Will Jewish left-wing voters support the Joint List in March?

Meretz's alliance with Labor-Gesher has put ardent leftists in an ideological bind, leading some to conclude that the overwhelmingly Arab Joint List might attract some of their votes.

al-monitor Members of the Joint List arrive to meet Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at his official residence, Jerusalem, Sept. 22, 2019. Photo by Menachen Kahana/Pool via REUTERS.

Feb 18, 2020

In the September 2019 elections, the Zionist left split into two camps. One consisted of veteran, ideological voters who never miss an opportunity to protest against the occupation. They vote for left-wing Meretz no matter what, and on a good day, bring it to the margins of the electoral threshold; they alone are barely sufficient to earn the party the four seats needed to get into the Knesset. The other camp consisted of pragmatic center-left voters concerned about the erosion of Israeli democracy and the rule of law. Their main motivation for backing Meretz was fear that the party might not cross the 3.25% vote threshold, thereby weakening the “anyone but Netanyahu” bloc by two to three Knesset seats. In the upcoming March 2 elections, the Zionist left could find itself losing ground in both these camps.

The recent alliance between Labor-Gesher and Meretz to run on one ticket makes the vote of left-wing ideologues as painful as root canal without anesthesia. They have a particularly hard time accepting Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abekasis, who began her political career with the hawkish right-wing Yisrael Beitenu of Avigdor Liberman and supported the Nationality Law. Last year she united her party with Labor, but has declared that this year’s partnership with Meretz is merely “technical.” The leftist ideologues are fuming that Issawi Freij, the only Arab lawmaker on Meretz's list of Knesset candidates, was dropped to 11th place on the joint ticket, and Mossi Raz, a dedicated peace activist, is now 14th, meaning neither will get into the Knesset if predictions hold and the united ticket wins only nine seats. The two die-hard leftists were pushed down on the slate of candidates to make room for Labor-Gesher’s Maj. Gen. (res.) Yair Golan, a political newbie who “parachuted” in to 7th place on the list.

The suffering of veteran Meretz supporters does not end there. Following the Feb. 12 publication of a list of companies doing business with the settlements, they found their leader, Amir Peretz, singing along with the chorus on the political right. Their new chief condemned the decision by the United Nations to compile the list and even promised to “work on all fronts to repeal the decision and keep Israel’s economy strong and protect Israeli jobs.” Peretz's position contradicts Meretz's long-standing policy of waging a determined fight against the settlement enterprise.

With Meretz no longer under the threat of electoral oblivion — as noted, polls predict nine seats for its joint ticket — both the ideological and pragmatic camps are free to vote their conscience. The pragmatists can vote for the more “centrist” Blue and White and improve the prospects of its leader, Benny Gantz, being able to form Israel’s next government. Veteran, ideological Meretz voters, deprived of their favorite, unadulterated party, could go one of two ways: They could still vote for the “light” left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket, with its distinctly Jewish flavor (with Freij positioned 11th), or opt for the hard-core leftist Joint List, with its distinctly Arab flavor (and its only Jewish candidate, Ofer Kassif, positioned 7th).

A possible vote for the Joint List alliance, which includes Islamic movement activists and Palestinian nationalists, has become a topic of conversation in recent weeks among Meretz loyalists in central Israel. In “Vote for Joint List = Vote against Trump,” a Feb. 7 op-ed in Haaretz, the historian and pundit Dmitry Shumsky calls on “those who object to the erasure of Palestinian nationalism and don’t want their own state to fall into the abyss of losing its moral legitimacy” to vote for the Joint List. Shumsky, a senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes the Joint List is the only Israeli party that openly and decisively stands up for the principles of civil and national equality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean and opposes racism, occupation and apartheid.

Indeed, Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, a Joint List leader, predicted to Al-Monitor that more Jews will vote for his party this time around. The principles he cited — a two-state vision, opposition to occupation and racism, civil equality and partnership, liberal democracy and distributive justice — appear to have been taken directly from Meretz's platform. On the other hand, however, the Joint List’s platform contains some troubling clauses for the Jewish voter. For example, “recognition of the rights of displaced persons” — meaning Arabs who fled their homes or were expelled from them during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence — to return to the villages and lands that Israel expropriated. Quite a few left-wing Jewish voters live on such Palestinian lands. A number of kibbutzim are also located on them.

The Likud's campaign, which aspires to tar Blue and White as a partner of “the Arabs,” and Gantz’s disavowal of Joint List Chair Ayman Odeh have shown a glaring spotlight on Israeli Jews' troubled relations with the country’s Arab minority. Gantz’s repeated pledge to only form a government based on a “Jewish majority” is an inherent contradiction of the worldview espoused by the average leftist Jew. The contradiction became a resounding slap in the face when it earned a warm embrace from Liberman, the man who takes credit for the idea of depriving tens of thousands of Arabs of their Israeli citizenship and turning them into citizens of a future state of Palestine through land swaps, a provision incorporated into the Trump plan.

The center-right’s campaign delegitimizing the party that represents most of the state’s 21% Arab minority and that community’s underrepresentation in center-left politics make a vote for the Joint List an endorsement of equality and Arab-Jewish partnership and repudiation of racism and incitement against one's neighbors. The Likud’s attempt to push through legislation allowing the installation of cameras at polling stations ahead of the September elections, designed to keep away Arab voters, served as a boomerang and increased Arab turnout. The main winner of the failed attempt was the Arab Joint List. The attempt to now isolate the party as if it were a cruise ship full of coronavirus patients could attract Jewish voters in the elections for the 23rd Knesset. To stand firm against the flood of putrid racism washing over the State of Israel, however, an Arab list in Jewish sauce is not enough. More than ever, Israeli society needs a mixed Jewish-Arab leftist party.

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