The Joint List aims for 15 seats in the March elections, and could pull it off

Expert says Gantz reaching out to Arab public would significantly affect voter turnout; MK says Joint List can win more votes by focusing on community’s ‘burning issues’

Adam Rasgon

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Joint List members present their party slate to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Joint List members present their party slate to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Weeks before the Knesset set a date for the year’s third round of national elections, MK Ayman Odeh already revealed what he believes his Joint List can achieve in a new vote.

In a video posted on Facebook in November, Odeh, the leader of the diverse coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, said: “I want to ask you: How many seats will we obtain? I tell you that we can get 15.”

If the Joint List — which currently has 13 seats — were to win two more in the March 2 elections, it would mark a record high for the alliance.

In a series of interviews with The Times of Israel, analysts and one MK discussed the Joint List’s upcoming campaign and its push to increase its representation in parliament.

Is it possible?

Arik Rudnitzky, an expert on Arab Israeli politics at the Israel Democracy Institute, said he thought it would be reasonable to suppose the Joint List would win more seats in the March elections than it did in September.

“Recent polls have said the Joint List will win 13 seats. In the past, polls have given them less than what they achieve in the actual vote,” he said. “So I believe there is a good basis to assume they will gain at least one more seat.”

In the elections in April 2019, the Joint List split into two separate slates — Ra’am-Balad and Hadash-Ta’al — and collectively won only 10 seats. Only five months later, in the September vote, it reunified and won 13.

Arab Israelis cast their votes at a polling station in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa in Jerusalem, on March 17, 2015, in the Israeli general elections for the 20th parliament. (FLASH90/Miriam Alster)

But Rudnitzky said that a key factor in whether the Joint List would increase its representation would be Blue and White and Labor-Gesher-Meretz’s rhetoric vis-a-vis Arab Israelis.

“Benny Gantz, Amir Peretz and others in their parties reaching out to the Arab public would significantly impact Arab voter turnout,” he said, referring to the Blue and White and Labor-Gesher-Meretz chiefs, respectively.

“If the Arab community believes it will have allies in a future government, it will vote in higher numbers and the Joint List will primarily benefit from that,” he said.

Rudnitzky pointed to comments Gantz made at an event in Nazareth in late December 2019 — in which he said that he would work for equality between Arabs and Jews — as the type of rhetoric that would galvanize the Arab Israeli public to turn out on election day in higher numbers.

Arab turnout slumped to 49.2 percent in April; in comparison, it rose to 59.2% in September. The increase in the number of Arab Israelis who voted in September was widely seen as a result of the reunification of the Joint List as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fiery rhetoric against the Arab Israeli public in the run-up to that vote.

Distancing within reason

In contrast, Amjad Shbita, co-director of Sikkuy, a non-governmental organization that works to advance Jewish-Arab equality, argued that Blue and White and Labor-Gesher-Meretz moderately distancing their parties from the Arab Israeli public would bode well for the Joint List.

“If Blue and White and Labor-Meretz move away from the Arab public within reason, the Joint List will benefit tremendously because it will pick up many of the voters who previously cast ballots for those parties,” he said, adding: “That being said, if they start attacking the Joint List incessantly and make the Arab public think that no alternative to Netanyahu exists — so much so that they see no point in voting — the Joint List will significantly lose out.”

Blue and White has recently made some moves that appear to be aimed at currying favor with right-wing voters. For example, Gantz last week visited the City of David archaeological site in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood — run by the right-wing Elad organization.

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz (C) meeting with leaders of the Joint List alliance, Ayman Odeh (L) and Ahmed Tibi, October 31, 2019. (Ofek Avshalom)

Meanwhile, Labor-Gesher-Meretz did not include any Arab representatives in the first 10 slots of its slate.

Aaed Kayal, who managed the Joint List’s campaign in September, said that to win 15 or even 16 seats, the coalition would need to receive between 550,000 to 580,000 votes. In September, it won approximately 470,000.

“I think it is possible,” he said. “There is general satisfaction among Arabs with the Joint List because they have recently seen it working hard to find solutions to many of their daily issues like crime and violence,” he said.

Since the September elections, the Joint List has played a key role in many protests against violence in Arab communities and met senior Israel Police officials to discuss ways to deal with the issue.

A number of Joint List members have also pushed for freezing the Kaminitz Law, which has stiffened penalties against illegal construction. Arab Israeli community leaders say that many homes in their communities have been built without permits because authorities make it extremely hard to obtain them.

Kayal also agreed with Rudnitzky that the way centrist and left-wing parties relate to the Arab Israeli public would affect the Joint List’s fortunes.

“It is important that people believe there is a chance the government can be led by someone who believes in change,” he said.

Turning to municipalities

Mansour Abbas, a senior member of the Joint List who leads the Islamist Ra’am faction, said the coalition can win over more voters by centering its campaign on “the burning issues” in Arab Israeli society.

“We need to focus on these issues that the Arab public confronts every day,” he said. “They include violence and crime, home demolitions, education, social welfare and workplace safety.”

Several Joint List members have said that before the alliance recommended Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin as prime minister in September, it held talks with the opposition Blue and White party about violence, the Kaminitz Law, education and other matters.

Abbas, however, stated that giving special attention to the issues he mentioned does not mean ignoring those related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Ramle, Hundreds demonstrate against violence in Arab Israeli communities on October 15, 2019, (Joint List)

“We still want a two-state solution and full national rights for Jewish and Palestinian citizens and we will continue to state that, but these other issues are very urgent and ones that we can make progress on,” he said, noting the 94 homicides in Arab Israeli communities in 2019.

“I also believe that if we make progress on the civil issues, we will be in a better position with the different parties to discuss the national issues,” he added.

Abbas added that the Joint List could also earn more votes by stepping up cooperation with municipalities.

“We need to put greater efforts into recruiting cadres to get out the vote,” he said. “We can accomplish that by increasing cooperation with mayor and local council members. We worked on this cooperation before but not at the necessary level.”

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