Inside story

A brief history of Balad, the renegade Joint List faction that passed on Gantz

The secular Arab nationalist party is opposed to exclusively Jewish statehood, has long courted controversy with members such as Azmi Bishara, Hanin Zoabi and Basel Ghattas

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Mtanes Shihadeh, a member of Balad within the Joint List. (Courtesy of Balad)
Mtanes Shihadeh, a member of Balad within the Joint List. (Courtesy of Balad)

The three-member Balad faction within the Joint List skipped a meeting Sunday with President Reuven Rivlin, during which representatives of the alliance of the four largest Arab-majority parties made a highly unusual move to recommend Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as prime minister.

The decision marked the first time that an Arab-majority party formally backed a Zionist candidate for prime minister since 1992, when Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party recommended the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Minutes after the conclusion of the meeting, Balad issued a statement explaining it opposed recommending Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, because of his “Zionist ideology, his right-wing positions that are not much different from those of Likud, his bloody and aggressive military history” and other reasons.

On Monday morning, a letter from Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi to Rivlin was revealed saying that only the Hadash, Ta’al and Ra’am factions should be seen as recommending Gantz. He wrote that the Balad Knesset members in the Joint List had requested that he make the clarification.

Without the support of Balad’s three MKs, Gantz lost his narrow lead over Benjamin Netanyahu in terms of the number of lawmakers backing him to become prime minister. Gantz’s bloc of recommenders now totaled 54 MKs to Netanyahu’s 55.

Rivlin is ultimately entitled to decide whom to grant the opportunity to form a government, but the president usually gives it to the lawmaker with the highest number of recommendations from among the 120 Knesset members.

Members of the Joint List meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Sunday, September 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Now in the spotlight, Balad has been part of Israel’s parliament for over 20 years.

What is Balad?

Balad is a nationalist Arab-majority party that was established in the 1990s. Its name is a Hebrew acronym for National Democratic Assembly, and it mainly operates in Arab communities throughout Israel.

Balad adamantly rejects the notion that Israel is an exclusively Jewish state and strongly supports turning it into a country with equal national and civil rights for Arabs and Jews. According to its website, the party considers “Palestinian Arabs in Israel to be a part of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation.”

In February, Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka, who previously served as an MK representing the faction, said at a party event: “Balad is part of the Palestinian national movement. We are not the Israeli left.”

Joint (Arab) List MK Jamal Zahalka in the Knesset plenum on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The party first ran for Knesset in 1996 in a coalition with the socialist faction Hadash, and one of its founders was elected to parliament.

Since 1996, Balad has been part of every Knesset. In last week’s national vote, three of its members were elected to the parliament as a part of the Joint List.

The party also maintains several institutions, including a General Congress that meets infrequently to decide on Balad’s policies and elect its leadership.

What are Balad’s main policies?

Balad’s policy program notes that the party supports recognizing Arab Israelis as a national minority with collective national and civil rights.

It specifically calls on Israel to guarantee that Arab Israelis can manage their own educational and cultural affairs; it also urges the Jewish state to recognize their “special connection with the Palestinian people, as they are part and parcel of them.”

It adds that Balad wants the establishment of an Arab university in Israel.

Mtanes Shihadeh, a Joint List MK representing Balad, said in an interview with The Times of Israel in April: “We want to develop our own curricula and focus them on our people, its culture, its language and its economic development. We also want to appoint our own management in schools.”

Asked whether he thought his vision for self-rule would undermine Jewish self-determination, he said: “Jews have these rights, but we do too and we need the government to recognize that.”

While Arab Israelis, who make up some 20 percent of Israel’s population, run their own municipalities and townships, the Education Ministry oversees public education in their communities.

Balad’s policy platform also calls on Israeli authorities to develop “a comprehensive and strategic plan to fight crime in Arab society” in partnership with Arab Israeli political leaders and relevant experts.

It asks authorities to carry out “comprehensive” investigations into violent incidents, stop giving weapons to Israel Police volunteers, halt production and renewal of gun licenses and other moves.

Arab Israeli women seen near the northern city of Nazareth on December 9, 2017 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In recent years, Arab Israelis have participated in a significantly higher number of shooting incidents than Jews. According to a 2018 state comptroller report, Arab Israelis carried out 17.5 times more gunfire-related violations than Jews between 2014 and 2016.

The party’s program also states Balad seeks “the end of the occupation over all Palestinian areas” and the removal of all settlements as well as the West Bank security barrier.

It adds that Balad aims for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital alongside Israel and a “just resolution” to the refugee issue on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

That resolution states that refugees desiring to return to their homes in Israel should be able to do so, while those who hope to settle elsewhere should receive compensation for lost property.

The platform also notes that Balad, which is a secular party, backs a system of governance that is based on the separation of religion and state, but enables freedom of worship.

Current members of Knesset

Mtanes Shihadeh

Shihadeh is the highest-ranking Balad member of the Joint List, holding the second slot on the Knesset slate. He hails from Nazareth but currently resides in Isfiya, a Druze-majority village near Haifa, with his wife and three children. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the impact of globalization on Jewish-Israeli voting patterns.

After completing his studies, he worked for some 15 years at Mada al-Carmel, a research institute in Haifa that focuses on Arab Israeli society and politics. The institute was co-founded by Azmi Bishara, a former Balad MK who is wanted by Israeli authorities for allegedly spying for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. Shihadeh has been an active member of Balad for the past two decades, and in 2016 became the party’s secretary-general.

Heba Yazbak

Yazbak is the second-highest-ranking Balad member in the Joint List, occupying its eighth slot. She also comes from Nazareth and is married with one child. According to an April profile in the Haaretz newspaper, she recently submitted her doctoral dissertation to the Anthropology and Sociology Department at Tel Aviv University.

Heba Yazbak (Noam Moscowitz / IDI)

Yazbak, who joined Balad while at Haifa University as an undergraduate, is an advocate for women’s rights. Hebrew media recently reported on a Facebook post she made in 2015 in praise of Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who in 1979 took part in the brutal murder of members of an Israeli family in Nahariya. The post included a picture of Kuntar with the inscription, “The martyr fighter Samir Kuntar.”

Sami Abu Shehada

Abu Shehada is the third-highest-ranking Balad member of the Joint List, holding the 13th slot. He hails from Lod but currently resides in Jaffa with his wife and two children. He earned a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University in modern Middle East history and served on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality between 2010 and 2013.

He joined Balad in the 1990s and has held a number of senior positions within the party. He has said that he has dedicated much of his time to fighting home demolitions in Jaffa.

Past controversies

Azmi Bishara

Bishara, a Balad founder who served as one of its MKS for several years, was accused by Israel in 2007 of spying for Hezbollah. He has denied the allegations, but he has not returned to Jewish state since early 2007 to stand trial.

Former Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara (Flash90)

Hanin Zoabi

Zoabi, who served as Balad MK between 2009 and 2019, participated in a flotilla in 2010 that aimed to break Israel’s maritime blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Ten pro-Palestinian activists were killed in violence aboard one of the boats in the flotilla after they attacked Israeli troops who had boarded it.

Joint Arab List members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R) and Basel Ghattas at the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zoabi also told Israeli TV in 2014 that both the Israel Defense Forces and the Islamic State group “are armies of murderers.”

Basel Ghattas

Ghattas, who served as a Balad MK between 2013 and 2017, pleaded guilty in April 2017 to smuggling cellphones and notes to Palestinian security prisoners. He spent approximately two years in prison and was released in May 2019.

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