Arab Political Representation in the Upcoming National Elect...

Arab Political Representation in the Upcoming National Elections

February 6, 2019

Political discourse and activity in Arab society has increased ahead of Israel’s national elections scheduled for April 9, 2019. In the outgoing 20th Knesset, Arab society was represented by the Joint List (often referred to as the Joint Arab List), a merger of three ideologically diverse Arab parties and one Jewish-Arab party (Balad, Ra’am, Ta’al and Hadash, respectively).

While the historic alliance inspired higher voter participation rates and achieved an unprecedented level of Arab Knesset representation in the 2015 general elections, as the third-largest party with 13 seats, it has been an uneasy union to sustain. The upcoming elections have already prompted changes to its composition and even raised questions about the ongoing viability of the alliance, despite the need for to meet a 3.25 percent threshold of votes to attain any Knesset representation.

In parallel, elections discourse within Arab society at large is broader. While closely following the political exchanges among the parties, public discourse is also discussing whether the Joint List has been effective, what kind of representation and Jewish-Arab collaboration would be right for Arab society, and whether or not voter participation is an appropriate response to the Nation-State Law and anti-Arab discourse in previous elections.

STATUS OF JOINT LIST

Several Joint List MKs have declared they will not run for reelection, including Balad MKs Hanin Zoabi and Jamal Zahalka and Hadash MK Dov Khenin, creating vacancies in their parties and reopening questions about the distribution of seats on the Joint List among the parties in the alliance. Veteran MK Dr. Ahmed Tibi, who heads the Ta’al faction within the Joint List, has split from the Joint List, declaring he wishes to run as the head of an independent party after “failing to reach an agreement with the other parties as to the number of representatives Ta’al would receive.” This move, and the subsequent possibility that two or more Arab lists would be running in the elections, has raised concerns that splitting the Arab vote would risk any Arab party’s ability to meet the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and reduce Arab representation overall. In addition, a new Arab party, New Horizon, has registered to participate in the elections but its degree of support is not yet clear.

The two major parties remaining in the Joint List, Hadash and Balad, held primaries on Feb 1 and 2, respectively, to determine the composition and order of their candidates. These lists will serve as the basis for forming the order of candidates for the Joint List, to be decided by Feb. 28 (the deadline for all party lists running in the coming elections). The top positions selected in Hadash and Balad primaries are as follows:

Hadash 

  1. MK Ayman Odeh, Chair – unanimously retained his position.
  2. MK Aida Touma – served in the outgoing Knesset as Chair of the Knesset's Women and Gender Equality Committee, maintained the second place in the list.
  3. Dr. Ofer Cassif, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, replaced Dov Khenin. The third Hadash seat is traditionally reserved for a Jewish member.
  4. MK Dr. Yousef Jabareen – served in the outgoing Knesset and reelected for the fourth place.

Balad

  1. Mtanes Shehadeh, Chair -- was Balad's Secretary General, known for his relatively moderate stance.
  2. Heba Yazbak, an activist known for her feminist work on the status of Arab women in Israel, elected to the second place on the list.
  3. Mazen Ghanayem, former mayor of Sakhnin and former Head of the Council of Arab Mayors, received the third spot on the list.

PRE-ELECTIONS DISCOURSE in ARAB SOCIETY

Concerns about Anti-Arab Discourse

Some civil society leaders and organizations are taking steps to prevent and address anti-Arab political rhetoric. Currently, two initiatives ("Act" Hebrew, "Zazim" Hebrew) have announced actions to monitor and hold politicians and media to account to counter incitement against and exclusion of Arab society perspectives in the campaign season.

In the 2015 general elections, Arab citizens’ political involvement was used to generate fear and division with the aim of leveraging Jewish votes, and there are indications that certain candidates on the right have already begun to employ this strategy during this election cycle. In recent months, MK Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beitenu) called to ban Joint List participation in the upcoming elections (Hebrew) and to define the Balad party as "illegal" as "it is a fifth column and outright betrayal of the country" (Hebrew); and an election campaign video posted by Minister of Culture Miri Regev (Likud) includes numerous clips of her insulting Arab MKs (Hebrew), stating this is "another reason for you to vote for me in the primaries."

Experts from Arab society contend that these and other campaign tactics contribute to Arab beliefs that they are not regarded as equal citizens with the same rights as the Jewish majority.

To Vote or Not to Vote

The Knesset’s passage of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People (known as the “Nation-State Law”) in July 2018 has led Arab politicians to urge increased voter turnout, even invoking Prime Minister Netanyahu's infamous warning on Election Day 2015 that "the Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves" to state that "we will flock to the polls in droves and increase our power."

In contrast, some leaders and writers in Arab society are advocating an Arab boycott of the elections since they contend that "the whole existence of Arab parties is to serve as a fig leaf that covers the nakedness of Israel’s so-called democracy."

Role of Arab Representatives in the Knesset

Some of the public discourse in Arab society addresses the level of satisfaction with the Joint List as its political representative. According to a recent poll, 46 percent of Arab respondents are dissatisfied with the Joint List while 42 percent are satisfied with it. Criticism leveled against the List tends to focus on its perceived inability to significantly affect government policies, and on its perceived focus on external issues such as relations with the Palestinian Authority rather than on issues of daily concern to Arab citizens. There is also criticism of the Joint List for including only party representatives, with demands by additional civic forces in Arab society to be represented (Hebrew).

Discussion has emerged about the ability of Arab MKs to more effectively represent and serve their constituents by joining a government coalition or supporting it from the opposition, and thus gaining political and legislative influence. In a survey of Arab citizens by the Abraham Initiatives, 64 percent of respondents believed that Arab parties should join the governing coalition, and 68 percent of respondents supported joining a center-left government. Eighty percent of respondents favored Arab party support to the government from the opposition in exchange for increased government funding for their communities.

Jewish-Arab Political Partnership

In parallel to discourse inside Arab society, there is discussion in both Jewish and Arab circles about the possibility of forming Jewish-Arab political partnerships. A number of writers and activists have published pieces promoting unification of Jewish and Arab parties, claiming that a new Jewish-Arab party could offer a "home" for liberal Jewish voters uncomfortable with elements in the Joint List (Hebrew), and that only via such collaboration can the right-wing bloc be politically challenged (also here by Ron Gerlitz in Hebrew).

A number of MKs and political figures have recently voiced their support of different modes of such political collaboration including MK Ofer Shelach (Yesh Atid), who said in a radio interview that he believes "it is kosher and legitimate" for a government coalition to be supported by Arab parties sitting in the opposition as Rabin's government was (Hebrew); Avi Daboush (running in Meretz primaries), who wrote "there is no such a thing as an Israeli left without a Jewish-Arab partnership" (Hebrew);  MK Yousef Jabareen (Hadash-Joint List) who posted on Facebook (Hebrew) that "changing the right wing government and its policies" will only happen "via our own unity with the democratic Jewish forces"; and Tomer Pines, head of Labor's "Young Guard" and a candidate in the Labor primaries, who has been posting on social media repeatedly of his support for Jewish-Arab partnership (Hebrew). In an interview for the Mekomit news website, Pines stated that "the most Zionist act is partnership with the Arabs in Israel" (Hebrew).

Standing Together, an organization that promotes Jewish-Arab solidarity and political partnership, released a video entitled "Without Us You Can't," in which four Arab women who are active in shared society efforts state in both Hebrew and Arabic that only a Jewish-Arab partnership "can lead to change and even new political leadership.”

Some of these writers and activists are also focusing on what they perceive are ongoing attempts by the right to delegitimize political partnerships and alliances between Jews and Arabs because of the political challenge they could pose (Hebrew).

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