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Joint List projected to win nine seats despite infighting, Arab voter apathy

Amid low turnout, party had feared election disaster; crowd cheers as rival Ra’am predicted to fail to pass election threshold, although others lament ‘lost Arab votes’

Joint List party chairman Ayman Odeh speaks at party headquarters, in the city of Shfar'am, on elections night, on March 23, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90
Joint List party chairman Ayman Odeh speaks at party headquarters, in the city of Shfar'am, on elections night, on March 23, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90

Despite apparently losing seats in Tuesday’s national election, supporters of the Joint List coalition of Arab parties greeted the first exit polls with cheers.

News that the rival Ra’am would likely fail to pass the election threshold also brought a roar of delight at Joint List’s post-election event in the northern town of Shfaram.

“9-0! 9-0!” some activists cheered, as attendees hugged one another and clapped for the parliamentarians assembling on stage. Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, a member of the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party, told the relieved crowd that the Joint List was declaring victory.

“We will remain a thorn in the side of Netanyahu and his partners,” Odeh said.

Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sleiman at a post-election rally by the Joint Post party on March 23, 2021 (Credit: Murad Jarjura)

The thrill in the air contrasted sharply with the political blow sustained by the Joint List. The coalition of Arab parties entered the Knesset in March 2020 with a record 15 seats, but after Ra’am broke off, that number dwindled to 11.

A mixture of lost Ra’am votes and disillusionment with the Joint List kicked the number down to nine seats, according to exit polling. That figure further fell to as low as six as election results poured in early Wednesday morning. According to Channel 12, Arab turnout on Election Day was approximately 44.2%, although no official figures have yet been released.

“We’re talking about at least a 15% decrease in the Arab vote. We all need to wait to see the final results, and then do some soul-searching to understand how we reached this place, and how we can fix the crisis of trust that led us here,” said Joint List MK Osama Saadi.

Many Joint List activists had speculated the party would fare far worse, given the division and voter apathy reigning in Arab cities and towns.

“The truth is, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, we did okay — not more than that. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. And on the other hand, lots of Arab votes were lost when Ra’am didn’t cross the threshold,” said Hadash activist Fadi Khourieh, a 19-year-old resident of Shfaram.

Israel’s fourth elections in two years found Arab Israelis split between the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties formed in 2015, and the conservative Islamist Ra’am party.

Ra’am and its controversial leader, Mansour Abbas, were elected in March 2020 as part of the Joint List. But Abbas struck out on his own path, outlining a “new method” of Arab Israeli politics — a thoroughly pragmatic approach that could see Abbas back a Netanyahu-led government in exchange for seeing his legislative priorities advanced.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh casts his ballot at a voting station in Haifa during the Knesset elections, March 23, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

“It is unacceptable that every minority is overrepresented in voting in order to overcome its representation problem — settlers, ultra-Orthodox — except for Arabs,” Abbas told voters in a last-minute push to the polls on Tuesday night.

Abbas’s public split with his former allies brought both sides enormous criticism from within the Arab community. Abbas’s defenders called him pragmatic, sensible and innovative, while his distractors viewed him as shady and unprincipled.

“The Palestinian community [in Israel] will not give up its rights, which are a matter of justice, not charity,” said Joint List MK Ofer Cassif.

Though exit polls indicated that Ra’am would not pass the voter threshold, Abbas claimed that his party would make it through into the Knesset.

Ra’am supporters lit fireworks over Sakhnin, the home of the list’s second candidate, former Sakhnin mayor Mazen Ghanaim, to celebrate his still unconfirmed entry into the Knesset.

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