Sunday, September 20, 2020

Will the union of Israel‘s Arab Parties bring change

By Mona Martin - February 18, 2015
Section: [Main News]
Tags: [Palestinian citizens of Israel]

For the very first time in history, Israel's Arab Parties have decided to run for elections with a unified list, hoping to gain enough seats in the parliament to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from building a new right-wing coalition.

Israel's twentieth round of parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 2015. The 120 seats in the parliament--known as the Knesset--are distributed according to the percentage of votes a party's list achieves in the elections. After the Knesset members are elected, the collectively decide on the executive branch, the government. As Israel's political landscape is very fragmented, no party has ever reached a majority of parliamentary seats on it's own. Parties are therefore compelled to form coalitions in order to build a government.

If a majority of members is not satisfied with the governmental decisions, the parliament has the ability to dissolve itself by calling for new elections before the end of the four-year period. As what happened with the present Knesset. The last election took place barely two years ago, on 22 January 2013.

One major difference between the upcoming elections and all the previous ones is the higher voter percentage parties have to overcome to enter the Knesset. When in 2013 parties had to accumulate a voters percentage of at least 2%, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition managed to pass a law that set a new threshold of 3.25% that voters must attain in order to occupy parliamentary seats.

This law has been widely perceived as an attempt to reduce the participation of opposition parties in parliament, such as the Arab parties and the socialist Hadash. Together they formally represent the Palestinian citizens of Israel, about 20% of Israel’s population.The fusion of the Arab parties and Hadash into a joint list is seen as a matter of survival, as separately they would not be able to surpass the 3.25% threshold. The new law therefore constitutes a direct threat to representation of Israel’s Palestinian in Israeli politics.

The new Arab union consists of four parties, which together currently hold 11 seats: The socialist Hadash party, an offspring of Israel's former communist Party and nominally the only party to include both Jewish and Arab members (even though very few members are Jewish), in addition to Ta'al and the United Arab List, who have run on a joint list since 2006 and include religious and Arab-nationalist ideologies. The threesome will combine with the Arab-nationalist Balad party in order to merge their votes and enter the Knesset despite the raised 3.25% threshold.

Hopes are that the Arab party’s alliance will lead to a sufficient number of votes to enter the Knesset, if not even increasing their number of seats therein. To meet these goals, an increase in the chronically low Arab voter turnout has to be achieved through mobilizing new voters, including those who formerly boycotted Israeli elections. Thus, the joint Arab List promises a common program, focusing on the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, responding to a major concern of the Palestinian population in Israel.

The current Knesset includes 11 Arab members — four members from the United Arab List, four members from Hadash, and three members from Balad. All three of these parties are part of the new union. Polls predict that the list will win between 12 and 15 seats in the Knesset. These predictions have given way to a great deal of enthusiasm.

“The right-wing is called the 'national camp,’ Herzog and Livni formed the 'Zionist camp,’ and we have established the democratic camp. The Arabs constitute a large percentage of the country’s population, and we will put our full weight into the next elections to ensure that the right-wing will not return to power. This will be our contribution,” said Ayman Odeh, the leader of the united Arab list, in a news conference on January 23 2015.

The percentage of Arab voters willing to go to the polls has increased compared to the last two elections, leaving politicians of the joint Arab list in an upbeat mood about the 2015 election's outcome.

For supporters of Arab participation in the election, the main goal is to block the coalition-building process by hardline right-wing parties in parliament, and thus prevent a right-wing government. This is particularly important as the right-wing would have good chances of passing the Jewish state draft law,  a law that would define Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and further increase the existing discrimination against minorities in Israel.

In case of acquiring their current 11 or more seats in the Knesset, the Arab unity list could assist the opposition's parties, Labor and Hatnuah, to form a government. Whether or not such a move would be a give way to more political representation and a general improvement of the Palestinian-Israeli situation, however, remains doubtful. The thing is, without the presence of Israel’s Arab parties, the Zionist center and left parties have no hope of ousting Netanyahu and the right, according to Prof. Assad Ghanem from the Political Science Department at Haifa University.

