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Israel’s Arab Joint List Comes Apart as Elections Approach
Members of the Joint List (L to R) Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at his residence in Jerusalem after the last election, September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s Arab Joint List Comes Apart as Elections Approach

The Arab majority alliance, the third largest party in the Knesset, appears to have split over the Islamic faction's demand that right-wing allies be considered

Last week, the Joint List – Israel’s majority Arab political party – celebrated its fifth anniversary. And days later it split up over seemingly insurmountable tensions.

Sources within the four majority Arab parties that made up the Joint List alliance cited lawmaker Mansour Abbas’ divergence from the alliance’s policy of non-cooperation with the Israeli right as the main reason for division. It is not clear, however, that the breakup is permanent, or if other configurations of the alliance will emerge by Thursday, when official party lists are closed.

The four parties that made up the Joint List in the latest election, in March 2020, together garnered a record 15 seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset.

The alliance announced late on January 27 that it would split; and a day later the Knesset House Committee approved the breakup.

The Joint List, which has claimed to represent the entire Arab community in Israel, was built of an unlikely assortment of political movements.

Hadash, sitting on the far-left side of the political field, is a party with strong Marxist undercurrents. Balad wears the Palestinian-nationalist hat in the coalition, and Ra’am – also known as the United Arab List – is the political wing of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, an Islamist movement that advocates for Islam in Israel. Finally, there is Ta’al, whose ideological underpinnings are frankly unclear, but is a longtime advocate of the interests of Israeli Arabs, and calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Under the split approved last week, Hadash and Balad will continue together using the name the Joint List, while Ra’am and Ta’al, headed by Ahmad Tibi, will run as separate parties. Though this still could change before Thursday.

Tensions within the alliance have led it to separate.  Surprisingly, though, it was not the deep tension that exists between communist, nationalist and Islamic ideology but rather, Ra’am head Abbas’ decision that no political partner is off limits in the struggle to further Israeli Arab interests – not even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or hawkish head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Liberman.

“The main cause for the split is Mansur Abbas’ insistence on diverging from the Joint List’s parliamentary agenda and political platform, not abiding by the agreement he signed, and trying to introduce a new kind of political culture that makes the rights of the Arab citizens negotiable for the sake of a political position,” Mtanes Shihadeh, former head of Balad, told The Media Line.

Tension between the four majority Arab parties has been building for months, fueled by Abbas’ signaling to Netanyahu and his party that an alliance is not off limits, a move harshly criticized by his fellow Joint List members. Their disagreements played out on local radio stations and in other media, with party officials publicly attacking each other.

The core of the disagreement is the Islamic Movement’s ‘fall’ towards Bibi and the Likud. That is what interests us. That is what we consider off-limits and wrong – we cannot be Bibi’s safety net … our disagreement starts here.

Hadash’s party secretary Mansour Dahamsheh points to Abbas’ willingness to consider an alliance with Israel’s right as the cause for the separation. “The core of the disagreement is the Islamic Movement’s ‘fall’ towards Bibi and the Likud,” Dahamsheh said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “That is what interests us. That is what we consider off-limits and wrong – we cannot be Bibi’s safety net … our disagreement starts here.”

Dahamsheh, however, said that the Joint List isn’t going anywhere at present. “The Joint List hasn’t dissolved, the southern branch of the Islamic movement has simply left us. They are the ones that abandoned the Joint List. The Joint List is continuing on its path with its three components.”

Balad’s former head appeared less certain about the future. He told The Media Line that the disbanding of the Joint List “isn’t final – whether it will be comprised of three elements or two. The manner of division isn’t final … a three-way negotiation between Hadash, Balad and Tibi is currently going on. And there are people that are trying to hold on to the quadruple, hold on to the Joint List.”

It is logical that some within the Joint List are fighting to keep it united. The idea of running on a united ticket has appealed to Arab voters in Israel, and led to an increase in turn out to the polls among Arab Israeli voters in the last few elections. About 90% of all Arab voters chose the Joint List, helping the party make history last year with its 15 seats out of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament.

But it is has become clear that some in the alliance do not believe they were able to achieve enough as Israel’s third-largest party.

Ra’am leader Abbas apparently thinks that a fundamental change in strategy is required. Waleed al-Hawashla, head of Ra’am’s faction in the Knesset told The Media Line that “Mansour Abbas and Ra’am are trying to advance the interests of the Arab sector.” He said that the Balad, Hadash and Ta’al factions “have always been on the left. They make decisions and vote for [the Israeli left’s] proposals automatically. We don’t accept this paradigm. We want to stand in the middle, consider things, and if we can advance the interests of the Arab sector, why not? You can’t play the political game while sitting on the bench. You can’t manage the game, you can’t play it – you need to be in the field and play it to the end. The question is how do we further our citizens’ interests.”

Ra’am is demanding is that all political options be left on the table, including alliances with Israel’s right. And while his former allies are blaming Abbas for legitimizing the Israeli right and cozying up to Netanyahu, the Islamic party’s head is demanding that the Joint List stop fighting for Arab interests with political limitations that they consider struggling with one hand tied behind one’s back.

We were excited about having a unified voice representing us in the Knesset. The breakup of the Joint List will most definitely weaken the Arabs

Al-Hawashla highlighted another issue that is considered key by the Islamic Movement and its party, and said that if the unified party is to continue to exist, a first condition is “respect for the [Islamic] religious values – and not to vote for bills for the LGBT community.” The head of the party’s faction was referring to some Joint List lawmaker’s support of a bill forbidding so-called “conversion therapy” in July 2020. Al-Hawashla tied this to the Joint List’s recent loss of a third of its power, with surveys showing it is projected to receive only 10 seats in the March elections. “The loss of seats by the Joint List began with the voting for the bill proposed by Meretz for the rights of LGBT. Then begun the decline of the Joint List, with the voting of Balad and Hadash members for those LGBT bills – that stands in contradiction to the religious values of our Arab society, and we cannot agree to these votes,” he said.

Many Joint List voters are unhappy about the separation of the alliance. Amal Abu Ras, a mother of four from the Arab Israeli town of Qalansawa, says she voted for the united Arab Joint List in every election since its creation in 2015. “We were excited about having a unified voice representing us in the Knesset. The breakup of the Joint List will most definitely weaken the Arabs,” she said. “I blame the politicians for putting their own narrow agenda ahead of the public good. I think it may affect turnout in the election,” she added.

Shahin Nassar, a journalist and communist activist from Haifa, agrees that fewer Arabs will turn out to vote. “It is obvious that it will cause a decrease in the voting rate within the Arab sector. Not only because of the division, but because of people’s disappointment with the leaders that couldn’t overcome their personal differences,” he said.

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