Six years ago, the Arab representation in Israel’s parliament was nearly decimated. The newly legislated Governance Law dramatically raised the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25%, threatening to oust the three deeply divided Arab parties from Knesset.
The law was born of twin desires: to allow the government to operate more effectively, without myriad demands from numerous small parties, and to limit the Arab representation in Knesset. The latter objective, spearheaded by Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beyenu, then part of the Likud-Beytenu alliance, set the threshold at what was, quite curiously, just beyond the reach of the individual Arab parties.
Following the passing of the law in March 2014, the Arab parties began extensive talks and eventually announced that Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am, and Balad would unite into a single slate — the Joint List. In the 2015 elections, the Joint List won an unprecedented 13 seats in the Knesset.
Before the 20th Knesset elections, held in April 2019, the Joint List disbanded and the four parties ran as two two-party alliances; they earned in total 10 seats. In advance of the September elections, all four parties reunited once again and garnered 13 seats; on March 2, in the most recent round of elections, the Joint List won a record 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and retained its ranking as the third-largest party.
The Arab parliamentary factions, disparate though they are in ideology, demographics, and methodology, have achieved unprecedented electoral success as a group, and the alliance is likely to have immediate and longer-term consequences for the Israel political arena.
Hadash, the largest and most established of the parties on the Joint List, is a Hebrew abbreviation for The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. It was founded in 1977 by groups including the Arab-Jewish Israeli Communist Party known as Maki. An unequivocally left-wing party, it advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, social democracy, a firm separation of religion and state, and strong pro-environment positions.
Hadash has many active branches around the country, predominantly in Arab cities and neighborhoods. It operates a national youth movement and many of its representatives serve as elected officials on local councils. The Knesset members who have represented Hadash over the years have been male and female, Muslim and Christian, Druze and Jewish. The overwhelming majority of them have been secular.
Officially Hadash is not an Arab party but a mixed party; it has a permanent and symbolically secured spot for a Jewish representative among its members. Its voters come from across the country but the lion’s share of its support is from urban, secular Arabs from the north of Israel.
In recent years, Hadash has endured a relative loss of power, but its position of prominence within the Joint List endures: The united faction’s leader, Ayman Odeh, is the chairman of Hadash.
Hadash is a relatively pragmatic party, amenable to collaboration with non-Arab parties on a variety of issues. In 1992, Hadash helped create a bloc that allowed former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to maintain his coalition majority, on condition that the government commit to several measures aimed at improving the Arab minority’s quality of life.
Hadash MKs have shown legislative achievements in the fields of social justice, environmental protection, and matters pertaining specifically to the Arab citizens of Israel. The party has has shown a willingness — which now appears to be on the rise — to cooperate with Zionist Israeli parties prepared to match its policy objectives.
Much like the other Arab parties in Israel, though, Hadash places a strong emphasis on the Palestinian issue. The party focus on the well-being of Gaza and West Bank Palestinians is both ideological and personal, as many party members share ethnic, national, and even familial ties with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Dov Khenin, a Jewish MK who represented Hadash from 2006 to 2019, is widely considered to have been an excellent parliamentarian who enjoyed support from both the Jewish and Arab sectors of society. In 2008 he ran for mayor of Tel Aviv, and managed, in a losing bid, to nonetheless secure 34% of the vote.
Ayman Odeh, who was chosen to lead Hadash in 2015, holds relatively moderate views and is generally supportive of political cooperation between Arabs and Jews. This was evident in his decision to recommend to the president of Israel that Benny Gantz, a former Israeli army chief of staff, be given the mandate to assemble the next government.
“Aymen Odeh is very popular among the Arab youth in Israel because he talks about integration and influence, and isn’t content to stand on the sidelines,” said Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of Abraham Initiatives and a scholar of the Arab population in Israel.
For years, Hadash was the dominant and nearly sole player in the Arab political arena in Israel. Afif Abu Much, contributor and political analyst for Al-Monitor, asserts that “Hadash still possesses a stronghold on the ground with many supporters and would be able to pass the electoral threshold alone, even without unifying with other parties.”
