A Knesset panel on Thursday approved the breakup of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, whose four factions are now set to run in the March elections as three separate parties, increasing the odds that at least one of them will fail to pass the electoral threshold.
The split approved by the Knesset House Committee was labeled a “technical” division. Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am had applied to split off before Wednesday night’s announcement that the Joint List was dissolving.
The Hadash and Balad factions will continue under the name the Joint List, while Ra’am and Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al will run as separate parties. The final lineup, however, is yet to be determined.
With the alliance falling apart, the chances of one or more factions falling below the election threshold of 3.25 percent of the votes — and wasting tens of thousands of Arab votes — rise considerably.
Negotiations between the four factions broke down on Wednesday evening. But a week remains before the February 4 deadline to submit final lists of candidates to the Central Elections Committee, leaving some room for negotiations to continue. Ra’am party officials who spoke to The Times of Israel expressed some optimism that there was still a possibility of bringing the slates back together.
Tensions among the four Arab parties had been rising steadily over the past few months, stoked by renegade Ra’am party chief Abbas. Abbas has publicly pursued closer ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a move seen by his Joint List colleagues as beyond the pale.
Aida Touma-Suleiman of the Joint List’s Hadash was quick to fault Abbas for the breakup, telling Army Radio that he had “renounced all the promises and agreements we had.”
Sami Abou Shahadeh, the newly elected head of the Arab nationalist Balad faction, also laid the blame at Abbas’s doorstep but said there was still a chance the party could manage to run with three factions — Balad, Hadash and Ta’al.
“The Joint List goes on without Mansour Abbas. We will try until the last minute to save it. I hear him say things and then contradicting himself, and with such political behavior it is hard to trust him,” Abou Shahadeh told Army Radio. “In my opinion, the Joint Lost will continue with three factions and achieve great things.”
Abbas’s former 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.
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.
The Joint List, an alliance of four Arab-led factions, was united mainly by a desire to avoid falling below the Knesset’s electoral threshold of 3.25% 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 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 for attempting to whip up enthusiasm among his base by saying Arab voters were heading to vote “in droves,” has been regularly meeting with Arab mayors in an attempt to gain votes from their constituencies.
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 that had filled Arab Israeli media over the past week.
The Joint List released an official statement in its name declaring that Ra’am had left the alliance — only for the Ta’al party to swiftly declare that it had not consented to such a statement.