Divided and dismissed despite historic gains, Arab parties now bleeding support

The Joint List alliance got an unprecedented 15 seats and broke political taboos in a bid to achieve its goals. Its factions have little to show for it except their community’s ire

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. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90
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. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90

The March 2020 elections gave Arab Israelis an unprecedented 15 Knesset seats, the highest showing for their community in Israeli political history.

“From the first elections in 1949 until today, we have not received this degree of support and this number of seats,” Joint List chair Ayman Odeh said in a statement hailing the victory at the time.

With hopes running high, the Joint List recommended Benny Gantz for prime minister. 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. (After every election, the president of Israel solicits recommendations from each Knesset party head as to whom he should task with forming and leading a government.)

The move could have given Gantz the opportunity to form a government without Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, if he were able to corral the anti-Netanyahu parties into line behind the move. Instead, Gantz wound up joining forces with the right-wing premier, beginning the unhappy life of one of Israel’s most divided governments. The Joint List was again left out in the cold.

Internally divided and the target of ire within the Arab community, with little to show for the past year’s work, the Joint List now appears on the verge of disintegration.

Recent polls show the Joint List shedding as many as one-third of its seats, and internal rifts may weaken it even further, potentially sending some of its constituent factions tumbling below the election threshold.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on April 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Joint List first came together in 2015, uniting four Arab-led parties representing a rainbow of political and social stances after a new law raised the electoral threshold, threatening each individual party’s political survival.

But according to Joint List sources who spoke with The Times of Israel, some activists in the coalition’s four parties have been clamoring for a breakup since early December, when Mansour Abbas’s renegade Ra’am faction abstained from a vote that would have toppled Netanyahu’s government.

Abbas has been publicly seeking closer ties with the prime minister, vowing that he is presenting a can-do, pragmatic approach to Arab politics. The Ra’am chief has said that he would consider voting for a law that would protect Netanyahu from prosecution — the prime minister has been indicted in three cases — or even serve as a minister in a Netanyahu-led government.

This picture from September 10, 2019, shows an Israeli election poster of Joint List candidate Youssef Atauna, with a slogan in Arabic reading ‘more participation, more effect,’ in the the southern Bedouin city of Rahat. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

The remaining Joint List members saw Abbas as crossing a red line in collaborating with Netanyahu, who they say has incited against them repeatedly. Many angrily recall an election-day get-out-the-vote video from 2015 in which Netanyahu told voters that “the Arabs were heading in droves to the ballot boxes.”

“I work regularly with a government and government institutions that — what can we say, it’s right-wing. But there’s a deep difference between demands without giving up your principles and between cooperating in exchange for selling your principles,” Balad MK Heba Yazbek told the Haaretz daily on Tuesday.

The three remaining parties — Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al — are reportedly close to signing an agreement that would cut out Abbas and his conservative Islamist faction. Ra’am, they hope, will end up out of luck and out of the Knesset, with too few votes to cross the electoral threshold.

“The main issue is with one party: the Islamic Movement [Ra’am]. The remaining three parties are agreed on the need to stay unified,” insisted Hadash MK Yousef Jabareen to The Times of Israel, expressing his hope that Abbas would back away from his stated willingness to consider providing immunity to Netanyahu.

But running as a tripartite alliance risks further drying up voter support for the Joint List — below the 10 seats it is polling at with Ra’am included. And everyone agrees that in the past, when the Joint List has split asunder, voter apathy has risen, Jabareen said.

“It’s painful to see how after the enormous success we had in March, we’re dropping to 10 seats,” Yazbek said. “It’s heartbreaking. I saw the way people went in large numbers to vote, with hope.”

In a recent poll conducted by Arik Rudnitsky, who studies Arab Israeli politics, with Arab Israeli pollster Yousef Makladeh, just a slight majority — around 52 percent — of Arab Israelis expressed satisfaction with the Joint List’s performance over the last year.

The number of those who declared that they would vote in the coming elections also dropped by 10%. Both numbers are far from a resounding vote of confidence among the Arab voter base.

“Arab voters want to punish the Joint List,” Makladeh said in a conversation with The Times of Israel late last year after polls were already showing sharp declines for the alliance among Arab Israelis.

Illustrative. Arab Israelis arrive at polling station in Haifa during Israel’s parliamentary election, on September 17, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/ AFP)

Everyone in the Joint List has a different explanation for the party’s downward spiral in the polls. The more liberal factions blame Mansour Abbas’s moves toward Netanyahu, which they say has aggravated the intraparty rift. They also blame Gantz, who they say gave up a historic opportunity to give them a seat at the table.

“That really had a negative impact on the Arab community, especially because the recommendation was politically difficult in and of itself — a former general in the IDF, who boasted of how many Palestinians in Gaza he’d killed,” said Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen.

Members of Abbas’s faction, meanwhile, claim that the more liberal MKs’ support for gay rights — which came to the forefront this summer — was the initial volley in the internal struggle between the Arab parties.

