Facing extinction, Israel’s Arab parties move toward unity… and growth
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Unified list could yield 14-16 seats

Facing extinction, Israel’s Arab parties move toward unity… and growth

A raised Knesset ‘threshold’ means all three Arab parties could disappear in the next elections. But running together, they could win unprecedented support. Their leaders are doing the math

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An Israeli Arab casts his vote in the Knesset elections in the northern town of Umm al-Fahm, February 10, 2009. (Photo credit: Herzl Shapira / FLASH90)
An Israeli Arab casts his vote in the Knesset elections in the northern town of Umm al-Fahm, February 10, 2009. (Photo credit: Herzl Shapira / FLASH90)

When the Knesset convened on September 23, 1993, for a no-confidence vote relating to the recently signed Oslo Accords, the new peace process teetered on the edge of a knife.

The Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn on September 13. Ten days later, after two long, rancorous days of debate in the Knesset plenum, the no-confidence vote was brought to the floor. If the government survived the vote, the Knesset would have given its imprimatur to the government’s dramatic new path. If not, the government, along with its radical new peace policy, would not survive.

The vote was close. Out of 120 MKs, only the slimmest majority, 61, voted against the motion (and thus in favor of Oslo). Fifty supported toppling the government, eight abstained and one was absent.

A vote of 61-50 could be considered a landslide in many democracies over a divisive issue. But a closer look at the party identities of the votes reveals a startling fact, both about the Oslo process and Israeli politics generally. If the government had not won the five votes of the opposition Arab parties, the pro-Oslo camp would have received just 56 votes — and without the surprise decision of the six-seat ultra-Orthodox Shas party to abstain, the anti-Oslo vote would have garnered the same 56.

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: courtesy GPO)
Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

That is, without the fringes of Israeli politics, the handful of supportive Arab votes and abstaining ultra-Orthodox ones, the Oslo Accords might have died at their very birth. With an evenly split Israeli mainstream, it was the country’s religious and ethnic minorities who effectively decided the most contentious political question of that generation.

Now, a generation later, the political weight of Israel’s minorities has grown dramatically. In 1993, the two Arab-majority parties — the Arab Democratic Party and Hadash — had just two and three seats respectively. By 2014, the three Arab-majority parties’ combined seats have swollen from five to 11. (Haredi parties similarly grew from 10 seats to 18.)

In recent weeks, the memory of such moments of decisive influence has loomed large in the consciousness of Arab MKs. They, too, now find themselves at a fateful political crossroads.

Last March, the Knesset passed the Governance Law that raised the electoral threshold — the minimum number of votes a party must win to enter parliament — from two percent to 3.25%.

For Israel’s Arabs, the new law was a political earthquake.

The three Arab-majority parties of Balad, Hadash and Ra’am-Ta’al won 2.56%, 2.99% and 3.65% respectively in the last elections. Without a dramatic change in Arab political organization, the parties that represent a majority of Arab votes are not likely to survive the next election.

Arab MKs protested the law with all their might, charging its supporters with “racism” and “heavy-handedness” and orchestrating a dramatic “silent protest” at the Knesset podium that was joined by some Jewish left-wing MKs and even a few ultra-Orthodox ones. But for all their protestations and hand-wringing over a bill that in the words of one MK threatened them with “political extinction,” they failed to stop or even meaningfully slow its passage.

MK Ahmad Tibi seen during a Knesset plenum debate on a reform that would increase the electoral threshold, July 31, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
MK Ahmad Tibi seen during a Knesset plenum debate on a reform that would increase the electoral threshold, July 31, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

The law, it must be noted, did not explicitly target Arab parties, and, indeed, was an idea born on the left among those who hoped raising the threshold would help stabilize governments and improve governance. MK Isaac Herzog, now head of Labor and the opposition, vociferously opposed the new law in this Knesset — but had proposed his own threshold increase to a steeper 5% in the last Knesset.

But the origins of the measure were not relevant to the Arab MKs’ experience of its passage. It was a moment that brought into sharp relief the powerlessness of the Arab parties and of Arab politics generally in the State of Israel.

