Things were looking hopeful for the Joint (Arab) List as exit polls broke in the late hours of Tuesday night.
With Likud and the Zionist Union ostensibly neck and neck, and with at least 13 projected seats in the Knesset, the party seemed to be facing one of two groundbreaking choices: either end the historic taboo on joining Zionist parties and partner with Isaac Herzog in a center-left government, or — as party leader Ayman Odeh predicted in an interview with The Times of Israel earlier this month — allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Herzog to form a unity government, and head the opposition.
“The poll results show that Netanyahu’s reign can be terminated,” Dov Khenin, the Joint List’s sole Jewish candidate, told The Times of Israel shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday at the Nazareth headquarters. Parties committed to recommending Netanyahu as prime minister to President Reuven Rivlin were significantly weakened, Khenin added.
“The public wants to end the rule of the right, and that’s what the public should get,” he said.
But as the almost-final results emerged Wednesday morning — giving Likud a decisive six-seat lead over the Zionist Union — neither option seemed likely. Both Herzog and Netanyahu have ruled out the possibility of unity, leaving the former to head the opposition and relegating the Arabs, despite their larger Knesset representation, to the political margins.
While lauding the high Arab turnout, which approached 70 percent and won the Joint List 14 seats, Ayman Odeh on Wednesday bemoaned what he dubbed increasing xenophobia among Israeli Jews.
“Very broad segments of the Jewish public, nourished daily with racism and closed-mindedness — from kindergarten to Netanyahu’s fascist statement about Arabs on election day — have decided to support Netanyahu in this significant and tragic manner,” he wrote on Facebook.
Mimicking Winston Churchill’s famous World War II speech, delivered during the Nazi onslaught in France, Odeh concluded: “We promise you nothing but struggle, defiance and sweat, until our rights are retrieved.”
That bittersweet tone was reflected also in the message of Basel Ghattas, a member of the nationalist Balad faction placed eleventh on the Joint List.
“We face an obstinate, right-wing, religious government, and a future fraught with dangers and challenges,” Ghattas wrote on Facebook. “We will require all our strength and unity to face them, and defend our right to equality in our land.”
Indeed, despite the likely absence of real political power in Israel’s 20th Knesset, the Joint List is unlikely to unravel in the foreseeable future, said Jack Khoury, a political analyst for Nazareth-based A-Shams radio and Haaretz.
“These elections were a sort of referendum for the Joint List,” Khoury told The Times of Israel. “The fact that it received a sweeping majority [among the Arab electorate], significantly increasing voter turnout, is a vote of confidence in the List. No one will take responsibility for unraveling the package,” he said.
While limited in its ability to affect Israeli policy, the Joint List has nevertheless managed to heal deep rifts within Israeli Arab society, Khoury opined.
“The List has calmed things down for Arabs,” he said. “Significant fissures emerged following the municipal elections [in 2013] … but they didn’t affect this election campaign. [An Islamist candidate] like Masoud Ghanaeim could never deliver a speech at a Christian neighborhood in Nazareth on the eve of elections, nor could [secular socialist candidate] Aida Toma Sliman address women in Islamist communities in the Triangle, were it not for the Joint List.”
Nevertheless, he said, Arabs now sense that the sweeping vote for Likud was little more than a Jewish reaction to the rising power of the Joint List.
“It seems like a large segment of Jewish society wanted to convey the following message to Arabs: ‘Despite your unification, we will give Netanyahu as many votes as possible to deprive you of partnership in the decision-making process,'” Khoury concluded.