Joint List chair Ayman Odeh and Aida Touma-Suleiman voted in favor of a bill banning so-called “conversion therapy,” a pseudoscientific practice that seeks to change the innate sexual orientation of queer people. Shocking no one, Abbas and his conservative faction voted against the law.

“Take it from me: the deterioration in our standing with the Arab community came when Ayman Odeh and Aida Touma-Suleiman voted in favor of banning the treatment of perverts,” Ra’am party secretary Walid Hawashleh insisted in a phone call with The Times of Israel.

A good chunk of Arab Israeli society is undoubtedly conservative, rejects LGBT people, and despises Odeh’s decision to vote in favor of banning conversion therapy. But in poll after poll, social issues are way down on the list of priorities for Arab voters.

Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen participates in a protest convoy on Route 6 demanding government action on violence in Arab communities (Courtesy Yousef Jabareen)

In a list of eight options offered in Makladeh’s recent survey, the most important priority, by far, was fighting violence and organized crime in Arab cities — 51.8% said it was their top issue. No other option even came close. Resolving the housing crisis in Arab communities and fighting poverty ran a distant second and third, each named by about 12% as their top priority.

On these issues, the consensus on the need for action has been overwhelming, but the Joint List has been ineffectual. Jabareen, the Hadash MK, blamed the fragile, divided government and the coronavirus crisis.

“The government was entirely focused on dealing with coronavirus, so the Joint List could never translate its new political power into legislation. In the last few months, there hasn’t even been a government, so there’s been no one to speak to,” Jabareen asserted.

But even in good years, Arab Israelis have never wielded the sort of political power Jewish groups, such as ultra-Orthodox or the national religious, have traditionally claimed, and they have been brushed aside by both Netanyahu and the opposition.

“What can the Joint List do on the issues that matter the most for Arab Israelis? Basically nothing,” Makladeh said.

Even Odeh has acknowledged that perhaps his initial promise of what would be possible with 15 mandates was exaggerated.

“Sometimes it’s important to manage people’s expectations. Sometimes you raise people’s expectations and you get a big result — but because you made them expect more, it seems small,” he told the Palestinian TV channel Bukra in early January.

Much has been made of Mansour Abbas’s seemingly warm ties with Netanyahu; the committed Islamist has stated a profound willingness to collaborate with the Likud party in order to advance several of the Arab community’s highest priorities.

Abbas has lobbied Netanyahu to approve and allocate funding for a wide-ranging plan to combat violence in Arab communities, and complimented him and his allies in public for their efforts to solve the issue.

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)

But Abbas’s fling with the right-wing prime minister has so far left him with little to show for it except the ire of his Arab colleagues. Other issues Ra’am sought to advance in the government also failed, such as an attempt to legalize several unrecognized Bedouin villages in the south that fell apart when West Bank settlers demanded that some of their illegal outposts be recognized in exchange.

“It’s clear that the reasons for shutting down the recognition were absolutely political, not professional,” fumed Ra’am MK Saeed al-Harumi to The Times of Israel.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks near a Likud party billboard for Israel’s upcoming general elections on February 17, 2020, showing the portraits of (L to R) Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White political alliance and Ahmad Tibi, Knesset member for the Joint List, with a caption reading, ‘Gantz has no government without Tibi.’ (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

In other words, both major Arab Israeli political strategies this year seem to have fizzled without bearing fruit. Arab Israeli politicians recommended Gantz as prime minister, only for the former general to give them the cold shoulder. Abbas flirted with Netanyahu and got nothing but a lot of noise and a barrage of criticism inside the Joint List.

But pollster Rudnitsky believes that Abbas, at least, knows exactly what he’s up to in this election, calling his strategy “a brilliant maneuver.”

“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,” Rudnitsky explained.

The Arab electorate seems to be disappointed, disorganized, and not enthusiastic about the coming vote. A rise in voter apathy — perhaps stoked by Netanyahu’s campaign for Arab votes — seems only natural. They feel that even after amassing the greatest political power seen by Arab Israelis in the Jewish state, even after trying everything, breaking political taboos on the left and the right, their representatives failed to realize their major policy objectives.

Perhaps the one exception is the freezing of chunks of a 2018 law which penalizes illegal construction; the law’s architects have said that it was intended to target illegal Arab building. The achievement is less than the Joint List had hoped — its politicians had publicly campaigned on the law’s repeal — but it was nonetheless a much-needed win in a tough year.

Joint List politicians who spoke to The Times of Israel expressed hope that while campaigning they could restore some of the trust that has been lost.

“We have time before the elections to close the gaps. There’s a long time before people head off to vote,” al-Harumi said.

But with the government no longer in session and little major legislation likely to pass in the interim, that may no longer be possible.

“If there were a little more time, maybe to pass another government plan, they could maybe soften the blow,” said Rudnitsky. “But the elections are now.”

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