This combination — growing electoral weight, the trauma of helplessness and the very real possibility they will not enter the next Knesset — has set in motion a flurry of efforts to unite the fractured Arab parties, and generated a new hunger for real influence among Arab parliamentarians. Over the past month, MKs and activists from the three Arab-majority parties have begun to discuss a united list.

‘Why not unite?’

“If we increase the number of [Arab] Knesset seats, we can help shape the government, or bring it down,” declared MK Ibrahim Sarsur, chairman of the largest Arab party, Ra’am-Ta’al, in a conversation with The Times of Israel last week.

Such declarations are not the usual rhetoric of Arab MKs, who often rail against Israeli policy or Israeli society, but rarely suggest that they plan to play the game within the democratic system, where parliamentary give-and-take requires not only the capacity to denounce one’s opponents, but occasionally also to support them.

“We will support a government,” Sarsur now says explicitly – but only in its pursuit of “our demands: complete equality between populations in Israel, especially between Arabs and Jews, and peace between Jews and Palestinians.”

MK Ibrahim Sarsur at his Knesset office, April 4, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
MK Ibrahim Sarsur at his Knesset office, April 4, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Talk of a unified Arab list isn’t new. As Sarsur himself notes, Ra’am-Ta’al, which represents the Islamic Movement and draws religiously inclined voters, has called for it in principle since the list was formed in 2006.

But now, catalyzed by electoral desperation and a grim determination not to find themselves ever again so helpless while their political fate is decided by others, the call for unity has leaped across the fractures of Arab politics, and the support is palpable.

“Every little child in Arab society knows this issue and is talking about it,” MK Hanna Swaid (Hadash) told The Times of Israel last week.

Arab-Israeli MKs Jamal Zahalka (L) and Basel Ghattas (R) seen at an Internal Affairs and Enviornment committee meeting in the Knesset, during a discussion regarding a bill regulating the Bedouin settlements. November 13, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Arab-Israeli MKs Jamal Zahalka (L) and Basel Ghattas (R) seen at an Internal Affairs and Enviornment committee meeting in the Knesset, during a discussion regarding a bill regulating the Bedouin settlements. November 13, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)

The Islam-inclined Ra’am-Ta’al calls for it openly. MK Jamal Zahalka, chairman of the secular-nationalist Balad, tells anyone who will listen that the new unity talks were his idea. And even the MKs of Hadash, an Arab-Jewish communist party that rejects the characterization that it is an “Arab” party, now support the idea of a larger pan-Arab framework.

“Hadash isn’t an Arab party. Most of its voters come from Arab society, but it’s an Arab-Jewish party. So the dilemma is more acute for us,” explained Swaid.

“We’re not opposed in principle,” he clarified, “but we raise the most questions about the purpose and efficacy of this union as an answer to our challenges, and whether it will bring what we expect – raising the representation of Arab society in the Knesset and bringing more Arabs to the ballot box.”

Hanna Swaid, foreground, of the Jewish-Arab socialist party Hadash (Courtesy of Hanna Swaid)
MK Hanna Swaid, foreground, of the Jewish-Arab Hadash party. (Courtesy of Hanna Swaid)

Still, “when you’re faced with political extinction, you have to choose the lesser evil.”

The challenges to unification are formidable. Swaid is a Galilee Christian with a doctorate in engineering from the prestigious Technion Institute. His politics – indeed, his life story – are a far cry from the impoverished Muslim Bedouin of the Negev who are a key base of support for Ra’am-Ta’al.

Last year, in a Knesset debate over the bill, Balad’s Zahalka made the point forcefully.

“There’s a huge gap between me as a secular, modern, enlightened nationalist and the communists [in Hadash] or the Islamists [in Ra’am-Ta’al]. It’s paternalistic to say, ‘Run as a single party. You’re all Arabs,’” he charged.

Now that rhetoric is changing.

When it comes to their parliamentary agenda, “99% of our issues are the same issues,” Sarsur said this week. “The ideological issues are very minor and only come up very rarely. So if we deal with 99% of the issues, why not unite?”

“The justification of those pushing for unity is that Arab society all suffers from the same discrimination or racism,” said Swaid, “and there isn’t room to distinguish between each group in the Arab population. They face the same challenges.”

