The Arab nationalist Balad party officially kicked off its electoral campaign Saturday night, accusing its former allies in the now-defunct Joint List of sidelining ideology for a seat at the political table ahead of the upcoming Knesset elections.
Just over a week after its messy split with the Hadash and Ta’al parties, Balad used the event to draw battle lines between the factions, arguing that voters are being presented with a false choice: Either steadfastly refuse to engage with Zionist parties and thereby lose out economically, or compromise their principles by collaborating with mainstream Israeli parties in exchange for financial benefits.
“You all represent a referendum attesting to the fact that that the choice isn’t between national belonging and rights, and that politics were not created to make people choose between their national identity and their daily concerns, but rather to successfully address both at once,” declared Da’a Housh Tatour, third on Balad’s electoral slate and the party’s highest-ranking woman.
The event at Balad’s headquarters in the northern town of Baqa al-Gharbiya began with a rousing rendition of “Mawtini” (“My Homeland”), a pan-Arab patriotic anthem that many Palestinians strongly identify with their national cause. Children waving Palestinian flags filed up and down the aisles throughout the ceremony.
Balad, which holds the most hardline anti-Zionist positions of Israel’s predominantly Arab parties, broke with Hadash and Ta’al, according to some accounts, because it would not go along with their openness to the idea of recommending that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid form the coalition after the November 1 vote, in order to prevent Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu from returning to power.
Some polls from before the split indicated that a recommendation by the Joint List, then projected to win six seats, could have given Lapid the majority needed to muster a government, provided he was able to retain the support of his partners in the outgoing coalition.
During Saturday’s event, Balad chairman Sami Abou Shahadeh asserted his party fell victim to a “conspiracy,” but insisted “the issue is behind us now.”
“Balad is moving forward and will come out of this battle stronger than it went in,” he said.
Abou Shahadeh described his erstwhile partners as having adopted “the new approach,” which “doesn’t see the aggression against Gaza, and would rather not talk about the assault on Al-Aqsa.”
Despite the biting criticism, Abou Shahadeh promised a “respectful” and “civilized” campaign.
Hadash and Ta’al deny the notion of a “conspiracy” involving Lapid, whom Balad accuses of having engineered last-minute changes to previous agreements among the Joint List parties in order to force the defection of the faction with the firmest objections to recommending him. The two parties also maintain that Balad was offered generous terms to remain in the fold.
Hadash leader Ayman Odeh has said Lapid “would have to break a sweat” for Hdash-Ta’al to recommend him. He has conditioned support for the incumbent premier on promises to appeal a quasi-constitutional law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and a separate piece of legislation cracking down on illegal building that critics say unfairly targets Arab and Druze communities.
With an opinion poll from earlier this month showing that 65% of Arab Israeli favor Arab parties joining a coalition, Hadash-Ta’al has staked its campaign on being “influential” in national politics while maintaining “dignity.”
During the Balad rally, Housh Tatour took aim at that slogan.
“Influence has come to mean changing your people, rather than changing Israel… When dignity is an empty slogan it becomes a justification and a cover for giving up one’s dignity,” she said.
Housh Tatour placed Lapid and Netanyahu in the same basket, claiming the former represents “soft” fascism, and the latter “hard” fascism. She added that “Netanyahu’s bulldozer is Lapid’s bulldozer, Netanyahu’s police is Lapid’s police.”
She also referred to other Arab parties responding to many of their constituents’ demand for greater cooperation with Zionist parties, especially to thwart Netanyahu’s comeback bid. The Islamist Ra’am, which used to be part of the Joint List, last year became the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli coalition.
“They want to convince us that Israel has gotten better in order to justify the game of coalitions and of recommendations. But we know… that Israel in the past years has only gotten worse,” she said.
According to a recent survey by Arab public radio station Makan, Balad is polling well below the 3.25 percent minimum vote threshold that parties must clear to enter the Knesset. Party members, however, spoke confidently of Balad’s ability to clear the hurdle.
“They talk to us about polls. You all are the most trustworthy poll,” gushed Housh Tatour.
Abou Shahadeh made a similar argument, saying statisticians were left perplexed by recent polling trends but that the rally provided the “clearest explanation” of what was happening.
“And there is still one month and a week to go,” he said.
The Makan poll said that, if all other variables remain constant, Balad would need 52 percent Arab turnout to get across the electoral threshold. (Recent polls have suggested Arab turnout would be around 40 percent.) Abou Shahadeh therefore stressed in his speech the importance of Balad’s supporters mobilizing on social media by giving likes, leaving comments and sharing posts.
While speakers at the event conveyed their belief that Balad is well-positioned to enter the Knesset, several of them portrayed the campaign for parliamentary representation as secondary to their broader fight for recognition of their rights and identity.
“We will not present ourselves to our people on the basis of the Knesset being the goal. Rather, that is merely one way of raising the voice of the oppressed,” said Mohasin Qees, number five on the Balad list.