Ayman Odeh (C), leader of the Joint List alliance, gives an address with other alliance leaders at their electoral headquarters in Israel's northern city of Shefa-Amr on March 2, 2020, after polls officially closed. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

For Arab Israeli Politicians, A Historic Achievement, Challenges Ahead

Analysts say the Joint List’s strong electoral showing provides a golden opportunity to advance the interests of the Arab public but meeting expectations won’t be easy

Arab citizens of Israel made history Monday by winning more seats for an Arab-majority list than have ever before been elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. The Joint List, an alliance of four Arab-led parties, will have 15 seats in the upcoming parliament, two more than it had in the last Knesset, consolidating its place as the third-largest parliamentary bloc.

Arab citizens constitute about a fifth of the electorate. Only 49% of them turned out for last April’s election, but that figure rose to 59% in September’s round. This time, turnout reached almost 65%, making it the highest Arab voter turnout since 1999.

Approximately 88.3% of Arab voters supported the Joint List.

Honaida Ghanim, director general of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR) in Ramallah, told The Media Line that despite this historic success, the Joint List’s power to effect change will be limited.

“The ability of the Joint List in practice to achieve great accomplishments is limited by virtue of the structure of the state, the rules of its system, the historical dimension, all the context that exists. On the other hand, the Joint List may see its influence mainly at the level of policies related to daily life through its representation on the various committees. The party’s electoral strength, giving it the ability to be on several committees, translates into achievements for Arabs that directly impact their daily needs.”

Ghanim says people should distinguish between two levels: the national and “daily needs.”

“[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s entire election campaign was based on marginalizing the Arabs, removing them from the circle of legitimate citizenship, and placing them at least on the ineffective margin.”

The Joint List campaigned heavily with one goal: to bring down Netanyahu, whose Likud party and its right-wing and religious allies won 58 seats – just three short of a majority.

Antoine Shalhat, an Israeli Arab author and journalist for the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR), told The Media Line the Joint List has yet to achieve its main goal.

“This promise so far hasn’t been fulfilled; it’s difficult to say they have been able to deliver on this. Netanyahu has not fallen completely and the possibilities of him forming a government still exist.”

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh didn’t hide his feelings following the election results, making no secret of who was to blame for not taking down Netanyahu.

“I am proud of our people. This is the highest result since the First Knesset in 1949. This time we passed the 13-member barrier. This is a historic achievement. The problem is the failed Blue and White party, which wants to imitate the original Right. They are responsible.”

Shalhat says that the Joint List has accomplished a lot.

“Now the real achievement of the Joint List is that it succeeded in raising the turnout and increasing its strength. Also, this is the third time that Arab-majority parties are running together on a united list, consolidating this experience. This essentially means the unity of Arab political action within the framework of the Israeli state.”

Ghanim agrees. She says that this election round, the Arab politicians were able to unite the majority under the banner of the Joint List.

“The first thing in practice is the feeling of confidence that it transmitted, that the Palestinians in Israel are able to organize themselves and are able to work together. A lot of cooperation and discipline is needed. This is at the collective psychological level that generalizes and strengthens the group’s sense of self-confidence, and most importantly fortifies the collective internal position and gives them legitimacy.”

Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, told The Media Line that the Israeli political scene witnessed an “earthquake” Monday night.

“Arab citizens of Israel want to take matters into their own hands. They felt that involvement is the only way to make change,” Abu Rass said. “Arabs didn’t trust that any of the Jewish parties have their [Arab] interests on their agendas, so the only logical choice for them was the Joint List.”

Many of the Arab concerns revolve around their daily needs.

A number of issues were at the heart of the Joint List campaign. Arab citizens of Israel are looking for their representatives to immediately start working on major daily concerns: among them, the increased violence in Arab communities, home demolitions, and lack of available land for residential building.

Another issue that Shalhat says played a major role in getting out a record number of Arab voters was the hugely controversial nation-state law, which he describes as an “apartheid” law.

“Do not forget that this Knesset operates after the enactment of the nation-state law, which recognizes that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. I mean, everyone who is not a Jew, according to this law, is a second-class citizen.”

Last January, US President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Mideast peace plan, known in the region as the “deal of the century.”

The controversial initiative calls for some Arab Israeli towns and villages to be transferred to the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state.

The announcement infuriated many Arab Israelis and it immediately became a rallying point uniting some 350,000 residents of the area in question, known as “the Triangle.”

Abu Rass says the fear of having their citizenship stripped motivated people to go out and vote.

“The Joint List is viewed by Arabs as the defender of their rights and the only political entity that would protect their presence in their land.”

Ghanim says the incitement by Netanyahu against the Arabs coupled with President Trump’s plan made people feel singled out and isolated.

“In my opinion, there is a feeling of existential threat that Netanyahu and the ‘deal of the century’ have transmitted. In my opinion, this is the most important factor playing a role in the feeling that they are being targeted.”

Ghanim says that representing the needs and fulfilling the expectations of its constituents will be a tall order for the Joint List and that many challenges await it in the 23rd session of Israel’s parliament.

“The task is difficult. You are talking about a list with four different political streams from the communist to the Islamist, from all social backgrounds: Druze, Muslim, Christian, secular, religious and Jewish. This is a source for strength.” However, says Ghanim, it could also be a source of “weakness, differences and bickering.”

Ghanim says despite all the challenges, the Joint List has a golden opportunity to prove itself.

“The Joint List is carrying a heavy burden of expectations from everyone, not only from within but also from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the diaspora. We are talking about a [parliamentary] list that will work to combat a system built basically to eliminate their legitimacy and try to block them. Their task is difficult. Balancing between daily, national and international expectations is not an easy task but if they manage it wisely, in my opinion, this will strengthen them ahead.”

Shalhat says that if the 15 Joint List parliamentarians don’t achieve all they have promised, it would be unfair to say they failed.

“The Joint List will be judged based on its performance in parliament,” he argues, though if its representatives cannot deliver on their campaign promises, the blame should not fall exclusively on them. “It will not be dependent solely on its performance, because the Israeli Knesset and all the Israeli government authorities in recent years are getting more extreme and they are shifting toward the right, and this is reflected in the policies against Arabs.”

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