There is another point in favor of a unified list – that it doesn’t have to stay unified after the election. Israel’s election laws are extremely flexible when it comes to parties joining or breaking apart. If a Knesset list is composed of separate registered parties (Jewish Home, Meretz and Ra’am-Ta’al are all examples of such multi-party lists), it can split at will after the election. That is, the Arab parties would need to unite into a single ballot for the election if they want to be certain they will pass the electoral threshold, but could then split into their component factions immediately after entering the Knesset.

Supporters of the electoral threshold increase have shrugged off Arab complaints from the start with precisely this argument. “The Arabs would have to run together, but not stay together,” said one MK.

Yet this only sharpens the criticism for some Arab MKs. “If it’s only a technical union, and we can split after, what was the point of passing this bill in the first place?” Swaid wonders.

A stark choice

There are few hard facts that can be discerned about the Arab parties’ realignment. No documents have been signed, no agreements reached. But the talk among Arab MKs reveals much. The simple fact that the discourse has shifted from anger to the potential advantages of unity suggests the principle has been accepted, and only details (especially the thorny issue of who will head the new list) remain to be hammered out.

In March, shortly before the Governance Law passed the Knesset, MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al) was already talking about the advantages of union.

“A joint list will increase the voter turnout [in the Arab community], and therefore the number of Arab MKs in the next Knesset,” he said.

“We believe unity can bring a real jump in voter turnout in the Arab population,” Sarsur now agrees. “From a deep analysis of the Arab sector, we have concluded that more than 20% of Arab eligible voters who don’t vote do so not because of ideology [i.e., rejection of Israeli sovereignty], but because of apathy. So we see unity as a catalyst that can bring them out to the ballot box. And that can increase the number of [Arab] MKs from 11 to at least 15 or 16.”

“We think 14 is a realistic minimum,” Balad’s Zahalka said last week.

An election billboard in Umm al-Fahm, urging people to vote for the Balad party, shows pictures of right-wing Israeli politicians and asks 'Who do you leave the situation to?' (photo credit: Assaf Uni)
An election billboard in Umm al-Fahm, urging people to vote for the Balad party, shows pictures of right-wing Israeli politicians and asks ‘Who do you leave the situation to?’ (photo credit: Assaf Uni)

With its party-list system, Israel’s Knesset is arguably one of the most representative among the world’s democratic parliaments, for better or worse. Changes in the national mood or shifts in the demographic or religious makeup of Israeli society are quickly and dramatically reflected in the country’s parliament. But parliamentary politics can also have a dramatic effect in reverse. What happens in the Knesset can spark changes in the identities and commitments of the voting public.

In past elections, Arab-majority parties have largely run against each other, competing for the usually tepid support of a limited ethnic base. In the case of the two largest parties, Balad and Ra’am-Ta’al, their agendas and electorates often overlap. There are many Palestinian nationalists in Ra’am-Ta’al, and many devout Muslims in Balad. While their rhetoric is often focused on right-wing Jewish politicians, their campaigns nevertheless highlight their differences from other Arab parties, rather than their shared interests.

To Jewish sensibilities, the union of Arab parties may seem natural and inconsequential, but in the Arab political context it would mark a new paradigm of electioneering, one with the potential to engender a new political consciousness. The new list will call on Arab Israelis to vote as undifferentiated “Arabs,” sidelining socialist, Islamic or other commitments in favor of a more sweeping political identity.

And if, as all three parties predict, this new, simplified electoral Arabism resonates with voters as other ideological distinctions could not, the country may soon witness the birth of a more engaged and assertive Arab political consciousness, united in its demand for a larger share of national resources and in its new willingness to make use of its growing political weight.

Rarely has a political community faced such a stark choice between possible electoral oblivion and potentially dramatic growth. And Arab MKs are reacting to the choice as might be expected.

“The chances of unity are higher than 80%,” asserts Sarsur.

“Everyone agrees to this. I don’t see many obstacles,” says Swaid.

But such dreams still lie in the future. Arab politicians must first show they can construct a unified list, and Arab voters that they are willing to support it.

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