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The Arab Joint List Is Reshaping Israeli Politics

How Ayman Odeh could end up leading the opposition after next week’s legislative elections in Israel

David B. Green
March 12, 2015
Israeli Arab political leaders (front row from L to R) Aida Tuma, Masud Ghanayem, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Jamal Zahalka pose for a photo holding placards bearing text in Arabic meaning 'Go to vote for the Joint List, for a new tomorrow on March 17' in Nazareth, Feb. 24, 2015.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Arab political leaders (front row from L to R) Aida Tuma, Masud Ghanayem, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Jamal Zahalka pose for a photo holding placards bearing text in Arabic meaning ‘Go to vote for the Joint List, for a new tomorrow on March 17’ in Nazareth, Feb. 24, 2015.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Until a month ago, it looked as if Israel’s Arab parties might be denied a place in the 20th Knesset. In March 2014, the Knesset had passed the “Governance Bill,” which raises the threshold a party needs to meet in order to enter the legislature. While in past elections, a party needed to attract 2 percent of the vote (equivalent to three Knesset seats), the new bill pushed that up to 3.25 percent (equal to four seats).

The outgoing Knesset has three Arab, or mostly Arab, parties, two of which—Hadash, the former Communist party, and Balad, a secular Arab-nationalist list—would not meet the requirements under the new law. The third list, Ra’am-Ta’al, would make the cut only because it is really two parties—the Islamic Ra’am, and Ta’al, a moderate, secular party represented in parliament by Ahmed Tibi—who have hooked up in past elections for the purpose of not falling below the required percentage.

There is no doubt that the Governance Bill was intended to keep tiny parties, the kind that often form around a single issue or a narrow population group, out of the Knesset, a change that would increase the stability of government coalitions, since it reduces the possibility of small parties—including religious parties—holding the government hostage to attain its support for their limited goals. At the same time, however, it was widely understood that the bill—which was co-sponsored by Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose Moldavian-born leader appears to take pleasure in denigrating Israel’s Arab citizens—was an indirect attempt to push the Arab parties, none of which have ever been invited to join a coalition, out of Israel’s legislature altogether. For them, the new threshold seemed to pose an outright threat of extinction, especially given the shrinking rate of participation among eligible Arab voters.

Now, however, less than a week before the March 17 snap election, a very different scenario looks to be emerging. If the polls suggesting that the Arab voting rate could surge back above the 70 percent level are correct, the so-called Arab sector could find itself in a position of political influence it has never before enjoyed. Recent polls suggest that the number of representatives it will have in the new Knesset could reach 13 or more—and not in spite of the Governance Bill, but in large part thanks to it.

“They didn’t have much choice,” says sociologist Sammy Smooha about the decision to unite. Smooha, a professor at Haifa University, has been surveying the Arab public about its political attitudes since 2003. He notes that another possibility would have been for the four parties to split off into two joint lists—and negotiations to that effect did go on—but he says that “all the surveys around, for the last 15 years, showed that a joint list is the first choice of the Arab public.”

Yet no matter how much they may all “look alike” to some Israeli Jews, the country’s Arab citizens are no less fractious than the Jews are: Their political parties range, as noted, from being internationalist, Communist-lite (Hadash) to moderate Islamists (Ra’am; the more extreme Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement won’t participate in national elections) to Balad, probably the Middle East’s only remaining pan-Arab party.

The announcement that an alliance had been formed came only on Jan. 22, less than a week before the final deadline for parties to submit their lists of candidates for the March 17 election. Obviously, a candidate’s place on the list determines his or her chances of being elected, but no less tricky than determining the order of the list was the drafting of an eight-point platform that the Joint List’s four constituent parties—with their widely differing voter bases and philosophies—could all sign on to. Among those points are a demand for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states, including full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-Six Day War borders and realization of a Palestinian right of return; recognition of Israel’s Arab population as a national minority, which is to be afforded cultural, religious, and educational autonomy; and the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Other elements in what admittedly sounds more like a wish list than a practical program include a commitment to fight poverty and to raise the minimum wage and full equality for women in all areas of life.

Considering that two of the Joint List’s candidates are polygamists—not uncommon among Israel’s Bedouin population even though state law forbids it—and that its members from the Balad party advocate a state “of all its citizens,” by which they mean a binational state without any special Jewish identity or Law of Return, the agreement on a common platform is also quite an accomplishment. In particular, the insistence on equality for women is not to be taken for granted in the more traditional parts of Muslim Arab society.

