For the fifth time in four years, Israelis watched yesterday as a new Knesset was sworn in. Conspicuously absent were the representatives of the Arab Balad party, which did not make it pass the Knesset-entry threshold at the Nov. 1 elections. For the first time since Azmi Bishara founded the party in the 1990s, Balad has no representatives in the Israeli parliament.
A year ago, the Arab Ra’am party made history by joining the coalition and instilling hope among Arab society for real change. This week, Israeli Arabs found themselves with one less party in the Knesset and a real danger that Balad will completely disappear from the political map.
The party was ill-prepared for these elections. It split from the Arab Joint List on the very last day that the parties could submit their lists to the election committee. Nevertheless, it received close to 140,000 votes, missing the Knesset-entry threshold only by little.
But the leadership of Balad must confront now not only the fact that they are out of the Knesset, but also how much support the party really has. Analysts claim that many votes were in fact an expression of solidarity with party leader Sami Abu Shehadeh, who told voters that he was the victim of injustice from his former partners in the Joint List. In other words, many of the people who voted for Balad did not necessary support the party's platform.
This would explain the party’s response once the final results of the election were announced. They invited supporters to a Nov. 12 gathering in the town of Shfaram to thank them, but the main discussion was, “What’s next for Balad?” Party leaders are wondering how Balad can keep a presence on the ground and in the media, even if they are not in the Knesset.
At the gathering, Abu Shehadeh tried to emphasize that the party's 140,000 votes was an enormous achievement, and that there is life outside the Knesset. Announcing that people could register as party members for a symbolic fee, he laid the groundwork for basic financial backing for Balad, now that it has lost financial support from the Knesset.
In the coming years, he called for turning "the attention of the international community to the plight of Israel’s Arab citizens, and we must start to join the popular committees in the Arab towns and villages, with the goal of having representatives in every settlement.” Finally, he said, “The party must run candidates for election in the 2023 municipal election, whether it is for the mayorship of Arab towns and villages or membership in the local councils.”
Strategic consultant Moshe Gaon told Al-Monitor that Balad’s chances at surviving “really depends on the state of the other Arab parties and how pleased the Arab sector will be with them. If their performance is deemed satisfactory by Arab voters, there will no revival for Balad.”