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Battling ex-allies and old foes, new Balad head seeks to rebalance party

Sami Abou Shehadeh, who took over anti-Zionist party in January, blames dissident MK Mansour Abbas for disillusioned voters, says he aims to advance disabled rights in next Knesset

Balad chief Sami Abou Shehadeh addresses voters in Arraba on March 13, 2021. (Joint List)
Balad chief Sami Abou Shehadeh addresses voters in Arraba on March 13, 2021. (Joint List)

At a campaign event in the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh on Thursday, new Balad chief Sami Abou Shehadeh sought to convince the crowd that his party was doing more than sloganeering.

“Planning and building, it’s the most important issue…this is why we’ve worked extensively on urban planning and the master plan for Ein Rafah, Ein Naqouba, and Abu Ghosh,” Abou Shehadeh reassured his constituents.

But Abou Shehadeh, whose party belongs to the Joint List coalition of Arab parties, made it clear that, as he saw it, even such technical policy matters had a stark ideological dimension: the wealthy Jewish bedroom communities surrounding the poorer Arab towns west of Jerusalem were expressions of Zionist proscriptions against Arabs.

“Didn’t they steal the land? Didn’t they give it to the Jews to develop it, at our expense?” Abou Shehadeh said, later adding: “Land issues are the main struggle between us and the Zionist movement.”

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

As the new head of Balad, a party whose down-the-line Palestinian nationalism makes it perhaps the most contentious faction in Israeli politics, the cheerful, controversial Abou Shehadeh has approached politics by melding the intricacies of government administration with the wider anti-Zionist struggle the party has traditionally pursued.

Since taking the helm of the party in January, he has promised to re-orient the priorities of Balad somewhat, while remaining faithful to the party’s founding ethos.

“Balad has two pillars: national identity and full citizenship. What’s new that Sami Abou Shehadeh brings? It could be that in the past, we’ve emphasized national identity and not spent enough time on the search for full citizenship, which is important,” Abou Shehadeh said in an interview with The Times of Israel last month, miming two scales with his hands.

Unlike the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party, which defines itself as a non-Zionist party, Balad opposes the existence of a Jewish state. Instead, Balad aims to create a “state of all its citizens” within the Green Line, Abou Shehadeh said.

“Israel is a colonial state, an imperial state, and led to the destruction of our people. Israel was established on the ruins of our people,” Abou Shehadeh said.

Much like his predecessors, Abou Shehadeh does not see entering the next government as a possibility, due to his opposition to many Israeli policies.

“Our entry into the coalition would mean us bearing responsibility for the siege of Gaza, and the Judaization of Jerusalem and racist policies against Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the occupation, and home demolitions in the Negev,” Abou Shehadeh said, ticking off a series of issues controversial among his base.

The party has come under repeated criticism for statements made by some of its parliamentarians and candidates. Current MK Heba Yazbek once shared a photo honoring terrorist Samir Quntar as a “martyr”; Quntar brutally murdered an Israeli family in a bloody 1979 terror attack.

Other Balad politicians have also faced intense criticism, including former MK Basel Ghattas, who smuggled phones to terror convicts in Israeli prisons. Abou Shehadeh himself has come under fire for awarding certificates to freed Palestinian prisoners, including one alleged to have planned violent terror attacks against Israelis.

“It’s true that there have been unacceptable statements here and there, and we’ve made amends where we ought to,” Abou Shehadeh said, before pivoting: “But you have many Israeli politicians, like Liberman, who openly support transferring Arabs, and no one asks them to apologize. It’s, what, normal?”

During his conversation with The Times of Israel, Abou Shehadeh emphasized that he did not see Jewish Israelis as enemies.

“We recognize the right of Jews in Palestine today to self-determination. We want them to be partners in our homeland. We want to change the structure of the state to a state built on human rights that offers full equality to Arabs and Jews,” Abou Shehadeh said.

Joint List MK Sami Abou Shehadeh (Screen capture: YouTube)

The Balad party chief was eager to move past the aspects of his party which are controversial to Jewish Israelis and discuss other issues.

Though Balad refuses to participate in the coalition, party members play a productive role in the Knesset, helping to shape legislation far removed from the hard-line stances that are more likely to garner the attention of the mainstream Hebrew press. Most Israeli journalists never ask him about policy, Abou Shehadeh said.

Last year Abou Shehadeh, who is visually impaired himself, directed a Knesset subcommittee on the rights of disabled students. In the next Knesset, Balad will also seek to advance a number of laws raising pensions for disabled and the elderly.

“My central priority is advancing disabled rights — in the Arab community, we see 400 percent of the number of disabled children born in the Jewish community,” Abou Shehadeh said.

“Right now, we’ve lost to Netanyahu 4-0”

Arab Israelis have witnessed one of the strangest election cycles in recent memory. High turnout and enthusiasm among voters catapulted the Joint List to 15 Knesset seats in March 2020. But the Joint List saw relatively few legislative accomplishments, despite its large number of seats.

In early February, the conservative Islamist Ra’am party, led by Mansour Abbas, chose to go solo after earning the ire of colleagues by expressing an openness to work with right-wing governments led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas dubbed his political strategy “a new path” in Arab Israeli politics, one that would enable Arab Israelis to be genuinely influential in the government’s decision-making. If Ra’am passes the electoral threshold, it could wield enormous leverage in the shaping of the next government.

His supporters call him pragmatic and say he is committed to fighting for tangible legislative accomplishments for ordinary people. Ra’am advertisements deem the party a “realistic, conservative and influential voice.”

His detractors — such as Abou Shehadeh — call Abbas unprincipled and shady, and say that his detente with Netanyahu has yet to bring results.

