 attendees. The same day, the Hadash-Ta’al alliance held a gathering of its own in the town of Tamra in the north, with several hundred activists and supporters in attendance.

The two events were followed by smaller gatherings this week, including ones held by Balad chair Sami Abu Shahadeh in the towns of Shfaram and Tamra and by Knesset member Aida Touma Suleiman of Hadash-Ta’al in Taibe.

Created in 2015 to unite all the Arab parties, the Joint List rarely held large public gatherings and made do with social media ads and news interviews. The Sept. 15 split within the party has changed the game. At the Sept. 24 event, Sami Abu Shahadeh told the audience he could not remember a gathering this big in at least a decade.

A Balad activist told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We are planning to hold another five or six big events in various Arab towns. The choice of Baqa al-Gharbiyye as the site of the first election rally was intended to support the number-four candidate on the list, Dr. Walid Kaadan, who lives there, and because it is one of the main party strongholds.”

In previous years, the Joint List had no competition. Not only was it the only Arab coalition in Israeli politics, Jewish parties made very little if any effort to reach Arab voters. Thus, the Joint List felt no need to go out and court voters.

The Sept. 15 split within the Joint List was the second since the alliance's creation. In the last elections, Ra’am under Mansour Abbas decided to run alone. This time around, there are three Arab parties competing over the same electorate.

The battle is expected to be fierce. Surveys suggest that Balad won’t make it past the vote threshold. Polls released last week by Israeli outlets N12 and Channel 13 News gave Balad 2.1% and 2.4% of the vote and predicted both Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al would pass the threshold. Now Arab candidates will have to crisscross the country and visit all the Arab towns and villages to persuade voters to support them.

Balad began the election campaign with less than 1% of the vote in the polls. Since the dismantling of the Knesset, polls have been predicting very low voter turnout within Arab electorate. The increase in Balad support could mean that the Arab electorate is finally getting interested. But will this awakening be enough to get all three Arab parties into the Knesset?

The competition between the three parties could stimulate voting among the Arab public.

Samer Maqalda, who heads Doit Advertising, told Al-Monitor that “even though we are only at the beginning of the election campaign in the Arab sector," "It is apparent that the Arab population has been thirsting for this competition between the parties, and that this has resulted in the rallies and other activities we have seen in the past few days.”

He continued, “It is important to realize that the Arab parties have two interests. They want to increase the number of people voting within the Arab population, and they want to increase support for their parties. First and foremost, however, they are calling on people to get up and vote.”

Balad and Hadash-Ta’al list have been bickering since the Sept. 15 split and even before. Ra’am, on the other hand, has been trying not to get dragged into the bickering. Its leaders are trying to pursue a specific party line that separates them politically from the other Arab parties. Thus, Abbas has posted on Facebook on more than one occasion that the Arab parties would be better off focusing on their platforms and telling their Arab constituents what their plans are once they are elected to Knesset than attacking one another.

The strategy of Ra’am politicians is clear. They avoid the squabbling, whether it is in the media or in parlor meetings in private homes. Rather than dive into the fighting between Hadash-Ta’al and Balad, they focus on what they consider Ra’am’s successes. The party made the historic decision to join the coalition, obtaining special budgets and projects to benefit the Arab society. This strategy seems to be working. Almost all the polls now show that Ra’am will pass the electoral threshold. Some of the polls even say that it will become the largest Arab party, with as many as five seats.

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