At a time when the political debate about state identity rages, the Palestinians of Israel, the biggest non-Jewish minority of the country (21% of the population), represent both the greatest electoral challenger and one of the few contradictory voices in an otherwise predominantly right-wing domestic electoral debate.
Despite running again in the next elections as a single slate – the Arab Joint List –, the Palestinians of Israel are a heterogenous group made up of four different parties (Hadash or the Democratic Front, Ra’am or the Southern Islamic Movement, Ta’al or the secular party and Balad or the national-secular party) divided along religious and political lines. From the group – despite their living in the “complete and united capital of Israel” (Basic Law 5740/1980) – are excluded the 350,000 Palestinians of Jerusalem enjoying a separate status, that of “non-citizen permanent residents of the State of Israel”, yet not entitled to vote in national elections: their condition is still pending and increasingly critical given the fact that East Jerusalem, according to the “Deal of the Century”, could never be returned to a Palestinian state, an accidental outcome eventually leading to their mass application for Israeli citizenship.
Notwithstanding all their internal cleavages, the single fact that all the Arab parties had been able to toss aside their respective differences and merge together in a single list is already a major achievement. The decision to run united once again, as in 2015 and September 2019, is the proof they had understood their political potential as the third major Knesset bloc, likely to be assigned key roles in both parliamentary committees and state institutions either way, whether supporting the government from outside or from the opposition ranks. In fact, the largest party outside the government coalition appoints the opposition leader, a key figure involved in all security briefings, consulting monthly with the prime minister and entitled to rebuttal speeches at the Knesset: thus the Joint List is anyhow predicted to play a major role in the forthcoming 23rd Knesset.
Given the current political stalemate between the two major political parties (Kahol Lavan and the Likud, competing in a head-to-head race – 36 to 34 seats – to build a coalition government) and the desperate attempt of both blocs to win 2 to 3 extra seats, the Joint List is able to pull the strings even tighter. By boosting an already increasing Arab turnout (rising from 49.2% in April 2019 to 59.2% in September 2019) even by a little, the Arab vote could potentially translate into two additional seats allocated either to the Joint List (for which 81.8% of the Arab preferences are cast) or to Kahol Lavan, the centre-right party, already chosen among the Jewish parties by the most Arab voters in the last round of elections. Either way, a higher Arab turnout would contribute to paving the way for the ousting of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rightly or wrongly identified as the first enemy of the Arab minority. This in spite of the acknowledged success of his economic endeavours, among which stands the “Five Years Plan 2015-2020” investing 20 billion shekels in the so-called “Arab sector” by assigning funds to local authorities to build infrastructures and boost education. The plan achieved concrete results, such as the roll-out of the first public transportation in Arab cities, a net increase in communities’ employment rates and in attainment of a sensitive increase in those with higher education (70% of Arab students enrolled in colleges and universities), though the Likud government underperformed in housing, crime and poverty reduction. However, the most serious responsibilities ascribed to Netanyahu relate to his relentless support for settlement construction and open disregard for Arab voters shown by installing cameras in polling stations in September 2019 and labelling them an “internal enemy” aimed at overturning the Israeli democracy from within. Consequently, Bibi’s current hopeless bid to regain some Arab voters by promising to launch direct flights to Mecca at discount rates for Muslim pilgrims appears to be an empty and belated gesture, likely to fall on deaf ears.
The Arab Joint List has also gained experience throughout the last four years. After the bold move to support a prospective Gantz government in the post-September 2019 coalition talks, it has not been disheartened by the Kahol Lavan leadership’s decision to corner it out of the political game, pledging not to include it in any government. It knows that appearances are deceptive and, notwithstanding Benjamin Gantz’s firm tone of rejection, his party is opening up to Arabs and reaching out to them, reassuring the Palestinians of Israel living in the so-called “Triangle” (the eastern side of the Sharon plain in the Galilee with the highest concentration of Arabs, 92% of all residents) against the potential “relocation” to a future Palestinian State envisaged in the “Deal of the Century” and promising to fight crime and further close educational and income gaps. In addition, public opinion is sensibly shifting in its favour, as proved by a recent Channel 13 survey showing that 44% of Jews would consider “legitimate” a government supported by Arab parties against 33% totally opposed to the idea. Furthermore, some Jews ditched by their progressive left-wing party (Meretz, merged with more centrist forces) are willing to break ranks and consider voting for the first time for an Arab List: a swing vote that could potentially translate into two more seats brought about by those disheartened Jews.
All things considered, the mounting tide of forthcoming change at the helm is working in their favour and makes the Arab List even more ambitious. Currently projected in the polls to win between 13 to 14 seats, it has set its sights on 16, considering itself able to raise the stakes if able to win the preferences of both the sceptical and quitter Arab voters and those of the Jews at the fringes. Unsurprisingly, the List had launched a campaign dedicated to each Jewish minority, targeting the ultra-Orthodox under the banner of the common fight against the “military draft”, the Ethiopians by the catchword of “combatting police brutality” and the Russians by way of promoting equality against the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.
The main goal is twofold: gaining credit both as a true national force with a progressive and comprehensive platform open to Jews and Arabs alike and changing the overall narrative, no longer portraying the Arabs as a problem but rather as an asset for the state of Israel. It does so by running campaign slogans in the interest of the many under the pioneering and enlightened leadership of its chairman Ayman Odeh. By advocating equality, the List claims to work to preserve the democratic character of the Jewish state, so far threatened by many Jewish groups and right-wing parties, by demanding equality, by cross-sectionally catering to the rights of other minorities too, and by repealing the Nation-State law, rejecting the Law of Return and calling for the “recognition of the rights of displaced persons” (a key point in the Joint List’s platform) to lay the foundation for a just peace that would imply the return of some Palestinians into what is currently Israel. In sum, the Arab Joint List places itself to the left of the Israeli political spectrum, filling a staggering void but also relying on the strength of numbers, being perfectly aware that, whatever the bombastic attacks coming from the Jewish parties, the 21% of Israelis the Arabs represent are there to stay, cannot be permanently ignored and will be increasingly vocal in politics too.