Balad faction elects new leader as future of Joint List hangs in balance

MK Sami Abou Shahadeh wins primary vote in Arab nationalist faction, with alliance of Arab parties reportedly considering expelling conservative Ra’am faction

Joint List MK Sami Abou Shahadeh, on September 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Joint List MK Sami Abou Shahadeh, on September 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Joint List Knesset member Sami Abou Shahadeh won the leadership of the Arab nationalist Balad faction Saturday night, beating out incumbent Mtanes Shihadeh, who has led the party in the last three elections.

Abou Shahadeh won 230-159 in a vote by the faction’s central committee. According to internal party rules, Shihadeh is now ineligible to be on the party’s slate in the March election.

Abou Shahadeh entered the Knesset in October 2019 as part of the Joint List alliance of four majority-Arab parties. A resident of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, he previously served on the city’s municipal council as a Balad representative, even joining mayor Ron Huldai’s ruling coalition.

His election as leader of the Balad faction comes as the Joint List faces possible dissolution ahead of March’s election. The four Arab parties who comprise the Joint List have been sharply divided in recent weeks and are planning to hold their first four-way meeting of faction heads since the announcement of elections this week.

Abou Shehadeh took heavy criticism from some in Jaffa’s Arab community while serving on Tel Aviv city council for his stance in favor of gay rights.

“I unequivocally and clearly support human rights. Everybody is entitled to do what they want with their own body. It doesn’t matter if they’re gay, lesbian, and so on,” Abou Shehadeh said at the time.

While in the Knesset, however, Abou Shehadeh has largely toed the line on the LGBT issue. Over the past summer, as the community’s internal debate spilled out into the open, Abou Shehadeh made himself scarce during a vote on a controversial law banning so-called conversion therapy. Three of his Joint List colleagues, including Joint List chair Ayman Odeh (Hadash), voted in favor of the law.

“It’s not good timing for this issue,” Abou Shehadeh told Haaretz’s Nir Gontarz after the vote.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

MK Mansour Abbas, chairman of the Ra’am faction, was reported last week to have decided to pull his faction from the Joint List and run as a separate slate in March.

Abbas has recently drawn criticism from his fellow Joint List lawmakers for cooperating with Likud and signaling that he would even join the party in a coalition. While Netanyahu has intensified efforts to court the Arab vote, his Likud party said last week that the premier had no intention of forming a government with Arab-majority parties after the March elections.

The three remaining parties — Hadash and Ta’al, along with Balad — are reportedly close to signing an agreement that would cut out Abbas and his conservative Islamist faction.

Balad, or the National Democratic Alliance, was established in 1995 and represents various Palestinian nationalist groups within Arab society in Israel.

As a matter of principle, Balad calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, takes a separatist and oppositional role against Zionism and state institutions, and demands Israel become “a state of all its citizens,” devoid of any uniquely Jewish characteristics, while providing cultural autonomy for its Arab citizens.

In this photo taken on April 22, 2007, Arab Israeli then-Knesset member Azmi Bishara is seen in front of the Arab league headquarters after a meeting with Secretary General Amr Mussa in Cairo. (AFP PHOTO/Khaled DESOUKI)

Balad has seen some of its most senior members indicted for crimes and convicted of supporting terrorism. The chairman and founder of the party, Azmi Bishara, a Christian-born intellectual from Nazareth, escaped Israel after an investigation was launched into his alleged assistance to one of Israel’s most avowed enemies, the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah, during the Second Lebanon War.

One of the party’s MKs, Said Nafa, was convicted of maintaining contact with a foreign intelligence operative and spent time in prison. Yet another member, Basel Ghattas, was convicted of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail, an offense for which he too was convicted and imprisoned.

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