The Arab vote in the upcoming Israeli elections is presenting for readers a series of observations by noted researcher Gabriel Haritos broadly entitled “The Israeli Parliamentary Elections of September 17, 2019, and the Greek Regional Factor.” These studies will be featured, over the days leading up to the election.

Gabriel Haritos, Ph.D., Researcher, The Ben Gurion Reserach Institute, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs.





The Arab vote in the upcoming Israeli elections

When in 2014 the Knesset decided to increase the party’s minimum election threshold from 2% to 3.25% that holds to date, the Arab political parties Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al and Balad decided to rally and participate in the elections of 17 March 2015 under the formation of “Joint Arab List”, while maintaining their organizational autonomy and ideological identity. In essence, for the Arab political scene in Israel, the formation of the “Joint Arab List” has been a necessity for the Arab minority (20% of the country’s population) to maintain its own voice in parliament, despite ideological differences among these four parties that make it up.

In the 2015 election, the Joint List was the third-largest political party in the Knesset, occupying 13 seats (10.6%, 446,583 votes), garnering unprecedented votes from local Arab communities, who placed common origin, religion and culture above any other lesser political criteria. Regarding the post-election behavior of the “Joint Arab List”, the first in the history of Israeli parliamentary history united Arab party , there were no surprises: It was clear from the outset of its founding proclamation and the statements of its leaders that even if offered a membership in a coalition government and coalesced with the parties of the so-called “Jewish / Zionist arc” (as Jewish parties are called in Arab public discourse), the “Joint Arab List” would reject such a possibility without a second thought.

Undoubtedly, the prospect of co-habitation of Arab and Jewish parties in an Israeli coalition government in 2015 was impossible and the reasons were obvious. But that did not mean that the coexistence of the three Arab parties of the “Joint List” would be easier. For the lasting existence of this multi-party formation, extremely important differences would have to be overcome – ideological, social, and religious. The institutional ‘trunk’ of the ‘Joint Arab List’ was inevitably formed from the largest party, the left-wing Hadash, which drew its electoral power from the bicommunal city of Haifa, the ‘red city’, as it is commonly called in Israel, demonstrating the traditionally leftist ideological tendency of the majority of its permanent residents, Jews and Arabs. Hadash’s historical course has shown that Jewish and Arab left-wing intellectuals can be co-opted, with Dov Hanin’s long-serving Jewish MP representing his party’s positions in the Knesset. At the time of the formation of the “Joint Arab List”, however, Hadash was forced to reconcile with the purely nationalist and bitter public discourse of the Balad party – whose prominent cadres have in recent years been involved in criminal prosecutions for actions opposed to the the country’s security – and on the other hand with the Ra’am and Ta’al parties, which largely express the political positions of the Islamist movements in northern and southern Israel. While the founding declaration emphasized all the common elements that truly unite and express the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Arab minority (Jewish-Arab equality, promotion of Palestinian identity in the local Arab educational system, withdrawal of Israeli Jews, the evacuation of Jewish settlements, the creation of a Palestinian independent state and a return to the pre-war borders of 1967, etc.) in the years since the 2015 elections up to now, Increasingly, in the end, the sharp political discourse of the MEPs from the nationalist Balad ‘colored’ communications-wise the ‘Joint Arab List’.

Thus, the ‘secret agendas’ of the parties involved in the united tri-party formation went beyond what the bicommunal Hadash had in mind: The gradual smooth integration of the Arab Muslim element into Israeli society and the smoothing of differences on an intra-Israeli level, national-Palestinian-Muslim identity of the overwhelming majority of the Arab minority of 20% of the country’s total population. This was, of course, the highlight of his election campaign in 2015. To what extent could such a grandiose goal be implemented in practice – and in the given Israeli reality – when it is stated from the outset that the ‘Joint Arab List’ will never co-exist in government with the other (Jewish) parties – is a question under investigation.

From split to reunion

The underlying differences between the three Arab parties led to the dissolution of the “Joint Arab List”, on the eve of the April 9, 2019 election. In that election, the Arab parties ran autonomously, garnering a total of 10 seats. In other words, in the elections of April 9, 2019, the Arab presence in the Knesset shrank by three seats – at a time when the “Joint Arab List” had occupied 13 seats after the 2015 elections. In real numbers, in the April 9, 2019, elections, compared to the 2015 elections, 10,9475 voters left the “United Arab Union” – a number that is not at all dismissable.

