One day ahead of the final vote on a new law raising Israel’s electoral threshold, members of Hadash, the sole ideologically bi-national party in the Israeli parliament, were in a combative mood.
“We plan to fight this bill until it passes and also after it passes,” said veteran MK Dov Khenin, Hadash’s only Jewish Knesset member. “This law means that [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Liberman is in power. This is something we cannot agree to. We have no intention of giving up.”
Ever since the government-backed Governance Bill passed its preliminary vote last May, members of the Knesset’s three Arab parties have been conducting quiet deliberations over possible unification. If the law is adopted, as expected, each of the three parties may find themselves with too few votes to pass an electoral threshold that will be raised from 2 percent to 3.25%.
A coalition of left-wing Israeli movements, the largest of which being the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), Hadash — an acronym for the Democratic Alliance for Peace and Equality — won 3% of the national vote last elections, translated into four deputies in the current Israeli parliament. It is the only Israeli party that prides itself on consistently maintaining a Jewish-Arab partnership since its inception in 1977.
While Arab-nationalist party Balad and the Islamic-oriented Ra’am-Ta’al are pushing for unification under one Arab parliamentary bloc, Hadash, which views itself as transcending national fault lines, is worried about the future.
“We are not an Arab party. We are an Arab-Jewish party; that’s our essence, our DNA,” said Hadash MK Hanna Swaid. “Therefore, the magic solution of uniting the Arab parties does not correspond with our party’s identity.”
Swaid explained that while Arab parties have been able to cooperate in the past on large issues pertaining to the Arab population in Israel, such as fighting the Prawer Plan to settle the Bedouins of the Negev, they differ considerably on many policy issues ranging from gay rights to environmental legislation.
“The Governance Law disables the ideological, intellectual and political diversity within Arab society,” he told The Times of Israel. “It basically says: ‘You’re all the same. You’re all Arabs.’ This, in my view, undermines the essence of democracy, which is pluralism.”
The mayoral battle over the city of Nazareth, to be decided in court-imposed reelections Tuesday, only proves the inability of Arab parties to cooperate, Swaid said. The struggle between Christian Hadash incumbent Ramez Jaraisy and his rival, Ali Salam, deteriorated to physical violence on election day last October, when Jaraisy decried voter fraud on the part of Salam’s supporters.
“It’s not rosy,” Swaid said. “If people really wanted cooperation they would deal with the Nazareth elections more pleasantly, which isn’t the case.”
Initiated by the Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu parties, the Governance Bill has gone through a series of revisions and debates in the Knesset over the past few months. The raising of the electoral threshold is seen by its supporters as critical to increasing the stability of Israel’s fractious parliamentary politics, which has seen 33 governments in 65 years of Israeli independence.
We are not an Arab party. We are an Arab-Jewish party; that’s out essence, our DNA’
But Swaid said that the Arab parties, which have never been part of the ruling coalition, never posed a threat to government stability; nor have they been able to exert significant political pressure.
“This leads us to the conclusion that the problem is with the initiator of the bill, namely Liberman and his party, who want to get rid of the Arab parties,” he said.
Not that Arab parties have never united in the past. Ra’am-Ta’al is an amalgam of four smaller movements, led by the Islamic party since 1996. In the last elections held on January 2013, the party received 3.65% of the national vote (with 138,450 voters), becoming the most popular Arab party in the Knesset.
MK Masud Ganaim of Ra’am-Ta’al told The Times of Israel that after the law passes, his party will immediately call on all Arab parties to unite in one bloc ahead of the next elections.
“Ra’am-Ta’al intends to call for unity because it itself is an example of unity,” Ganaim told The Times of Israel. “We prove that parties of all ideological colors can unite and run together in elections to bring more Arab voters. This will be our answer to the Governance Bill.”
Some voices in Arab society are calling on their parties to play along with the new law, allowing Israel’s Jewish majority to exclude most Arab MKs from the parliament come the next elections. In such a scenario, Israel would have a hard time presenting itself to the world as a pluralistic democracy. But Ganaim said that such an idea would prove counterproductive.
“[By not uniting] we would be rewarding Liberman and the others. They want a Knesset with no Arabs, so why should I give them that? No way. I’m part of Arab society in Israel and I want to be represented.”
Even with no Arabs in the Knesset, Ganaim added, Israel could continue arguing that it’s democratic, since it allows Arabs to partake in municipal elections and grants them the right to demonstrate.
“If something very drastic happened we would consider it, but this is not the case,” he said.
But the menace to Arab pluralism may turn into a blessing in disguise, Ganaim opined. Israel’s Arab population has long called on the three Arab parties to unite, and a large Arab party could increase Arab voting rates, which at 56% in the last elections were significantly lower than the national total of 68%.
[By not uniting] we would be rewarding Liberman and the others. They want a Knesset with no Arabs, so why should I give them that?
“Most of these people abstained from voting not for ideological reasons, but because they don’t really feel that Arab MKs are effective. They see disunity between the parties,” he said.
What worked for Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, which united ahead of the last elections, garnering together 31 Knesset seats, could also work for the Arab parties, Ganaim added. He believes that a united list “would increase Arab voting rates by ten percent for sure.” Arab parties could easily unite around an agenda focused on “the daily difficulties of the Arab citizen,” he said.
But Jamal Zahalke, head of Balad, was more skeptical as to whether unification was a realistic proposition. He said that while Arab MKs “vote together on 95% of the issues,” certain “nuances” on matters like women’s rights and social issues outside the Knesset could impede political unity within it.
“I’m not sure we’ll succeed. It’s not easy,” Zahalke told The Times of Israel. “We’ve been calling for unity since 1999, but certain factions oppose it. I hope that this time, due to the higher threshold, we will reach unity and secure more representation in the Knesset.”
Zahalke said that, with the new threshold of 3.25%, none of the three Arab parties can rest on their laurels. Nevertheless, he noted, “it’s possible that this law will boomerang and Liberman will be remembered as the unifier of Arabs.”
But if it were up to Swaid, the Hadash MK, political unity would only occur as a last resort. In such a scenario, Hadash would try to convince the other Arab parties to accept progressive Jews based on the Hadash model of inclusiveness.
He admitted, however, that while the other Arab parties have voiced no principled objection to the inclusion of Jews, the prospect of liberal Jews joining a political bloc incorporating Islamist Arabs would be “surreal” and “absurd.”
“We don’t rule out the idea. If there’s no choice we will go down that path,” Swaid said.
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.