Israel’s left to pay price for ignoring Arab voters

The merger between Labor-Gesher and Meretz created a new list that doesn't include even a single Arab candidate for the March Knesset elections.

al-monitor A Labor Party election banner, depicting party leader Amir Peretz and writing in Arabic reading "Industrial areas in all Arab and Druze cities," is seen next to another election banner depicting Esawi Frej, an Arab politician in the left-wing Meretz party, with Arabic writing that reads "This time we will participate in government," in Tira, northern Israel, Sept. 5, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Jan 17, 2020

“Forever pure” — that was the banner raised by Beitar Jerusalem soccer club fans in 2013, following the announcement of then-owner Arcadi Gaydamak of his intent to bring two Muslim players into the group. Seven years have passed since and it seems that the banner has turned into the unacknowledged election slogan of Israel’s non-Arab parties, who submitted their lists Jan. 14-15 for the 23rd Knesset.

Yet even the Blue and White party — which hopes to replace the Likud ruling — did not include a single Muslim Arab or Christian candidate on their Knesset list. Neither did they include an Arab candidate in the last two election campaigns of April and September 2019.

Even the newly established Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, the united left list, pushed former Knesset member Esawi Frej to the 11th place on its Knesset list, which is an unrealistic spot according to recent polls. This is how the political left throws away all its calls for Jewish-Arab partnership, despite numerous past statements of its members, such as Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz and former Merez Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg.

Simultaneously, we witnessed the great efforts invested by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to integrate Otzma Yehudit senior Itamar Ben Gvir — who was indicted in 2007 for supporting a terror organization and inciting racism — on the Yamina list. The Yamina political alliance that is being formed includes the New Right, HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union parties, leaving Ben Gvir and his party outside. New Right leader Naftali Bennett did not give in to the pressure of Netanyahu and suggested to the Likud that if Ben Gvir was so important to them, they should place him on their list.

“As far as I am concerned, Meretz is a dead letter," Frej told Al-Monitor this week. "The house I entered no longer exists. After the elections, we’ll have to think up a new path for building an Arab-Jewish entity. In light of the fact that there is no Arab representation, today I do not have the tools to convince Arab voters to go out and vote for the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list.”

No doubt Horowitz has come to understand that the Meretz label no longer does the job like it once did. In fact, the party has fought for its very survival in all the election campaigns of recent years. Therefore Horowitz has worked incessantly to make new connections and invigorate the party. This was how the Democratic Camp came into existence toward the elections of September 2019: former Deputy Chief of Staff and Knesset member Yair Golan, and Knesset member Stav Shaffir, were persuaded to join the party. (Shaffir left the Labor Party at the time, and this week she announced she was taking a timeout from politics.) Then Labor-Gesher refused to join up with Meretz. But now Labor Chairman Amir Peretz understands that he has no other choice. Running in two lists to the left of Blue and White would endanger both lists since both lists are dangerously close to the electoral threshold, according to the polls.

When all is said and done, we must ask ourselves: How have we reached the current situation, in which none of the center-left parties have integrated a single candidate of the Arab society in a realistic place on their lists?

“This is solid proof that the center-left parties are beginning to waive the Arab-Jewish partnership, and this is a serious problem," former Knesset member Zouheir Bahloul of the Zionist Camp told Al-Monitor. "Without this partnership, we are, basically, giving in to the wave of racism that is spreading through the state. The sad thing is that the above parties are also joining this wave and inflicting segregation on those Arab citizens who are interested in cooperation and integration.”

According to Bahloul, “What happened in Blue and White is a total failure. They are a center party in name only, with right-wing behavior. Is it logical that they did not see it fit to integrate a candidate from the Arab society in the first 35 places on the list?”

Who benefited from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz merger? Is it true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? It has already been proven in Israeli politics that mergers and partnerships do not necessarily bring in more votes, with the possible exceptions of the Arab Joint List in the 2015 elections and in September 2019. In each of these two elections, the Joint List received 13 mandates versus the 10 mandates received by the factions making up the List in the elections of April 2019; in those elections, the two lists ran separately.

In the current Knesset, the Democratic Camp (Meretz) and Labor-Gesher have 11 mandates (five and six mandates, respectively). But according to a poll of News 12 that was disseminated Jan. 12, a union is equal to only nine mandates — and all this is even before Blue and White started its campaign to funnel mandates from the united left list. No one will be surprised if the Blue and White mandates continue to rise once the voters are convinced that the Labor-Gesher-Meretz bloc will cross the electoral threshold without a problem. At that point, voters may prefer to vote Blue and White so it will receive more votes than the Likud. We can also assume that Netanyahu will try the same tactics on the right side of the political map.

How will these developments affect the Arab Joint List party? It is doubtful they will have any effect. Arab society feels that the Joint List has reached its glass ceiling, because it has not made itself accessible to the Arab street. The Joint List has long become a closed clique: It prevents many in Arab society who do want to run for the Knesset from becoming members of the List. On the other hand, we must remember that such surprises have happened in the past. To a great degree, it depends on Netanyahu — whether he will choose to go on the offensive again, against the Arab public. Or perhaps he’s learned his lesson from past experience, and won’t reconstruct the “camera campaign” — installing cameras in polling stations in Arab villages — that boomeranged on him.

This is, in fact, the big failure of the center-left parties, which have not yet understood that many Arab voters are looking for a political home that is not the Joint List. They want to integrate into Israeli society and call for integration, but it seems that the Jewish side does not cooperate with them, at least with regard to everything connected to national politics.

Former Minister Raleb Majadale of the Labor Party, who succeeded in bringing more than 40,000 estimated votes to the party in the 2006 elections, told Al-Monitor, “The day after the [coming] elections, we must start to re-create the Arab-Jewish partnership, combined with representatives of both sides and headed by an Arab. Meretz and the Labor Party have already gone bankrupt and proved that an Arab-Jewish partnership is not an important goal them. What they are good at is talking, not action. We must come up with a new platform: More than 40% of Arab citizens are not interested in voting for the existing Arab parties.”

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