Israeli-Arab parties in trouble

The withdrawal of Knesset member Ahmad Tibi from the Arab Joint List is confronting the already complicated alliance of factions with great difficulties.

al-monitor Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi (C) holds a sign during a demonstration against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Jatt, northern Israel, Oct. 1, 2018.  Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images.

Feb 4, 2019

The Joint List was created ahead of the 2015 elections in order to unite the Arab parties into one Knesset list. The Joint List was composed of four essentially Arab parties: Hadash, Ra’am, Balad and Ta’al. Now, it seems, the alliance is facing an uncertain future.

On Feb. 1-2, primary elections were held for Hadash and Balad, so that they could decide who the candidates would be for the Joint List. If there is a Joint List, that is. As of now, Knesset member Ahmad Tibi is determined to run separately as the head of his Ta’al party. He made this decision after failing to reach an agreement with the other parties as to the number of representatives Ta’al would receive. Al-Monitor has learned that in an effort to save the Joint List, Tibi was offered two spots among the first 10 candidates, as well as the 14th spot. So far, Tibi is not impressed.

According to the most recent Channel 12 poll, on Jan. 30, the Joint List and Ta’al would each win 6 seats, though a Channel 13 poll found that Ta’al would win as many as eight seats, compared with six for the Joint List.

Today, the Joint List has 13 seats in the Knesset: five for Hadash, three for Balad, three for Ra’am, representing the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, and just two for Tibi’s Ta’al party.

One reason that Tibi is thought to be soaring in the polls is because of Jewish voters, who threw their support behind him after the highly regarded Jewish Knesset member Dov Khenin of Hadash withdrew his candidacy. These new votes for Tibi are worth at least one seat. While Tibi is undoubtedly pleased with the results, the pressure is rising within Hadash, not only because the Joint List is doing so poorly in the polls, but also because of internal pressures and their repercussions on the entire list.

The Joint List was formed after the electoral threshold was raised, just before the 2015 elections. The concern among the Arab parties was that some of them would fail to reach the high threshold, so four parties decided to consolidate their forces, despite their sharp ideological differences.

Hadash was originally created on the basis of the old Communist Party and other groups, which formed a united Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. When talk of running together in a joint Arab list first surfaced, Hadash key members already expressed opposition to running with Balad, the party founded by Azmi Bishara in 1995. Bishara was elected to the Knesset, but he later fled Israel out of fear that he would be arrested and tried for assisting Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The incident was, and remains, a red flag for Hadash, even more than their joining forces with the Islamic fundamentalists in Ra’am. Nevertheless, Hadash voters, and these active party members in particular, had no choice but to swallow the bitter pill.

Now that Tibi has left the Joint List, Hadash is not only the largest party in the coalition, it is also the party with the most substantial organizational infrastructure. Nevertheless, it finds itself being extorted by the two potential partners, which are still in the picture. Al-Monitor has learned that Balad is demanding one-third of the realistic seats on the list, while Ra’am insists that the list be headed by the leader of the Islamic Movement, Mansour Abbas. (The Joint List is now headed by Hadash Chair Ayman Odeh.) The reason Ra’am gives is that Tibi remade the political map in the Arab sector, and if Abbas is not made head of the list, many voters, including supporters of the Islamic Movement, would throw their support behind Tibi, rather than the Joint List. That's why they insist that Abbas be made head of the list. If not, they say, they will run independently.

On Feb. 1, Odeh was elected unanimously for another term as Hadash chairman. The second seat will be filled by the dynamic Knesset member Aida Touma-Suleiman. Talking to Al-Monitor, Suleiman said, “Our first option is to preserve the Joint List.” She then explained that this is intended to preserve Arab representation in the Knesset insofar as possible.

On the other hand, a major Hadash activist told Al-Monitor that as far as he and many other loyal party supporters are concerned, forcing Hadash and Balad to run together is like forcing Naftali Bennett (The New Right) and Tamar Zandberg (left-wing Meretz) to run together. While opposition to running together with Balad is largely emotional, there is more to it than just that; there are also practical considerations. The current assessment is that if it was to run alone, Balad would not pass the electoral threshold. If two or three parties are forced to split the six seats that the polls now predict for the Joint List, Balad would benefit enormously.

Hadash and Balad have already run together for the Knesset in a joint list in 1996. At the time, they won five seats. But the differences between them have grown significantly since then. The political map of the Israeli Arab population has changed entirely, as have the community’s voting patterns. The younger generation is now demanding solutions to the housing crisis, an end to the demolition of homes (constructed without permits), better academic opportunities and a reduction of the gaps between the Arab and Jewish populations. Ideological issues such as communism, the Palestinian national cause and a state of all its citizens (as promoted by Balad) are no longer as important to young Arab voters. This is where Tibi’s party enters the picture. It addresses some of those issues that concern the younger generation. In that sense, even if Hadash and Balad ran together, they would still have a hard time posing a challenge to Tibi’s Ta’al party.

Balad held its primary Feb. 2. Mtanes Shihadeh, who holds a doctoral degree in political science, was elected to replace the outgoing party leader Jamal Zahalka, who announced that he would not be seeking re-election. Balad is well-aware of the party’s current state and was quick to announce that Shihadeh is a pragmatist and less extreme than Zahalka. There can be no doubt that this was directed at Hadash as an attempt to make it easier for that party to swallow the bitter pill of unification with Balad. But words are one thing and deeds another.

At the Balad conference, which took place in the party’s stronghold of Nazareth, participants raised Palestinian flags, sang the Palestinian anthem “Biladi, Biladi” and sent greetings to the party’s founder Bishara, who fled the country, and to Basel Ghattas, a former member of Knesset now sitting in prison for smuggling cellphones to security detainees.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. “I don’t agree with the assessments that we can’t run together with Balad,” said Suleiman. “There were some very tense times between us and Balad. Some of our members and some of their members do not get along that well and do not see themselves continuing as part of the same list. But if, as they say, Balad alone will not pass the electoral threshold, it means that tens of thousands of votes from people who would otherwise be represented in the Knesset would get thrown in the garbage.”

As far as the Arab parties are concerned, the Joint List is a kind of necessity given the current political circumstance. It ensures that none of the parties will fall below the electoral threshold. The irony is that former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was behind raising the electoral threshold, is also at risk of disappearing from the political map, with polls showing that his party, Yisrael Beitenu, is barely passing the threshold.

But the challenges facing Odeh in the next election will be even bigger. Not only will he have to survive the threats posed by the Israeli right, he will also have to overcome the changes in Arab society, which demands more of its parties than just Arab representation in the Knesset.

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