Their success depends on their capability to not only join forces on paper, but to also work out a joint and consistent political program, representing the whole of the Arab-Israeli electorate from nationalist to religious to separatist mind-sets -- a range not so easy to embrace. It is questionable if secular voters will give their vote to a list that includes members prioritising the promotion of conservative religious values. Thus, the presentation of themselves as the democratic camp is essential for the new joint list.

For exponents of boycotting the elections, simply helping the center-left-wing parties win the majority over their right-wing opponents isn't enough, as their policies concerning Arab matters don't differ much. There would be little to no progress for the Arab-Israeli public. Arab participation in Israel's elections could even cause considerable damage, as it would serve in sustaining Israel's image as the only democracy in the Middle East and would allow it to gain legitimacy in the West.

Advocates of Palestinian rights, like Jonathan Cook or Salman Masalha, strongly oppose playing along with what they call Israel's sham-democracy. They see no difference as to whether there are Arab parties present in the parliament or not, since they have never been, and will never be, included in any ruling coalition either way. The merging efforts won't change the fact that so-called center-left-wing parties like Labor and Hatnuah will not tolerate Arab participation in their government, even if they owed them their election victory. Salman Masalha doesn't see a difference between the situation before the 3.25% threshold and now. His withering conclusion is therefore that the “Knesset has nothing to offer to Israel's Arab citizens.”

Palestine Monitor spoke to Wa'ad Ghantous, a political activist and Palestinian citizen of Israel from the city of Haifa, about her thoughts on the upcoming elections. Ghantous said she plans on boycotting the elections because she doesn't want to be part of the Israeli political game. It would send the message of Israel as a democracy, when it really is not. “Voting would mean accepting Israel as a state, a democratic one. I don't feel as an Israeli citizen. I simply have the [Israeli] ID because they occupied our land and my parents didn't want to leave,” Ghantous said. 

Ghantous argued that if she were to vote, it would encourage the separation Israel wants to force upon Palestinian living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and those Palestinians who happen to possess an Israeli ID card. 

“The West Bank and the Israeli Palestinians need to be one, we need to fight the occupation together as one,” argued Ghantous.

She doesn't cherish a hope that the new Arab party union will bring change. “The Union is the result of the higher threshold. They only did it to stay in the Knesset but it's not what the Palestinians want. They have a right to be in the Knesset, but they can't change anything. The right-wing will continue their fascist rule.”

Nadim Nashif, Director of Baladna Association for Arab Youth in Haifa, partly opposes this opinion. Although he too doesn’t expect the Arab union to make “significant changes in parliament,” he considers it a “good first step in the context of 1948 and Israeli politics.” He sees the union as a good display of unity against extreme right-wing policies, which are “linked to a much larger and systematic process of 'divide and conquer,’ as well as to attempts to destroy Palestinian identity among Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, “ a message he wants not only to be sent locally, but internationally as well. Therefore, even though Nadim Nashif is sure that the Arab union won't be part of the ruling coalition, he supports – along with a majority of Palestinian-Israeli citizens, he says – their step toward a joint front against Israel's “racist apartheid“ policies.

When talking to Itamar Manoff, a young, politically active Israeli Hebrew teacher, one seems to be able to grasp both hope and resignation about the current situation in Israel. “ [Greater Arab participation]  could increase significantly the power of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset. Traditionally, the Arab parties were all but disregarded during the building of coalitions. The Jewish parties never made a coalition agreement with any Arab or Jewish-Arab party, and even Yitzhak Rabin, back in the day, depended on their [the Palestinian citizens of Israel] support from outside the coalition in order to pass the Oslo accords in the Knesset; a move he was subsequently assassinated for. So any move that would increase representation of the Arab minority in Israel is a good thing, I just hope they are able to make the most of it.“

Manoff says he plans to vote for the Arab unity list, as this list is the only entity that stands for democratic values. His statement combines the hope of a united Arab List raises, but also the resignation, as without governmental participation there will not be any change in Israel's policies regarding its Arab population. In his opinion, however, any change is better than the current situation.








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