A close look at the results of this Israeli parliamentary election in comparison to the 2013 election reveals no significant movement on the balance of power between the left and right blocs in the country. But the decision to raise the minimum share of the votes required for a party to win seats in the Knesset from 2 percent of the vote to 3.25 percent is likely to have a long-term impact on domestic politics.
Israel’s hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman initiated the change to exclude the small Arab parties from the Knesset. But fearing that they would each not meet the minimum threshold alone, the Arab parties united into a single Joint List. Although pre-election hopes that the Joint List could garner 15 seats and be the decisive member of a left-wing bloc that could unseat Netanyahu did not materialize, it became the third largest list in parliament – a first in Israeli politics – increasing its representation by nearly 20 percent to 13 seats total. This electoral success, if leveraged correctly, could lay the foundation for the rehabilitation of the pro-democracy and pro-peace camp in Israel and perhaps even position it to muster together a coalition capable of winning the next election.
The work required for such a development is tremendous, but there is a growing understanding among the list’s ranks and in some circles on the Jewish left that there is now a unique opportunity that should not be missed. The list was cobbled together, only two months before the election, out of four divergent political parties. It brought the Islamic Movement (a daughter organization of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) together with liberal secularists, feminists, Arab nationalists and socialists. It also included Muslim, Christian and Jewish parliamentarians.
The list had to convince the Arab population of Israel that the parties could work together by coordinating an effective national campaign that focused on unity against a right-wing government that seeks to marginalize Palestinians, and by avoiding wedge issues. Many in the 1.7 million strong community regard the Knesset as ineffective and chose in the past to boycott national elections. But the list’s campaign efforts led to a rise in Arab turnout rates, from 56 percent in 2013 to around 65 percent in the recent election, with 85 percent of Arab voters casting their ballot for the Joint List. The list has received a mandate to represent the community as a whole in a coordinated manner.
For its part, Benjamin Netanyahu’s likely coalition government is expected to continue on its past record of ultranationalist and discriminatory rhetoric and legislation. It will likely continue to expand settlements, weaken the Palestinian Authority, maintain a tenuous truce with Hamas, and economically, continue to harm the poorer sectors of society, among which Arabs are disproportionately represented.
According to the its spokesman Raja Zaatry, the Joint List will have to remain united but also provide each member of the coalition room to independently pursue some of their priorities in order to address these challenges. Disintegration would severely harm the credibility of all parties in the list, which have spent much of their campaign convincing voters that their union was a matter of principle rather than an interest in maintaining seats in the Knesset.
But unity is not enough; the list will have to demonstrate effectiveness even as it remains outside the halls of power with little access to decision-making. A survey by Tel Aviv University among Arab voters indicates that most want their representatives to focus primarily on pressing domestic social, economic and political needs first, and then address the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Focusing on improving public services, education, employment, reducing crime and fighting discrimination will be the measure by which Arab constituents judge their representatives. Tangible actions on these fronts will sustain the vote of confidence the list generated.
Moreover, cooperation with potential partners on the Jewish political spectrum will be key in making the list an indispensable part of any strong and effective opposition in the new Knesset. Zaatry has already affirmed the list’s intent to establish a broad-based coalition in support of equality and ending the occupation. Yet there are disagreements within the list on its precise role within Israeli politics. Some members, especially from the socialist Hadash Party in addition to the list’s head Ayman Odeh, stress Arab-Jewish partnership and support for a pro-democracy camp that could unseat Netanyahu in the future. Others, particularly within the nationalist Balad Party, view their role in parliament as a symbolic protest against Zionism and therefore shun cooperation. But voters remain less divided on the issue than the parties representing them. In a pre-election survey for Haaretz, 58 percent of Arab Israeli respondents said the list should join a left-wing coalition, should Labor be able to form one. Twenty-two percent said it should not join a Labor-led coalition, but would still support it nonetheless in parliament. Only 14 percent said that the list should not back any side.
Focusing on social issues can serve as a rallying issue for Arab and Jewish citizens of a broad political spectrum. In a powerful symbolic move during the pre-election debate, for example, Odeh addressed Aryeh Deri, the head of the largest ultra-Orthodox party Shas, and stated that the Jewish poor and the ultra-Orthodox (also overrepresented among the poor) have a shared interest with the Arab population in improving living standards. If the Joint List reaches out to low-income Mizrahi Jews – constituencies who tend to vote for Shas or Likud but have shared economic concerns with the Arab community – it could build bridges to new sectors and further expand the ranks of the pro-democracy, equality, and peace bloc. But if Labor enters Netanyahu’s coalition, especially after his incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens (an unlikely scenario but one not yet off the table in coalition negotiations), it will seriously hinder chances of forming a strong opposition bloc.
The Joint List accomplished in this recent election what was thought impossible: making an Arab list the third largest in the Knesset and restoring some hope in the democratic process among a disenfranchised population. If the list can harness the momentum it has generated, it could significantly change Israeli politics in the foreseeable future.
Lihi Ben Shitrit is an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens. Mahmoud Jarabais a researcher at the Erlangen Center for Islam and Law in Europe, Germany. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).