Since Israel’s indecisive March 23 elections, Ra’am campaign director Aaed Kayal’s telephone has barely stopped ringing.
“You could say it’s been something of a busy time,” Kayal told The Times of Israel with a laugh.
The elections handed the conservative Islamist Ra’am party leverage based on its ability to choose between the two major political blocs — the one supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and so-called “change bloc,” which unites around little more than opposing him.
In a dramatic reversal of the status quo in Arab Israeli politics, Ra’am became the single largest Arab party in the country at four seats. Its Joint List comrades-turned-rivals split six seats between three parties.
The victory was something of a peculiar moment for Kayal, who just one year ago had celebrated leading the Joint List’s campaign, which had won an unprecedented 15 seats.
Kayal, a veteran political hand from the northern city of Jdeideh el-Makr, cut his teeth in local politics. By Israel’s 2018 local elections, he was running five separate campaigns in different Arab towns and cities at the same time. He also directed every Joint List campaign since the Arab parties joined forces in 2015.
But Kayal has no regrets about leaving the Joint List with Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas: “There’s no one else like Mansour on the map, as far as Arab politics in Israel goes.”
“When the Joint List was formed, it was a product whose basic pitch was unity. It was a brand-new idea, a brand-new product. It was marketed as the solution: if we’re together, we’ll get more for our community,” Kayal said.
The unity brand has not stood the test of time. Ra’am split from the Joint List in early February amid Abbas’s push for a different style of Arab Israeli politics.
Abbas had provoked widespread controversy among Arab Israelis when he said he was willing to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, crossing what the other three Arab parties consider a red line.
Kayal followed Abbas toward what many believed would be his political demise. Under Kayal’s watch, the Islamists held large rallies in Arab cities and towns across Israel.
The campaign was run with strict discipline: little media exposure, and candidates remaining strictly on-message. Candidates focused on issues that mattered to their conservative base, such as improving infrastructure in underserviced Arab towns, ending violence and organized crime, and opposing rights for LGBT people.
Ra’am’s opponents accused the party of playing up controversial social issues, especially gay rights, in order to avoid discussing the uncomfortable specter of a partnership with Netanyahu, who is reviled by many Arab Israelis.
“Our differences with Ra’am are political, not religious,” the Joint List said in a statement in late January, immediately before the bloc fractured.
Kayal defended the anti-LGBT focus as merely messaging to Ra’am’s conservative base.
“Look, the question of LGBT rights isn’t the main point. But there’s no question that the support of some Joint List representatives for LGBT rights was controversial among Arab citizens. Given that Ra’am is identified as a conservative party, this brings in conservative voters,” Kayal said.
The electoral battle was bitterly fought, tearing a rift down the heart of Arab Israeli society. The struggle ranged from the childish (Ra’am spokespeople taking over a Joint List WhatsApp group) to the violent (activists hurling a Palestinian flag at Abbas when he sought to join a protest in Umm al-Fahm; the Joint List unequivocally condemned the assault).
Kayal, however, is unperturbed. He deems the clashes a natural side effect of the competition for Arab votes: “Sure, so there was no in-fighting back then. That’s because the Joint List had no competitors!”
“In our local elections, things can escalate to the point of violence, both before and after Election Day. When people say ‘this mutual recrimination is new for us,’ honestly, I’m not convinced,” Kayal said.
On March 23, Kayal’s winning streak continued: Ra’am took four seats, surprising most observers. The Joint List dropped from eleven to six.
Sami Abou Shehadeh, head of Balad, one of the factions currently making up the Joint List, dismissed the election results in an interview last week with Musawa, a Palestinian TV network. He noted that a dismal 44 percent of Arab Israelis turned out to vote in the recent elections amid widespread despair in the electorate and frustration with politics.
“We’re talking about a minority of the minority who voted,” Abou Shehadeh said.
Kayal, however, was emphatic: if the political deadlock in Israel dragged the country to a fifth round of elections in two years, Ra’am would only stand to benefit.
“Ra’am will take more than 20% more voters than we did this time around. Abbas’s approach is bold and new, and it took time for people to get used to it,” Kayal said.
The party seems to be gearing up for the contest, just in case. Kayal’s contract, like those of his campaign staff, has been renewed, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Most pollsters in the previous election predicted that Ra’am would fall below the voter threshold and fail to enter the Knesset. Some potential Ra’am voters did not head to the polls or voted for other parties, believing that the Islamists would fall under the election threshold.
“Today, that problem is behind us. People now know that a large number of voters support Abbas’s approach and will say yes to Ra’am,” Kayal said.
It’s a bold claim, but there is some survey evidence to support Kayal’s argument. A poll done by Yousef Makladeh’s Statnet firm in early April found support for Abbas’s party had grown sharply since the last elections.
According to the survey, some 38 percent of Arab Israelis said that Ra’am was “the closest party to their principles and opinions.” The runner-up, Hadash, had long been the king of Arab Israeli politics, leading the Joint List; it registered a relatively meager 16 percent.
In another recent poll, 46% of Arab Israelis said they believed it was desirable for the Arab parties to be in any governing coalition — not just a center-left one. While some in the Joint List still balk at participating in any government, Ra’am has embraced the possibility.
According to Kayal, his former employers in the Joint List had failed to bring Arab voters out for a simple reason: their parliamentarians were no longer able to offer tangible hope for change.
After its unprecedented victory in March 2020, the Joint List nominated Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for the premiership — only to see Gantz give them the cold shoulder and enter a coalition with Netanyahu.
The center-left parties on which Joint List head Ayman Odeh and his fellow parliamentarians had staked their newfound political strength and credibility had been unwilling to respond in kind. Embittered and despairing, the Arab electorate’s support for the Joint List plunged and voter apathy rose.
“The Joint List has a lot of points of weakness. But its main point is that it can’t give people hope. You see its leaders try, but it comes out feeling artificial,” Kayal said.
As such, Kayal charged, the Joint List’s campaign focused far too much on opposing Netanyahu. At the end of the day, that wasn’t enough to bring voters to the polling places, he said.
“The Joint List built its whole campaign on fearmongering, and that was a strategic error. I used to do this in the final three or four days of the campaign. But you can’t use the same fear-inducing methods over and over,” Kayal said. “How many times do you want to use the same strategy?”
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