“Mansour would always come and tell us ‘we must think outside the box.’ But Mansour doesn’t even have a box in the first place — you need principles, too, and red lines,” Abou Shehadeh said.

However, the fracture riven by Ra’am’s defection was nothing compared to the electoral earthquake that has hit Arab cities and towns as Netanyahu embarked on a vigorous campaign to win Arab votes, calling himself by the Arabic-language nickname ״Abu Yair.״

Netanyahu has conducted numerous meetings with Arab mayors, courted the support of Negev Bedouin, and promised to take action against Arab Israelis’ highest priority: the spread of violence and organized crime in Arab cities and towns.

An electoral billboard by the predominantly Arab Israeli electoral alliance the Joint List depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption reading in Arabic: ‘The father of the nation-state law, says “a new approach”, whom is he fooling?’ is seen above anti-crime protesters during a demonstration in Umm al-Fahm on March 5, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

With violence and organized crime raging and with a seemingly powerless and divided political leadership, disillusionment with Arab Israeli political action — what one Arab Israeli pollster called “political depression” — has spread widely through Arab communities.

Polls have shown the Joint List sinking to just seven or eight seats, and prominent Arab Israeli pollster Yousef Makladeh has projected tens of thousands of Arab votes, enough for 1.6 seats, going to Netanyahu’s Likud.

“I understand the anger and frustration and discontent with the Joint List inside our community,” Abou Shehadeh told The Times of Israel. “In truth, we should have been sitting ready to begin our battle from 15 seats and looking to gain more.”

For Abou Shehadeh, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Mansour Abbas, who, he argues, fractured the Joint List without gaining anything to show for it.

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

“Abbas’s actions led to the deterioration of the most important political project among Palestinian citizens [of Israel] in recent years,” Abou Shehadeh said.

Polls indicate that it is possible — but still uncertain — that Ra’am will cross the 3.25% electoral threshold. Before the separation was formalized in February, the Joint List was already polling at a low 10 seats. If Ra’am’s Knesset presence vanishes — that could send the rest of the Joint List tumbling together to 8 or even 7 seats in the Knesset.

Either way, Abou Shehadeh argued, Netanyahu is emerging as the big winner from the divide among Arab Israelis.

“Right now, we’ve lost to Netanyahu 4-0. We’ve lost at least 4 seats, and we haven’t gained anything. Even Mansour’s path hasn’t achieved anything. I wish it had! But now even Netanyahu is looking at Arab voters and telling them, ‘Leave him, come over to me!’” he said.

No way, Lapid

When the Joint List recommended Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for prime minister in March 2020, it was a nearly unprecedented historic moment: the first time in nearly three decades that an Arab party had recommended a mainstream Zionist politician for the premiership.

But with several of his own faction refusing to countenance the idea of joining with the Arab Joint List, Gantz gave his potential partners the cold shoulder. Instead, Gantz wound up joining forces with Netanyahu, beginning the short, unhappy life of one of Israel’s most divided governments.

Members of the Joint List party seen at the Joint List party headquarters, in the Arab city of Shfar’am, during the Knesset elections, on March 2, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Abou Shehadeh’s Balad faction did not vote to recommend Gantz. But they abstained from voting against his party and did not publicly criticize the decision.

“It wasn’t just a mistake. It was fundamentally wrong. We accepted the majority opinion — but we see that even that much, within Balad, was wrong. There was a feeling that people wanted to do away with Netanyahu at any price,” Abou Shehadeh said.

In a sign of shifting attitudes and recognition of coalition calculus, the party most likely to take the second-largest number of votes — Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party — has declared for months that they are willing to make a government “with the support of the Joint List.” Recently, Yesh Atid officials have gone further, saying that they see the Joint List as “partners in establishing a government.”

Asked about Lapid’s January statements, Abou Shehadeh said that Balad would not consider recommending him.

“This is total nonsense that has no relation to reality…we won’t rely on Lapid or on anyone else,” Abou Shehadeh said.

Dealing carefully

Born in Lod in 1975, Abou Shehadeh is the first resident of a mixed Arab-Jewish city to lead his party. An academic by training, with a doctorate in history, the Balad party chief served on the Tel Aviv city council before entering the Knesset in 2019.

“In our family, we always knew him as the one who lived and breathed politics — the one who lives the Palestinian cause,” said his cousin, Abed Abou Shehadeh, who currently serves as a member of the Tel Aviv city council as well.

While serving as a councilmember — within the city’s ruling coalition — Abou Shehadeh took a controversial stance in favor of gay rights.

“I am unequivocally in favor of human rights, such that every person can do whatever they want with their body,” Abou Shehadeh said during a panel at the time, according to Ynet. “It doesn’t matter if they’re gay, lesbian, or anything else they want.”

“I will support them, and fight for them,” Abou Shehadeh vowed.

The stance brought Abou Shehadeh heavy criticism from some Arab residents in Jaffa, although not enough to dent his rise from local representative to party boss.

But now as head of the conservative faction, he has shied away from the issue.

In his interview with The Times of Israel, Abou Shehadeh declined to express his personal opinion on LGBT rights as the new leader of Balad: “I don’t represent myself today. This isn’t a personal stance,” he said.

He seemed to indicate that Balad, under his watch, was not yet ready to support gay rights as openly as he had back when he served on the Tel Aviv City Council.

“Our stance has always been that we represent a conservative society. It’s important that we represent our society and go with them step by step. If we go too far beyond our society, people will leave the leadership,” Abou Shehadeh said.

“We must deal with this issue carefully. I believe dealing with the cause carefully will in fact benefit the cause.”

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