Israel’s Arab parties look to join forces again to oust Netanyahu

The two main Arab blocs are in discussions to replicate their electoral strength in 2015

Arab Israeli Knesset Member Ayman Odeh (L) speaks to the press as he stands next to the  head of the Arab Israeli Islamic Party's southern branch, Abbas Mansur, after a hearing at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 14, 2019, ahead of the upcoming general elections next month. - Arab parties represent the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land when Israel was created in 1948 and constitute nearly a fifth of the country's population.
The Joint List has separated and now Hadash, the communist party headed by Ayman Odeh, is running with Ahmed Tibi's Taal. Nationalistic group Balad joined forces with Raam, which represents the southern branch of the Islamic Movement. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
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Israel’s Arab-majority parties are looking to reunite in a joint list after the country’s Parliament dissolved itself on Thursday for a second election in September.

Leaders of the two main Arab party blocks, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad, are in discussions about forming a new coalition to boost their strength after the Arab Joint List split before the last election, in April.

"We began talks to rebuild the Joint List," Ahmad Tibi, head of the Arab Movement for Change party, told The National.

“We believe it’s possible and do-able, and will help to increase the turnout in elections and have more seats.”

Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab-majority Hadash party, said in a Facebook broadcast on Thursday night that it would discuss how to run in the coming days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government because two factions in his coalition feuded over a bill to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

Politicians across the spectrum are now scrambling to see how they can gain more seats and power than in the last vote.

Palestinian Arabs, who faced a barrage of hate speech in the last campaigns, are now looking to see what changes the Arab parties could make in their strategies.

“We need to talk about what we want from the Joint List and who can lead us,” said Rabea Eid, 30, a journalist from Haifa.

“It’s not about what you do when you’re out or in. It’s about what is our political project as Palestinians.”

Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel form 20 per cent of Israel’s population but hold very little political power in Israel’s coalition-style governments.

In 2015, the four Arab-majority parties decided to unite in a joint list to maximise their political influence.

More than 60 per cent of Palestinian Arab voters turned out and the Joint List gained 13 seats, making it the third-largest party in the country.

But In the lead-up to the 2019 election, infighting over ideologies and personalities split the list in two.

Many Palestinian Arabs consequently boycotted the election, frustrated by the internal divides and limited influence of Arab politicians in a hard-right political climate.

Turnout reached only 49 per cent in Arab communities and the parties won a combined 10 seats.

Mr Tibi said the results from the election in April would be used to determine the new joint party list.

Disagreements over the placement of party members on the list were reportedly part of the reason for the Joint List’s initial dissolution.

Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman, the staunchly secular and right-wing head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party has emerged from this week’s electoral impasse as the man who defeated Mr Netanyahu, at least for now.

On Thursday Mr Lieberman, who lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, criticised Mr Netanyahu for caving to the ultra-Orthodox and for calling him a leftist.

“He voted in favour of the disengagement [from the Gaza Strip] and prevented the evacuation of Khal Al Ahmar,” Mr Lieberman said.

He was referring to a Palestinian hamlet under threat of demolition in the occupied West Bank.

Mr Lieberman said he wanted a national government, not an ultra-Orthodox Jewish one.

Such statements are bringing him praise from liberal and centre or centre-left Israelis, who also oppose ultra-Orthodox control over the state and daily life.

But Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst, said it was Mr Lieberman’s campaign in 2009 that first used hate speech against Arabs and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

“No Loyalty, No Citizenship,” was one of his campaign slogans, which referred to his call for a loyalty test for Arab citizens. “Only Lieberman knows Arabic,” another stated.

In 2015, he called for “disloyal” Palestinian Arabs who lived within Israel’s borders to be beheaded.

“Ever since then it’s been a free for all for race-baiting,” Ms Scheindlin said.

She said it was too early to tell how the election would play out but predicted there would be low turnout, including Arab communities, whose parties are on the threshold of gaining enough votes to be admitted to Parliament.

“I think Palestinian Arabs and many Jewish citizens are going to view the system as fairly ineffective,” Ms Scheindlin said. “The electoral system in Israel looks dysfunctional.”

On Thursday, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel called on Israeli authorities “to respect international election standards” and address the institutional discrimination that Arab voters face in the electoral system.

“Efforts to disqualify Arab parties and candidates, no accessible polling booths for thousands of Arab Bedouin citizens, and the placement of hidden cameras at polling stations in Arab communities during the April elections all revealed clear attempts to harm the political representation of Palestinian citizens of Israel,” the organisation said.

“The Israeli Central Elections Committee, a political body that serves the current government, fails to ensure that elections are free, equal and fair for all citizens.”

To defeat Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition could this time court the interests of Arab voters, or try to attract Likud voters disillusioned with his leadership of their party.

The latter looks more likely given the deep divides between Arab and Jewish Israelis, and the political risk of the opposition aligning with Arab parties in an increasingly right-wing Israel.

In Mr Netanyahu's frantic bid to put together a coalition and avoid new elections, he told the Muslim-majority party Ra'am that he would end home demolitions, among other concessions, if Ra'am supported Likud's push to dissolve the government, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

In Parliament on Wednesday night, Mr Odeh mockingly took to the podium to announce that Mr Netanyahu had also offered him a deal.

He said Israel would end the occupation, cancel the Nation State law, and recognise the Nakba – the catastrophe following Israel's foundation where 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave or flee their homes – if Mr Odeh joined the right’s coalition.

His joking speech brought a moment of laughter in an otherwise tense room.

All of the Arab-majority parties ultimately voted with Likud in favour of dissolving the Parliament, breaking with the rest of the opposition who voted against.

Mr Odeh defended the decision on Facebook, saying that there was no other option to a Netanyahu government and dissolving the parliament could stop the release of America’s peace plan.

But Aida-Touma Soliman, a politician from Hadash-Ta’al, told Parliament on Wednesday night that the millions of shekels going towards the elections could be better spent addressing problems facing Arab and Palestinian communities inside Israel.