Arab MK, head of controversial Balad party, confirms he won’t seek reelection

Jamal Zahalka says he’ll retire from Knesset but remain Balad leader, after reports indicated he’d have to step down due to party rules

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

A veteran Arab lawmaker confirmed Saturday he will not seek reelection in April’s Knesset vote.

The announcement by MK Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Joint (Arab) List faction and current head of the controversial Balad party, came after reports indicated he would be forced to step down due to internal Balad regulations.

“After 16 years as a Knesset member, I am proud to say we brought change,” he said in a statement.

Despite retiring from the Knesset, Zahalka said he would remain chairman of Balad and continue “to work for justice, liberty, equality, the eradication of hate and racism, as well as the end of the occupation.”

Zahalka was first elected to the Knesset in 2003 and later became the head of Balad after its leader Azmi Bishara fled Israel amid allegations he supplied intelligence to Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group.

Ahead of the 2015 elections, Balad became a part of the Joint List alliance after the raising of the electoral threshold threatened to shut out a number of small Arab parties from the Knesset.

Arab Joint list candidates (from L-R) MK Jamal Zahalka, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, and MK Ahmad Tibi raise their hands at the party’s headquarters in the city of Nazareth, March 17, 2015, as they react to exit polls. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Balad, an acronym for National Democratic Assembly, has 3 of the 13 seats the Joint List currently holds.

The party’s Knesset members have at times been vilified as a fifth column in Israeli politics, and other lawmakers have attempted to have them banned from being able to run for Knesset.

On Wednesday, various media outlets reported that Zahalka and fellow Balad MK Hanin Zoabi may be prevented from running again due to internal party regulations limiting the number of terms in office a member can serve — unless the party’s central committee votes to approve it.

Joint (Arab) List MK Hanin Zoabi attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, November 2, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Zoabi has raised fury with comments in support of the Gaza terror group Hamas, her labeling of IDF soldiers as “murderers,” and other similar rhetoric.

Despite celebratory reactions by right-wing lawmakers to the report, Zoabi insisted in a statement that she had not made a decision about her political future.

“There was no debate in the Balad party about my running for the next Knesset,” she wrote. “The matter is not on the agenda, it is too early to discuss the matter. Apparently, someone doesn’t want to see me in the Knesset, and started to spread rumors as part of their deceitful campaign.”

In January police recommended fraud and other graft charges be brought against three current lawmakers from the Balad party — Zoabi, Zahalka, and Juma Azbarga.

Indictments were recommended regarding donations the party received during the 2013 elections and party spending during the 2015 elections. The State Prosecution has yet to rule on the matter.

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