Arab-led Joint List splits into 2 factions, shuffling political deck at last minute
Drama over rotation deal splinters party into Hadash-Ta’al and Balad, in move that could help Netanyahu back to power; Labor and Meretz finalize independent runs, rebuffing Lapid
Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel
The Joint List of Arab-led parties announced late Thursday it would run in upcoming elections as two separate factions, in a surprise 11th-hour move that shuffled Israel’s political landscape and could significantly dilute Arab representation in the Knesset after November.
The decision to split into separate Hadash-Ta’al and Balad lists came just an hour before final party lists were due to the Central Elections Committee, and only a day after the three factions had agreed to run again as the Joint List.
As the clock ticked to a midnight deadline for parties to submit their slates, Balad walked back its decision to re-enter the Joint List alliance, citing a dispute over rotating one of its spots on the slate with Ta’al and Hadash.
The divorce means the parties will likely split votes from a fairly small pool of Arab constituents. With the Joint List polling at six seats before the break-up, it will be a struggle for either Hadash-Ta’al or Balad to garner the 3.25% of votes nationwide — equal to four seats — necessary to enter the Knesset.
The rest of the 40 parties to submit candidate lists for the November 1 elections over the past two days completed the process with few surprises, though Jewish Home, now led by outgoing interior minister Ayelet Shaked, was a relatively late entrant. The Religious Zionism alliance, including Otzma Yehudit, had added the far-right, anti-LGBT party Noam to its roster just before submitting on Wednesday.
Labor and Meretz had the potential to cause a stir by uniting parties on the left, but Labor chief Meirav Michaeli steadfastly rebuffed pressure from Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who sought the alliance to protect one of the potential allies from falling below the Knesset threshold.
Balad, a hardline Palestinian nationalist party, is seen as the most likely element of the former Joint List to be shunted from the national political scene, though Hadash-Ta’al may also struggle to garner enough votes.
The disunion is widely expected to have an outsized impact on the political arena, with the camps supporting and opposing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu nearly evenly split ahead of a vote which, like the previous four, is widely seen as a referendum on the former premier.
A weakened Hadash-Ta’al would deprive Lapid of crucial Knesset seats opposed to Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc returning to power. At the same time, Hadash-Ta’al may now be more likely to join a government headed by Lapid, a prospect broached in the past year but rejected due to opposition from Balad. That scenario, however, would also require the consent to such a partnership by Lapid’s more hawkish partners.
The split is the second in as many elections to rip apart the Joint List, after Ra’am broke off in 2021 as it sought to integrate more fully into the political arena. Ra’am had also been forecast to fall below the threshold but defied expectations to win four seats, later making history by joining Lapid and former prime minister Naftali Bennet’s government.
Already predicted to be at a low, Arab voter turnout is expected to further drop with the Joint List break up, although both Hadash-Ta’al and Balad said they will work to raise voter turnout.
Balad’s single sitting lawmaker and leader Sami Abou Shehadeh had pushed to increase the party’s influence within the Joint List, among waning support from the Arab street.
In an agreement signed with Hadash on Saturday, Abou Shehadeh was to sit in the Joint List’s third slot. The sixth slot on the list was to go to a Balad MK, who would later be rotated out for a lawmaker from one of the other slates.
Balad sought a two-way rotation with Hadash only, rather than adding Ta’al into the rotation and decreasing the amount of time each lawmaker held the seat, but the sides were unable to come to terms.
According to the terms of the now defunct agreement, Hadash would have had three of the top five seats, with Balad and Ta’al getting one each. It is unclear how many seats Ta’al will have in the rebalanced party.
Pushing Balad’s hardline message, Abou Shehada said the party would push for a binational Israeli-Palestinian state should it make its longshot solo bid to get back into the Knesset.
“It’s the idea of a state of all its citizens based on justice and human rights,” he said after filing his party’s independent run.
The Joint List was first formed in the run-up to the 2015 elections after the vote threshold was raised to four seats, more than any Arab party had managed to get on its own. The alliance created an awkward marriage between communists, nationalists and Islamists, essentially forced together in order to retain political influence, but disputes and fissures had hounded the party throughout its short life.