A lot of credit for the creation of the list must go to the very visible man at its head, Ayman Odeh. A 40-year-old lawyer from Haifa, Odeh has been the secretary of Hadash since 2006, but this will be the first time he is (presumably) elected to Knesset. For more than a decade, Odeh has led a campaign among Arab youth to discourage them from volunteering for civilian national service in its current form, which is to say, as an alternative to military service, a program that is supervised by the Defense Ministry.

When I interviewed him on the subject three years ago he told me, “I have no problem with a young person volunteering in a hospital in Tel Aviv… Ahlan Usahlan,” using the Arabic expression meaning “Welcome.” His objection, rather, was to the nature of the changes being discussed at the time, starting with the proposal to make participation mandatory, not voluntary.

But that was just the start of his objections. My sense was that at the heart of all the opposition was the fact that a Knesset committee made up solely of Jewish politicians was discussing instituting a program that would be imposed on the Arab minority, without including any members of that minority in the planning process.

Next Tuesday’s election will lead either to a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a center-left government led by Yitzhak Herzog’s Zionist Camp (a cooperative venture of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party), or a “unity government,” in which Netanyahu and Herzog agree to share power and work together, maybe even by rotating the office of prime minister between them. Hard as it may be to imagine that last scenario, and as much as it may seem to presage political paralysis in terms of the numbers, a unity government may be the most likely outcome to an election out of which left- and right-wing camps seem destined to emerge with roughly the same number of seats.

If that is the case, the possibility exists that the official opposition, which is always led by the largest party not in the coalition, could be headed by the Joint List. By law, the prime minister is obligated to brief the opposition leader on the state of affairs once a month. Considering that Arabs have never been allowed to sit on the sensitive subcommittees of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, for fear they can’t be trusted with state secrets, it’s hard to imagine Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, briefing Opposition Leader Ayman Odeh on plans for bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.

The only way that Herzog would be able to form a center-left coalition is with the support of the Arab Joint List, which would have to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Herzog form the government. In the past, none of the Arab parties has participated in the process of making a recommendation to the president. While Odeh has said explicitly that his list “will not sit in a coalition”—no Arab party would want to share ministerial responsibility for the next war—he has, however, hinted strongly that the Joint List could support a Herzog-led government “from the outside,” which would mean voting with the coalition in the Knesset without formally joining it.

Interviewed in late February on Israel’s TV Channel 1, Odeh declared that, “We really truly want to influence. … If we find a partner who will agree to our demands of peace and of equality between Jews and Arabs, we will be able to support them.” For those Arabs and Jews who see a peaceful future for Israel dependent on cooperation between the two groups, the prospect of the Joint List supporting a coalition from the outside, and of Arab List MKs even playing leadership roles on Knesset committees and subcommittees, would be welcome.

But being a player, after close to seven decades of being the perennial outside, will take some adjusting. Despite the reconciliatory noises made by Odeh to the Hebrew-language press during the campaign (he’s comfortable enough in the language and culture of the Jewish majority that he will pepper his comments with Talmudic quotes, or analogies from Zionist history), a failure by the Arab List to agree to an excess vote-sharing arrangement with Meretz last week was a sign that not all of the list’s members have the same approach to cooperation. Meretz is a Zionist party, but it has always supported a two-state solution and taken a progressive stance on issues of economic equality, human rights, and other subjects of crucial importance to most Arabs. In short, it shares a lot of positions with the Joint List. Nonetheless, the latter decided not to go with Meretz on an excess-vote arrangement, reportedly because of the objections of Balad, which according to one account was not willing in principle to sign a deal with a Zionist party, but according to another feared it would drive away voters.

Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon, whose party is now polling at five seats, which puts it uncomfortably close to the threshold, was sharp in her criticism of the Joint List. “Meretz has proved that it is the only party that believes in true Jewish-Arab solidarity. I hope this isn’t the decision that will condemn us to another four years of Netanyahu’s rule,” she warned.

In the end, Meretz signed a sharing deal with the Zionist Camp, but its preference would have been the Joint List, which didn’t sign an agreement with anyone. The loss of the potential extra seat that having such a pooling arrangement could yield could determine what sort of government emerges from the election. No matter what its composition, that government may now have to reckon with the representatives of Israel’s Arab population in a new way.


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David B. Green is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, and writes its “This Day in Jewish History” column.

David B. Green is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, and writes its “This Day in Jewish History” column.