On July 17, the results of the internal Arab Balad Party elections were made public: Knesset member Haneen Zoabi was pushed to an unrealistic place on her party list. Just 24 hours later, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened to vote on the suspension bill, also known as the Zoabi bill, toward its final ratification in the plenum during its second and third readings.
Following the elections in her party, Zoabi will probably not serve in the next Knesset and may even conclude her political activities. It turns out that Zoabi succeeded in creating pockets of resistance and anger due to her provocative methods even in her own party. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of her opponents within the Joint List (unified slate of predominantly Arab parties) said that her “irresponsible and unwise” behavior not only did nothing to strengthen her within the faction, but caused the faction irreversible damage. Evidently she will be forced to pay a political price for her behavior.
The Balad Party’s electorate voted on a list of party members in June, and the faction’s political committee publicized the results July 17. Zoabi was pushed down from third to fifth place on the party’s list, which effectively puts her out of the running to be re-elected to the Knesset. But the damage has already been done: Zoabi has inflicted great harm on the Joint List and on Jewish-Arab relations in general.
Zoabi was first elected to the 18th Knesset in 2009, and during her three terms in office she became a red flag for the Jewish public as well as for a broad swath of the Arab-Israeli sector, which views her as being responsible for deepening the widening chasm between Jews and Arabs. Most of the members of the Joint List and its activists objected to her modus operandi — mainly her statements more than her actions. However, they found themselves forced to defend her, if only to maintain the integrity of the Joint List and its political future. Zoabi’s antics played into the hands of right-wing Knesset members, and the suspension bill will be wielded as a threat against Arab members of the Knesset even after Zoabi leaves the legislature.
The suspension bill initiated by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked with the support and encouragement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu states that the Knesset can suspend a member from his or her term in office with a three-fourths majority of 90 votes. When the bill passed its first reading in February, Balad Chairman and Knesset member Jamal Zahalka warned, “If they start to expel Arabs as the law’s supporters hope, the Arab public will boycott the elections and the Knesset will be for Jews only. Then we will found our own parliament and seek world recognition with the claim that we are a minority in danger. We wanted to be in the Knesset, but the tyranny of the majority prevents us.”
And this is, indeed, the question that worries the members of the Joint List. How will they act, if and when the Knesset activates Zoabi’s suspension procedure? On the one hand, they oppose her behavior and resent her for putting them all in the same sinking boat as far as the public is concerned. But on the other hand, it will be difficult for them to stay mum when faced with a law that will enable suspension of a Knesset member from their faction; they will be forced to adopt some kind of dramatic act. The Joint List, which was stitched together from three Arab parties in order to survive the hike in the electoral threshold in the last election in March 2015, may well spiral into an internal storm that will end with the coalition falling apart.
The Arab members of the Knesset and faction leaders have not yet decided what they will do if Zoabi’s suspension process commences. But it is possible that they will soon be forced to make a fateful decision due to a Knesset member who has been pushed to an impracticable spot in her faction (with Balad having three of the Arab List's 12 Knesset seats).
Publicly, most of the Joint List’s Knesset members and activists argue that the suspension bill is racist legislation directed against them by the right in Israel and especially by the prime minister. But in conversations with Al-Monitor, they also admit that Zoabi has brought this on herself — and tragically on them as well. Some even express relief and joy that the Zoabi albatross will soon be removed from around their necks.
In response to a request from Al-Monitor, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh said his party's members have not yet decided what to do. “In the event that one of the Knesset members is actually suspended from the Knesset, we will have to examine all our options. That includes turning to the courts and the international community,” he said. Odeh accused Netanyahu of spearheading the suspension bill with a clear goal in mind: to alienate and anger the Arab public to the point that it will boycott the next elections. Then the Arab sector would no longer constitute a political power capable of tipping the political scale and bringing down the government. (Arabs eligible to vote make up about 15% of the total number of Israelis eligible to vote — hence, in theory, 18 Knesset seats.) But even Odeh knows that the mission he faces now is to find the magic formula that will keep the Joint List intact, following the crisis it would undoubtedly face after the bill is conclusively passed into law by the Knesset.
Ever since the Joint List was created, the alliance and faction heads composing it have made every effort to maintain its makeup and unity, despite differences of opinions, the diverse viewpoints and ideologies of its constituents and the personal-religious tensions among its members — Muslim religious and secular. Until now this has been accomplished with great success. Nevertheless, the suspension bill may well be the hardest test the Joint List has faced so far.
It is likely that the Balad Party, despite the ambivalence of its members toward Zoabi, will demand that its alliance partners withdraw from the Knesset and seek international assistance from other countries in its struggle against the law. By contrast, the members of other factions — Hadash, the United Arab List and Ta’al — who are less committed to Zoabi will probably limit themselves to perfunctory lip-service denunciations in order to preserve the integrity of the Joint List and the future of the Arab parties.
Thus, the key now lies in the hands of the Balad Party; it will determine the height of the flames and its actions will determine whether the Joint List will survive, or whether it will fall apart because of a Knesset member who might be too provocative even for Balad's own taste.
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