Knesset member Amir Peretz, who serves as chairman of Labor-Gesher, has been very busy these past few weekends. Ever since he was elected chairman of the Labor Party July 1, Peretz has made it his habit to spend Saturdays with Israel’s Arab sector. He and his team now make a point to visit Arab, Bedouin and Druze towns and villages so that they can meet with activists and local council heads. In fact, it seems as if Peretz is investing more of his time into winning the support of Arab voters than the head of any other Jewish party. “I am the only person on the center-left who can bring Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews together and find a common socioeconomic denominator among them, while overcome all the rifts and divisions,” he explained in a radio interview Aug. 6.
At a party conference Aug. 5, Peretz sounded especially optimistic about his campaign among Arabic speakers. “We will get at least two seats from the Arab and Bedouin sectors,” he promised. It won’t be easy. Those two seats mean 70,000 votes, and the Labor Party won just 5,542 votes from Arab and Druze localities in the April 21 Knesset election. In other words, it won just 1.3% of the Arab vote. In comparison, in 2015, some 4.9% of Arab voters voted for the Zionist Camp — that election’s iteration of the Labor Party. In that election, the Zionist Camp was the Jewish party, which received the most support from Arab voters, but by April 2019 Labor dropped to seventh place. Meretz, Blue and White, the Likud, Kulanu, Shas and Yisrael Beitenu all received more votes from the Arab sector than the Labor Party that year.
Now, however, Peretz believes that with a campaign focused on the Arab sector, he can convince most Israeli-Arab voters who voted for Meretz and Blue and White to support Labor-Gesher and win two seats from them. If this happens, it would be a significant increase in strength, since current polls now give Labor-Gesher a total of just six seats.
It is worth remembering that in 2015, the Labor Party had an Arab candidate in a realistic slot on its list. That was journalist and radio broadcaster Zouheir Bahloul, who got elected to the Knesset.
When forming the Labor-Gesher party list for the 22nd Knesset, Peretz attempted to promote Arab and Druze candidates, but faced considerable opposition from party members in the first 10 slots. He finally compromised by giving the questionable (unrealistic) ninth slot to Saleh Saad, a Druze candidate, the 14th slot to Khalaily Ehsan, an Arab, and the 19th slot to a Bedouin, Farhan Abu Ghaish.
But Peretz also has another reason to be optimistic. “Tens of thousands of Arab voters, most of them young people, have grown frustrated with the Arab parties and are searching for a political home, which will advance the needs of the Arab community,” a senior Labor Party figure told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They voted for Meretz and the Blue and White party in the last election, but Blue and White continues to disappoint them by failing to put a single Arab candidate in a realistic slot on its list, and it has plenty, up until the fourth group of 10 candidates. Meanwhile, Meretz changed course and joined forces with Ehud Barak, who is anathema to the Arab sector.”
Barak was prime minister when the events of October 2000 occurred, and 12 Arab demonstrators, who were citizens of Israel (and a Palestinian, who was not an Israeli citizen), were shot. Though Barak recently apologized, it is doubtful whether this will be enough to placate Arab voters. In an article here in Al-Monitor, Afif Abu Much claims that Barak’s apology was, in fact, important, but, “I don’t know a single Arab citizen of Israel who is able to forgive what happened in October 2000.” Peretz is relying on the idea that Arab voters will have a hard time voting for the Democratic Camp, which consists of the merger of Meretz with Ehud Barak.
When visiting Arab towns and villages, Peretz makes a point of reminding his listeners of the attitudes of previous prime ministers and the heads of the other parties toward Arabs. In a visit to Shfaram July 27, he said, “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s sense of superiority and his condescension toward residents of the periphery, the development towns, and the Arab sector has surpassed every imaginable boundary. His leadership is cut off from those communities, it opens old wounds and it spreads a sense of discrimination and neglect, which cannot be bridged.”
Peretz identifies with the left on diplomatic and social issues. He supports a two-state solution, which gives him an ostensible advantage over the Blue and White party. He is also identified with supporting weaker sectors of the population. The Arab sector (like the ultra-Orthodox sector) is the poorest in Israel. It needs budgets, and its problems must be raised to the top of the government’s list of priorities. Peretz promises to do exactly that. Furthermore, there is a good chance that he will join a unity government if one is formed. This distinguishes him from the Democratic Camp, whose chances of joining any government are slim. A poll by the Abraham Initiatives July 30 found that Arab voters want to feel like they have an impact. According to that poll, a commitment by parties on the center-left to work on issues that are important to the Arab sector would encourage some 30% of the respondents to vote.
Disappointed with Meretz for joining forces with Ehud Barak and with the Blue and White party for failing to include a single Arab candidate on its list, Labor-Gesher is the only option left for Arab voters among the Jewish parties on the center-left. Peretz plans to take full advantage of this.