As the Arab Joint List falls apart, the biggest winner is Netanyahu

The three remaining parties are polling low, and breakaway Ra’am is not likely to enter the Knesset. The PM, who nurtured Arab political chaos, is likely watching with glee

The three Arab parties remaining in the Joint List alliance present their electoral slates on February 4, 2021 (Credit: Joint List)
The three Arab parties remaining in the Joint List alliance present their electoral slates on February 4, 2021 (Credit: Joint List)

On Thursday night, the long-anticipated divorce between Mansour Abbas (Ra’am) and the Joint List’s other three parties became official.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘betrayal’” to describe Mansour Abbas’s break with the faction, Joint List chair Ayman Odeh said in an interview with Channel 13. He didn’t propose an alternative term, either.

The dissolution of the Joint List, which last March won the largest electoral showing in Arab Israeli political history — an unprecedented 15 Knesset seats — heralds the beginning of a hard political season for the Arab parties.

Polls indicate that it is unlikely — but not impossible — for Ra’am to cross the 3.25% electoral threshold. Before the separation was formalized last week, the Joint List was already polling at a low 10 seats. If Ra’am’s mandates vanish — that could send the rest of the Joint List tumbling together to 8 or even 7 seats in the Knesset.

“Right now, it’s unclear. Ra’am could cross the threshold, but it all depends on voter turnout,” Arab Israeli pollster Yousef Makladeh told The Times of Israel.

Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

It’s hard not to see the break-up of the alliance as, if not collective political suicide, then certainly a collective shot in the foot. Every time the Arab parties have split, voter turnout has dropped dramatically among Arab Israelis.

Makladeh said that, according to his surveys, the intention to vote among Arab Israelis currently hovers around 55 percent, a drop of ten percentage points from the March 2020 elections.

Arab Israeli parliamentarians know this, although they have seemed powerless to do anything about it. They know who will ultimately benefit the most from the List’s dissolution, as well.

“Who’s celebrating right now? Benjamin Netanyahu, who successfully broke apart the Joint List, without paying a price. It’s very sad that we’ve gotten to this moment, where we announce the dissolution of the Joint List,” Ta’al MK Osama Saadi said after talks to resuscitate the fading alliance failed on Tuesday.

Just as intriguing is the apparent success — at least in Makladeh’s opinion polls — of Netanyahu’s electoral campaign among Arab Israelis, coinciding with the Arab electorate’s disappointment with the divided, ineffectual Joint List. While Arab Israeli politicians — including those in Ra’am — have dismissed Netanyahu’s ostensible success in wooing potential Arab voters as a mere show, Makladeh’s latest poll found between 2 and 3 seats going to Likud, he said.

“Now, you might not like the result of the survey, but we can’t cancel it just because we don’t like it,” Makladeh chuckled.

Gradual disunity

The collapse of Arab Israeli political unity has been long in the making. The four parties, which united in 2015 to avoid slipping under an electoral threshold raised to keep them out, have always covered up sharp ideological disagreements under a thin veil of unity.

For a long time, it worked: the Joint List’s uniting cause has always been the representation of their community on the national stage.

Hadash’s left-wing Communists have sharp differences with Ra’am’s Islamists, Balad’s Palestinian nationalists, and Ta’al leader Ahmad Tibi. But they share many common legislative priorities: fixing Arab Israelis’ state-imposed housing crisis, ending the reign of violent organized crime in Arab cities and towns, and bringing more funding to local municipalities to improve the shattered infrastructure in their communities.

The first rumblings of collapse were heard as early as last summer when the bloc publicly disagreed over gay rights. Three Hadash MKs, including Ayman Odeh and his colleague MK Aida Touma-Suleiman, voted in favor of a law banning conversion therapy. Abbas’s conservative Islamists in Ra’am sharply opposed the maneuver.

Overtures reciprocated, then rebuffed

But the fundamental issue was not LGBT rights, although Ra’am’s Islamists now seek to wield the controversial question as a wedge issue against their opponents. The fiercest debate — — as with so much in Israeli politics today — revolved around Netanyahu. In early November, Mansour Abbas began making overtures to the prime minister, who appeared to respond in kind.

Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh (2nd-L), Ahmad Tibi (2nd-R), Mtanes Shehadeh (L) and Mansour Abbas meet at the Knesset on September 22, 2019, ahead of their alliance’s meeting with President Reuven Rivlin on who they’ll recommend should form the next government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Abbas told Arab Israelis that he was presenting a new, pragmatic approach to Arab politics. He argued that Arabs needed to become active political players in order to resolve the truly pressing issues facing Arab Israelis — and if this meant sitting with Netanyahu, or voting to provide him immunity from prosecution, so be it.

“There is a social agenda which Arab society wants, and Ra’am represents it,” Abbas told Channel 12 after the formal breakup on Thursday night.

Abbas has nonetheless left his affair with Netanyahu with no policy achievements: no wide-ranging plan to combat organized crime, no solution to Arab Israel’s housing crisis and no massive new influx of funding for Arab cities.

As the campaign has gone on, Netanyahu has instead courted Arab mayors. He visited Arab Israeli cities such as Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm, kicking up a storm of controversy among Arab Israelis and making headlines in the Arabic press.

And on Friday he promised to make school principal Nail Zoabi, the Muslim he a day earlier unprecedentedly placed on Likud’s Knesset slate, a minister in his next government.

Throughout it all, Netanyahu has rarely mentioned the name of his erstwhile partner. In perhaps the ultimate humiliation, Netanyahu called on Abbas to give it up already and join the Likud just last week.

But it wouldn’t be right to rule out Mansour Abbas just yet — because on the slight chance that Abbas does manage to make it into the Knesset, he will immediately become one of the most important players in Israeli politics. He would be a rarity in a polarized country: a genuine free agent, willing to partner with either right or left.

Abbas’s gambit is to become Israel’s new kingmaker, a role traditionally played by Haredi parties such as Shas. Whether the next coalition will take him in is another question.

“Abbas hopes that he will be the tie-breaker in the next coalition. Do you know what can be done with four seats? He will have an enormous amount of leverage,” Israel Democracy Institute researcher Arik Rudnitsky, who studies Arab Israeli politics, told The Times of Israel back in January.

Either way, Netanyahu is the winner from the rift in the Arab parties. He can congratulate himself on having successfully divided and conquered the Arab bloc, without any concessions on his part. The prime minister has controlled the conversation from beginning to end — proving again that he is the wiliest figure in Israeli politics.

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