However, the 10 Arab seats continued to be the third in strength of an informally and ethnically distinct parliamentary group, in the 120-member Knesset. This, in itself, has helped to renew the channels of communication between the Arab parties and re-establish the “Joint Arab List”, which again will run as a single political formation in the forthcoming parliamentary elections of 17 September 2019. The reunification of the Arab parties was apparently facilitated by the change in leadership of the nationalist Balad, coupled with the (allegedly) voluntary withdrawal of certain parliamentary members, that had irked public opinion, not only of Jewish Israeli opinion but – as it seems – also of an important part of the Arab minority in Israel.

The political agenda of Israel’s Arab minority

In the upcoming elections, the wager that the ‘Joint Arab List’ is called upon to win is to recapture the ‘lost’ Arab votes and repeat the 2015 electoral success, again winning the third place in the Knesset. It is still too early to assess whether the “Joint Arab List” can ever evolve into a single political party. The social and ideological differences at the local level appear to be insurmountable within the Arab minority in Israel and it is extremely difficult to cultivate a common constituency until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved.

August 22, 2019 could be a day of historic significance for the position of Arab parties in the Israeli political system. The broadly circulating Yediot Aharonot newspaper on the front page of that day quoted the leader of the “Joint Arab List”, Aiman Odeh, as saying he would willing to join a center-left coalition government that would emerge after the forthcoming elections. Naturally, the criticism from Likud and the Right immediately emphasized the fact that ‘Blue and White’ was ‘ready to bring the Arabs to power’. At the same time, however, none of the Jewish left forces seemed excited about the possibility of joining a coalition government with Arab minority parties.

Blue and White MP, retired general Gabi Ashkenazi immediately dismissed it, saying his party would not cooperate with political forces that do not accept the Jewish-democratic nature of the Israeli state. The statements of Labor leader Amir Peretz were at leat sybillic, as despite praising Odeh’s statements as “a positive step for the Arab citizens of the country to develop a ‘sense of belonging’ to the Israeli political system,” he concluded that even if Aiman Odeh wanted to join a coalition government, the nationalist Balad party would not allow it. To avoid expressing a clear viewpoint, the “Democratic Union” made clear (mainly taking into account the “Blue and White” reaction) that there is still a long way to go before Arab and Jewish Ministers sit side by side in a government. Cabinet.

Aiman Odeh, on the same morning – after being informed by the media of the angry reaction of the nationalist Balad – said in his statement that his words in the main article of the newspaper, which was a summary of the entire text that would be published the next day, were not accurately related. Odeh, in a statement issued on the same day, essentially clarified the demands of the Arab pre-election agenda.

According to the above statement, released on 22.8.2019, the ‘Single Arab Coalition’ would ‘be ready to join a coalition government’ only if the following conditions were met:
«1. When the occupation is over and negotiations on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with a generally acceptable border with Israel begin. 2. When the Arab citizens of Israel are not counted as second-class citizens – and for that to happen it will first need a. To abolish the so-called ‘Law of the Nation’, b. Extend the boundaries of the Arab Municipalities and Communities and immediately lift the demolition measures for arbitrary structures c. Implement an effective plan to tackle and prevent violence and crime in Arab society; d. Establish an Arab city, an Arab hospital and an Arab university with government funding and oversight; e. Increase the credits to Arab local government. 3. Take social justice legislative measures for all vulnerable social groups in the Arab and Jewish populations.

In the light of the above, it can be concluded that, even in this electoral race, Arab minority parties will follow the same post-election behavior of ‘non-participation’ in the country’s governance, limited only to the possibilities afforded by institutional parliamentary scrutiny.

It is now clear that in Israel there is an Arab political subsystem, with demands quite different from those of the average Israeli voter of Jewish origin, mainly related to the unsolved Palestinian problem and issues of a purely minority character that relate mainly to local issues. That is why the “Joint Arab List”, especially in these elections, will be called upon to persuade Israeli Arab citizens to go to the polls in the same numbers in which they vote in the local elections. And this, in the present circumstances, is by no means obvious.