But over the course of the past decade competing ideological forces have risen, and they are, predominantly, led by nationalists and Islamists.
Balad, or the National Democratic Alliance, is a nationalist party established in 1995 by Hadash defectors and representatives of various nationalist groups within Arab society in Israel. Balad’s positions on matters of state are somewhat vague.
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.
Like Hadash, Balad is a distinctly secular party and among its members are Arabs from all religions, and, within its lower ranks, several Jews. Balad supports the complete separation of religion and state and promotes a social-democratic economic platform.
Unlike Hadash, Balad is opposed in principle to cooperating with any Zionist entities, even on the left, and contains factions that call upon it to avoid participating in parliamentary elections so as not to validate institutions of the Jewish state.
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.
In addition, some of its members, chief among them former MK Hanin Zoabi, have participated in high-profile pro-Palestinian events such as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, in which Zoabi sailed on a Turkish Gaza-bound boat called the Mavi Marmara filled with armed activists who attacked Israeli troops when the ship was boarded; in the ensuing melee, 10 activists were killed and several soldiers were wounded.
The natural support demographic for Balad is similar to that of Hadash, but the newer party is more popular with the younger crowd. For roughly a decade, Balad constituted a competing and almost parallel force to Hadash; over the last few years, though, Balad has gone through a crisis and its relative strength has somewhat diminished.
“I find it difficult to understand what it is that Balad wants; it mostly just opposes every initiative and attempt to integrate and influence, despite its platform not being radically different from that of any other Arab party,” says Abu Much. “What’s different about them is less their policy positions and more their attitude and approach.”
The Arab population in Israel, when compared to that of the neighboring Arab states, is considered relatively secular. Yet the rise of religious fervor, which began in earnest in the 1980s and still maintains a strong hold over the Muslim world, did not bypass the Arab citizens of Israel. Ra’am — or, as it is known under its full and somewhat confusing name, The United Arab List — is the representative of that sector of the Arab population in Israel. The party, established in 1996, was founded by the Southern Islamic Movement.
The movement, before it was split into two separate factions, was founded in the 1970s by Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish. At its genesis, it openly supported terrorism, but eventually chose to withdraw that support. In the decade that followed, the movement gained strength while being led by Sheikh Raed Salah, who was later elected mayor of the Israeli city of Umm el Fahm in 1989.
In 1996, the movement split into two factions: the Northern Islamic Movement and the Southern Islamic Movement. The feud revolved around the question of running for Knesset. The more extreme group, the Northern Islamic Movement, firmly opposed participation, while the Southern Islamic Movement was supportive of it.
Since then, each movement has gone its own way. The Northern Islamic Movement, led by Raed Salah, has grown increasingly radical and was ultimately outlawed in 2015. (Salah was convicted in November 2019 of incitement to terrorism over a 2017 speech in which he praised a deadly attack at the Temple Mount. He was sentenced on February 10 to 28 months in prison.) Meanwhile, the Southern Islamic Movement became more moderate in its approach. In recent years, the process of moderation has been aided by the 2010 election of Hamad Abu Debas, and his deputy, Mansour Abbas, to the leadership of the movement.
The two hold relatively progressive views and have led a process of change and reform throughout the Southern Islamic Movement. Last year they wrote and managed to pass into the party’s constitution a convention that calls for greater cooperation with the Jewish population and increased inclusion of women in the party. Significantly, in this year’s list of candidates for the parliamentary elections, women were allotted the fourth and fifth positions, just beneath the threshold for Knesset, but notable, nonetheless.
“Ra’am has drawn its conclusions from the Arab Spring and its results and has learned from the success of the Muslim movements in Turkey and Tunisia. Ra’am understood that integrating and including women is a winning tool and a great way to be influential and to get ahead,” said Abu Ras. “In addition, Arab women are increasingly going to work and to academia. Today, two-thirds of Arab university students are female students. When this is the case, it is both impossible and wrong to hide or erase women and integrating them is the necessity of reality.”