Submitting its own list, Ra’am emphasized its desire to continue and perhaps expand its “political partnership” after the November election. The party is expected to try to join the next coalition, regardless of its leader.
“It’s our intention to continue in the way of political partnership in the next Knesset,” said party leader Mansour Abbas while submitting his Islamist faction’s candidate list to the Central Elections Committee.
“No one will incite us away” from the path, he added.
The Joint List has attacked Ra’am for mainstreaming into Israeli politics before there is credible movement on Palestinian national aspirations and the achievement of full parity for Arabs in Israel. Right-wing parties allied with Lapid’s government, meanwhile, have come under attack for working with Islamists.
Hebrew-language outlets reported that Abbas also raised the paradigm-shifting possibility of taking ministerial roles should Ra’am join the next government.
With Israel seemingly deadlocked politically and entering its fifth election in under four years, potential prime ministers have pinned hopes on pushing smaller parties to unite, keeping likely supporters from falling below the hump.
Lapid had expended significant efforts in attempting to push Labor and Meretz together, but the bid came to nothing as the parties filed separate slates Thursday.
Lapid had tried to incentivize Labor and Meretz to unite their lists by offering them reserved spots on his own Yesh Atid list to sweeten the deal. Michaeli, however, refused the offers, seeking to maintain her party’s independence.
“Yesh Atid presented a list that will continue to work for stability,” said Yesh Atid Minister Orna Barbivai, upon presenting the party’s slate and with the knowledge that the left-wing merger had not gone ahead.
Netanyahu, who is gunning to regain the premiership after being knocked out of power in June 2021, is currently polling more strongly than Lapid, but neither has been seen to have a clear-cut path to power.
The Likud leader is facing pressure to deliver a definitive, stable right-wing government after four failed attempts since 2019, lest whispers in his party and larger right-religious bloc become shouts for him to resign his leadership of Likud.
Presenting the party’s list to the Central Elections Committee, Likud faction chief MK Yariv Levin dismissed questions about whether his party has alternative plans for leadership should Netanyahu fail to form a government this fall.
“He is our candidate for prime minister,” Levin said of Netanyahu.
A wildcard affecting Netanyahu’s camp is whether Ayelet Shaked and her return to the Jewish Home party she left in 2018 will pull critical votes away from Likud’s control.
Jewish Home under Shaked polled at pulling 2.4% of the vote according to Channel 14 earlier this week, and will have a battle to cross the 3.25% threshold.
Shaked could burn right-wing votes if she falls short, but she is also seen as a wildcard due to her begrudging support last year for Lapid and Bennett’s government, which allied with the Arab Ra’am. She has said she will support Netanyahu this time.
“Of course there’s a worry that [right-wing voters] might make a mistake again and vote for parties that are right-wing in their hearts but then go with the left, and we have enough experience with this with Ayelet Shaked and others,” said Levin, stopping short of calling for Shaked to quit the race.
“I don’t deal with other parties and don’t [tell] anyone about what to do,” he added.
Levin holds the second spot on Likud’s electoral list, after securing the top spot behind Netanyahu in the right-wing party’s primaries.
Three hours before the final deadline and only a day after the party approved leader Yossi Brodny’s plan to run under Shaked’s leadership, Jewish Home announced and submitted its candidate roster to the Central Elections Committee. The party came together in the days following Shaked’s explosive split from former running mate Yoaz Hendel.
Behind Shaked, who technically still leads the independent Yamina party which has folded itself into Jewish Home for the November run, sits Brodny in the second spot. Religious Kibbutz leader and settlement advocate Amitai Porat sits in the third spot, followed by Shurat Hadin founder and lawyer Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, Yamina MK Yomtob Kalfon, and incoming lawmaker Orna Shtarkman, who is swapping out Yamina renegade Idit Silman after she resigned from the Knesset earlier this week to run with Likud.
Among smaller parties also grabbing attention, now-independent MK Abir Kara submitted his Economic Freedom party to campaign on cost of living issues, after splitting off from Yamina earlier Thursday to run his new party.