Israeli Arabs unite with fresh voice for non-Jewish voters

odehPhoto credit to Atef Safadi/EFE.

With just five days to go until the next Israeli general election, one party vying to win the third-largest bloc of votes, isn’t Zionist. It isn’t even necessarily Hebrew-speaking. ISrel Flag Icon

It’s the newly merged force of Israel’s four Arab parties, the ‘Joint List’ (القائمة المشتركة‎, הרשימה המשותפת‎). In addition to residents of the Palestinian territories, which include 2.7 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the more beleaguered Gaza Strip, Israel is home to an additional 1.7 million Arab citizens, nearly 20% of Israel’s total population (and expected to rise to 25% shortly), who have full citizenship rights to participate in voting, though many Israeli Arabs have described the hardships of living in an officially Jewish state in the Middle East, surrounded by a handful of often hostile Arab neighbors.

Under the leadership of Ayman Odeh (pictured above), a 41-year-old attorney from Haifa, the Joint List is emerging with surprising momentum as the Israeli campaign ends. Odeh himself is the new leader of the leader of Hadash (الجبهة or חד”ש, ‘New’), a longstanding socialist Jewish-Arab unity party with roots in the Israeli Communist Party. Odeh fell short of representing Hadash in Israel’s 120-member, unilateral coalition, the Knesset (הכנסת), after running sixth on the party’s candidate list in 2013, but could lead the Joint List to 13 seats or more after the March 17 election.

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Odeh is attracting Arab voters in large numbers, and even a handful of Jewish voters, with his emphasis on leftist economic policies to address inequality and other social justice issues in Israel, stealing the thunder from political leaders like former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, who founded a new center-right party, Kulanu (כולנו‎, ‘All of Us’), and, until recently, finance minister Yair Lapid, who founded the centrist party Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’).

With polls showing a tight race between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) and the ‘Zionist Union’ between Isaac Herzog’s center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s supporters, the Joint List is among the candidates vying for third place. That could make Odeh and the Israeli Arabs, for the first time in decades, a constituency with the power to make or break Israel’s next government.

If, as some commentators have argued, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin will call on Netanyahu  and Herzog to form a unity government, that would also make Odeh’s coalition the official opposition in the world’s only Jewish state — an Arab coalition comprised of hardcore Islamists and longtime communists. That result might even legitimize Israeli democracy in the eyes of many who have become disillusioned with Israel’s decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Odeh has called for nothing short of a civil rights movement in Israel:

“We are not living in the time of [President Barack] Obama in this country, we are living in the time of Martin Luther King,” he said invoking the difference between a generation where America twice elected a black president and one in which blacks had to agitate for voting and equal rights. We are going to reach equality in the coming four years. We need a Martin Luther King period.”

Though Israeli law guarantees equal rights to all citizens, many Israeli Arabs nonetheless report feeling like second-class citizens in a country that defines itself as a Jewish state, and Arab-based parties have struggled in the past just to make the ballot. Though Israeli Arab citizens share solidarity with the residents of the Palestinian territories, voters are more concerned with domestic concerns than the contours of what might become one more episode in a series of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But the Arab population and its political, civil and economic rights in an officially Jewish state will become one of the country’s pressing issues as it approaches (or exceeds) a quarter of the Israeli population.

Ironically, it was a conservative attempt to subdue the Arab parties that forced them to unite in the first place. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister and the leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’) successfully convinced the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament, to raise its electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%. That created a crisis among the four Arab parties, three of which would have won no seats in the prior 2013 elections.

Though Lieberman forced the Arab parties to, in essence, unite or die, the four parties squabbled throughout the early days of the current election campaign. Hadash, formed in 1977 with longstanding support in both the Arab and the left-wing Jewish communities, was suddenly forced to find common ground with the more secular, centrist Balad (التجمع الوطني الديمقراطي‎, ‘Country or Nation,’ or ברית לאומית דמוקרטית, ‘National Democratic Assembly’), as well as two more Islamist parties, United Arab List (لقائمة العربية الموحدة‎ or רשימה ערבית מאוחדת) and Ta’al (لحركة العربية للتغيير‎ or תנועה ערבית להתחדשות, ‘Arab Movement for Renewal’), which draw support from among the nomadic Bedouin community.

Lieberman, back in 2009, tried to have Balad and Ta’al disqualified from running in elections, though the Israeli Supreme Court ultimately intervened to lift the legislative ban on the two parties.

In the final days of the campaign, however, Odeh is hitting his stride, and Arab voters, typically more apathetic, are suddenly engaged in the Knesset elections.

In the earliest days of Israeli democracy, prime minister David Ben-Gurion often governed with the support of Israel’s Arab parties, but recently, they’ve become politically radioactive, especially insofar as the Israeli right has been much more successful winning elections than the Israeli left over the last two decades. As recently as 2013, the Arab parties, which won a cumulative 12 seats (giving them 10% of the membership in the Knesset), were nevertheless viewed as too far beyond the mainstream to be taken seriously as coalition partners.

That may be true this time around, too, especially after the Joint List’s negotiations to enter into a ‘surplus vote’ agreement with the Zionist leftist party Meretz (מרצ) failed spectacularly last weekend. In light of the proportional representation system that Israel uses to elect its MKs, parties often win a ‘surplus’ of votes in excess of those required to win their seats in the Knesset. With surplus agreements, two parties of like-minded views can join their surplus votes, thereby winning an extra seat (or two) for their party and/or parties. Likud, for example, has a surplus agreement with Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’), the conservative, pro-settler party led by Naftali Bennett, current economy minister in Netanyahu’s coalition government.

Nevertheless,  Odeh and the Joint List have made it clear that their chief goal is to prevent a third consecutive prime ministerial term for Netanyahu. While that doesn’t augur a Joint List presence in any Herzog-led government, Odeh’s preference to boost a center-left prime minister from outside any formal coalition could sway Rivlin’s decisions about coalition formation. Rivlin, a former Likud member and Knesset speaker, became Israel’s president last year despite Netanyhu’s behind-the-scenes opposition, and he will have discretion to decide whether Netanyahu or Herzog has the first shot at forming a majority government in the Knesset.

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