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Joint List of Arab parties partly disintegrating as talks with Ra’am founder

‘We’ve failed,’ says Balad MK Mtanes Shahadeh, after four-way meeting fails to bring unity; parties will likely not run as one bloc, although decision not final

Members of the Arab Joint list seen during a vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 12, 2019. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90
Members of the Arab Joint list seen during a vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 12, 2019. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Representatives of three of the four Arab parties which compose the Joint List said on Wednesday night that negotiations to maintain the unity of the bloc have failed, making it likely that they will not run together in the coming March elections.

“We’ve failed, unfortunately. The Joint List will not continue in its current lineup,” said Balad MK Mtanes Shehadeh, adding later: “At this point, we cannot continue as the Joint List because of our fundamental political differences.”

Tensions among the four Arab parties had been rising steadily over the past few months, stoked by renegade Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas. Abbas has publicly pursued closer ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a move seen by his Joint List colleagues as beyond the pale.

Hadash party secretary Mansour Dahamsheh, who participated in the talks on Wednesday night, said that “there will be no Joint List with four parties. The negotiations are over.”

“The Joint List is continuing without Mansour Abbas, who has chosen the side of Bibi, not the Arab community,” Balad party chief Sami Abu Shehadeh said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “Those defying the Arab consensus will pay a heavy price.”

A week remains before the February 4 deadline to submit final lists of candidates to the Central Elections Committee, however, leaving some room for negotiations to continue.

Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Abbas has said that in order to advance legislative priorities for the Arab community, he would even consider voting in favor of a law providing Netanyahu with immunity from prosecution in his corruption cases, or serve as a minister in a Likud-led government.

His Joint List colleagues see him as providing aid and comfort to a prime minister who they say has conducted a campaign of racist incitement against Arab Israelis.

“Joining, aiding or abetting the right-wing government, annexation, or settlements is a red line from our perspective. We won’t allow a branch of the Likud party in the Joint List,” Hadash said in a statement on Monday.

The Joint List, an alliance of four Arab-led factions, is united mainly by a desire to avoid falling below the Knesset’s electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote. The parties span the gamut of political opinion, ranging from Hadash’s committed communists to Ra’am’s conservative Islamists.

Last March, high turnout among Arab Israelis swept the Joint List to the strongest-ever showing in the Knesset for their constituency — a record 15 seats. But after a year of successive political blows, internal division and precious few policy achievements, they face rising voter apathy and widespread frustration among their base.

Three meetings between Joint List representatives have been held over the past few days in an attempt to maintain the bloc’s unity ahead of the March elections. Arab political unity is a popular position among Arab Israelis: past experience shows that when the Arab parties have run together, voter turnout among Arab Israelis generally increases.

But the clashes — both in private and in the media — have only intensified over the past few weeks, as the Arab parties took shots at one another in public.

The tensions have been compounded by an aggressive campaign by Netanyahu to court Arab votes. Netanyahu, previously known more for denouncing Arab voters heading to vote “in droves,” has been regularly meeting with Arab mayors in an attempt to gain votes from their constituencies.

Ta’al MK Osama Saadi described the Wednesday night conversation to reporters only as “a terrible meeting.” According to reports in the Israeli Arab press, Ra’am delegate Ibrahim Hijazi arrived more than two hours late for the four-way tête-à-tête on Wednesday night.

Ra’am has attempted to frame the debate in religious terms, publically demanding that the other parties refrain from voting in support of “perversion.” The demand is a thinly veiled reference to Joint List head Ayman Odeh’s (Hadash) decision to vote in favor of a bill that outlawed so-called “conversion therapy” for LGBT people.

“They both refuse to respect the values of religion and society, and also want to cool their heels on the bench of the political arena,” Ra’am chief Abbas said on Wednesday.

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)

Ra’am further demanded total freedom in its voting — including the freedom to vote for Netanyahu’s immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu has been indicted on fraud, bribery and breach of trust, and has long been believed to be seeking to pass legislation that would keep him out of court. The other three parties stipulated that the faction stick to the Joint List’s decisions, and said supporting immunity for Netanyahu would cross a red line.

Wednesday night’s announcement that negotiations had failed and the Joint List would likely fall apart was as chaotic as the flurry of accusations and demands which filled Arab Israeli media over the past week.

The Joint List released an official statement in its name declaring that Mansour Abbas’s party had left the alliance — only for Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al party to swiftly declare that it had not consented to such a statement.

Ta’al MK Saadi was more circumspect than his colleagues in Balad and Hadash, noting that a few days were left until the deadline for submitting lists of candidates. But he sounded an extremely pessimistic note about the prospects for unity.

“We will now return to our internal political institutions and decide how to move forward,” Saadi told reporters.

Ra’am party secretary Walid Hawashleh told The Times of Israel that the decision to break the alliance of Arab parties is not final.

“Sure, right now, the whole situation is totally crazy. But politics is like soccer, there’s still time. We have until February 4, when the final lists must be presented, just like in soccer, where every game lasts 90 minutes,” Hawashleh said.

Hawashleh said that the Islamist party’s religious council will meet in the coming days to decide whether or not to formally break off from the Joint List or reach a compromise. But he acknowledged the potential for unity now seemed “remote.”

How the Arab parties will run has yet to be decided, Joint List officials said on Wednesday night. But all likely recognize that if the Joint List falls apart, the chances of falling below the election threshold — and losing tens of thousands of Arab votes — rise considerably.

“Who’s celebrating right now? Benjamin Netanyahu, who successfully broke apart the Joint List, without paying a price. It’s very sad that we’ve gotten to this moment, where we announce the dissolution of the Joint List,” Ta’al’s Saadi said.

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