Ra’am’s members are religious Muslims who support a two-state solution, the involvement of religion in matters of state, and moderate social welfare policies. The group has significant grassroots support in schools, welfare institutions, and religious institutions, among others. And contrary to what its name may suggest, the center of the Southern Islamic Movement is not the south of the country, though it does draw significant support from the Bedouin communities of the Negev.
In 1980, Ahmad Tibi, a former Israel affairs adviser to Yasser Arafat, established the Arab Union, which would later come to be known as the Arab Movement for Renewal, or Ta’al. In the 1999 elections, Tibi ran on a joint ticket with Balad but later split from the party. In every subsequent election he has run on a joint ticket with another party, never independently.
The characteristics of the Arab Movement for Renewal are less clear-cut than those of other Arab parties and its ideologies less distinctive; many observers consider them similar to those of Jewish centrist parties. Tibi supports a two-state solution and holds center-leaning financial policy positions. He believes in the separation of religion and state and the core of his support comes from several communities and clans in the north.
Ta’al is very much a one-man movement, with no real ground presence. The movement is built and shaped in the image of one man: its leader, Tibi, who is well-known among the Jewish population in Israel and well-liked among the Arab population. Number two on Ta’al’s list is Osama Saadi, Tibi’s brother-in-law.
Abu Ras, the Arab Israeli expert, noted that “Tibi is incredibly popular among young voters. He deals a lot with the subject of national pride and honor, issues that resonate with the Arab youth in Israel. If you’re asking whether there is a Ta’al after Tibi, then I’m going to assume that the answer is no. This isn’t a party with real ground presence nor is it as clearly distinctive as other parties.”
The party that fell apart and came together again
Abu Ras believes the disparate parts of the Joint List will continue to run together, after having paid the price for splintering in past elections and with the understanding that the current configuration is most representative of the will of the Arab public.
“The success of the Joint List is also reliant on the attitude of the Jewish public,” Abu Ras said. “Benny Gantz’s approach in the [September 2019] elections, discussing inclusion and battling crime rates in the Arab sector, interviewing and campaigning in Arabic, was significant in motivating the Arab public to vote; both for Kaḥol Lavan [the Blue and White Party] and for the Joint List. In fact, Kahol Lavan owes 1.5 of its seats to the Arab public and it is only thanks to them that it received the most votes in the September 2019 elections.”
According to Abu Much, the political analyst, the percentage of the Arab electorate that votes can rise further so long as the Arab parties operate with increased transparency, and the Joint List continues to work toward integration into society at large and does so by perhaps even joining the coalition government. Additionally, for this trend to continue, he believes that the non-Arab parties in Israel must include Arabs on their slates and speak to the Arab public in Israel in an open and candid way.
The Joint List allows the majority of the Arab population in Israel to identify as a united entity and to stand behind a single front, which in turn works to further amplify the force of the third-largest political party in Israel.
On the other hand, the existence of the Joint List as an alliance blurs, from the Jewish perspective, the deep ideological differences within Arab society, putting all MKs on the slate in one ideological basket. In addition, the existence of the Joint List makes any Jewish-Arab political cooperation difficult, as is evident in Meretz’s failed attempt during the 2019 elections.
It is possible that despite all of this, the sheer size and power of the Joint List party, and its ability to meaningfully impact the Israeli political system, will inspire it to take up an increasingly larger role in Israeli institutions and official capacities, be it as leaders of the opposition, Knesset committee chairs, or even ministers and deputy ministers. If and when the Joint List carries out these steps, a period of mutual adjustment is to be expected: a growing Israelization among the Arab population and an increasing acceptance of the Arab public in Israeli society, much like recent trends among the ultra-Orthodox community.
This process, along with the fact that the moderate forces within the party hold far greater sway than the radical ones, may inspire more meaningful integration of the party into Israeli politics and society, and the expansion of its reach and influence.