Expectations for heightened Arab involvement in Israeli national politics are rising. There is a chance that the newly formed Joint List, bringing together four Arab political parties, could generate a higher voter turnout on March 17 than those parties had previously attracted as separate lists, and possibly make the united Arab bloc the official opposition in the next Knesset.
Arab turnout has generally lagged, as about half of eligible voters typically boycotted national elections not only to protest the Israeli government but also to register disenchantment with Arab Knesset members. In 2013, only 56 percent of the Arab electorate voted.
The current “get out the vote” campaign in Arab communities throughout Israel is in overdrive, sparking an energetic, popular buzz. Projected participation could be as high as 70 percent, which would be close to the 1999 election, when Arab voting spiked to an unusual 75 percent.
Two game-changing developments have spurred the current political activism. First, the very fact that the four parties — Balad, Hadash, Raam (United Arab List), and Ta’al — agreed to join forces for the 2015 election shows that the different groups can set aside their ideological differences and the egos of party leaders in pursuit of what they consider the greater good of the Arab community. What initially prompted this move was Israel’s decision a year ago to raise the minimum requirement for Knesset seats from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of the vote. Raising the threshold imperils smaller parties, Jewish as well as Arab, that may not win enough votes to return to the Knesset.
Second, forming one party was a direct response to the preferences of Israeli Arabs. A Haifa University poll ahead of the 2013 elections found that 76 percent of Arab voters supported the creation of one unified Arab list. More recently, in December 2014, a poll by +972 Magazine found that nearly 68 percent said they would “definitely” vote if the existing Arab parties created a joint list.
The Arab parties made a dramatic decision, choosing as head of the Joint List a 40-year-old Haifa attorney, Ayman Odeh, of Hadash, who has never served in the Knesset. This fresh face, too, may encourage voter turnout. Many in the Arab community have long favored introducing new, young individuals to the party lists.
Odeh has said that Arab political leaders must focus on their constituents’ concerns, on such domestic issues as budgets for municipalities, employment, education, transportation, and the status of officially unrecognized Bedouin communities. He has come across in interviews and in a televised debate with the heads of other parties as a pragmatic leader.
Knesset members Ahmad Tibi of Ta’al and Hanin Zoabi of Balad, two of the most outspoken and confrontational Knesset members regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and now with the Joint List, may well challenge efforts to shift the focus to the domestic agenda. Maintaining unity among the Joint List members after Election Day will be challenging, but Odeh potentially could transform Jewish-Arab relations by partnering with Jewish MKs to effectively improve the daily lives of Arab citizens.
Seventy percent of Israeli Arabs want their representatives in the Knesset to focus more on improving their social and economic situations and less on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a Haaretz poll last month.
Odeh believes that the Joint List could win at least 13 Knesset seats. If Likud and the Zionist Camp join in a national unity government, and his party is the third largest faction in the Knesset, the Arab bloc could be the official opposition in the legislature. Or, if the Zionist Camp or Likud is able to form the government without the other, the Joint List still will be able to play an influential role on behalf of the 20 percent of Israel’s population who are Arab.
It is unlikely that the Joint List would be invited to join a governing coalition, even one headed by Labor leader Isaac Herzog, part of the Zionist Camp. However, the day an Arab party joins the government and sits in the cabinet will mark a giant step forward for Jewish-Arab relations.
Still, even in opposition there will be opportunities to press for resolution of long-simmering issues in ways that would improve conditions for Arab citizens and also strengthen Israeli society as whole. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Odeh voiced optimism that he would lead the opposition in the next Knesset.
While he and his colleagues continue to advocate Palestinian statehood as part of a peace deal with Israel, Odeh emphasizes a ten-year plan dealing mainly with domestic policy “to tackle issues pertinent to the Arab sector.”
President Reuven Rivlin has stated that Arabs and Jews in Israel “were destined to live side by side, together, with a shared fate,” and argued that the quality of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel “will have a decisive impact upon our future, the Israeli economy and, also I believe, the chances of reaching a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Whoever forms the next coalition government, Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog, will need to find ways, in cooperation with the Joint List, to develop concrete action plans to mprove the social and economic conditions of Israel’s Arab communities. “Establishing partnership between us is an existential need,” President Rivlin recently stated.
The 2015 elections could be a positive turning point for relations between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations (ajc.org).