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Israeli Political Scene Influenced by Failure of Arab Parties to Merge

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Although far from the center of the political tempest, the failure of two Arab splinter parties to form a join list for the June 23 Knesset elections could have far-reaching political consequences for the country and the region.

Most Israelis, caught up in the mounting campaign frenzy, were not even aware last week that the Arab Democratic Party, led by Abd-el Wahab Darousha, and the Progressive List for Peace, headed by Mohammed Miari, failed to reach an agreement on how to join forces in the coming elections.

The two Arab Knesset members despise each other. Nevertheless, their mutual interest in survival demanded that they try to form a single Arab list.

Most Israelis feel this is internal Arab business of little concern outside the Arab community. But given the present political situation, the animosity between two Arab Knesset members could prevent the Labor Party from either forming the next government or blocking another Likud-led coalition of right-wing and religious parties.

Of Israel’s approximately 780,000 Arab citizens, over 300,000 are expected to vote next month. That is a formidable bloc representing about 12 percent of the electorate, equivalent to 13 Knesset seats.

If the Arabs ever united behind a single party, they would constitute the third-largest political force in Parliament. The Labor Party, which the Arab community seems to prefer over Likud, would have an unbeatable advantage building a governing coalition.

But Israeli Arabs have traditionally dissipated their vote between the Communist Party, which has no influence whatsoever in Israeli politics, Zionist parties such as Labor, and the three small leftist parties that have consolidated this year into the Meretz bloc.

Some Arabs have voted for Likud and even for the National Religious Party, which is Orthodox Zionist.

Darousha and Miari barely managed to get themselves elected to the Knesset when the minimum for one seat was 1 percent of the total votes cast.

This year, the minimum has been raised to 1.5 percent of an expected 2.5 million votes. That means that each Arab party will need to poll nearly 40,000 votes to stay in Parliament.

Both parties realized that would be difficult, if not impossible. Although Darousha and Miari barely speak to each other, serious negotiations were begun some time ago aimed at creating a united Arab party.

There is a public yearning for one in the Israeli Arab community and the influential Islamic movement in Israel hinted it would give its blessings to such a union.

But last weekend they gave up the effort. Darousha, confident that he was more popular in the “streets” than his rival, closed ranks with a small body of Arab mayors and started campaigning on his own.

Miari added a Christian Arab to his list, hoping for the support of Israel’s Christian community.

But it seems more likely that thousands of Arab votes will again be wasted on the Communist Party, which has always been excluded from coalition governments even though it is larger than some of the parties in the government.

Those lost votes would be essential to the creation of a Labor-led coalition. At the very least, they would assure a bloc of 60 leftist Knesset members barring the way to a Likud-led coalition with the right.

As matters stand now, much depends on the Islamic movement.

In the past, it opposed Arab participation in the Knesset elections on principle. It is trying to decide now whether to oppose the upcoming elections as well. A recommendation is expected in the next few days.

If the movement urges its supporters to vote, many of those disenchanted with the two Arab parties may cast their ballots for Labor or Meretz. The latter list, composed of the Citizens Rights Movement, Mapam and Shinui, stands to gain the most.

That too could radically alter Israel’s political complexion.

But if the Islamic movement, as expected, takes no stand or tells its followers to stay home on Election Day, the 1988 results may be repeated. They led to a Likud-Labor unity government which could accomplish little and soon fell apart.

Thus, paradoxically, the outcome of next month’s elections may be influenced fundamentally by Moslem religious extremists who up to now opposed the very existence of the Jewish state.

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