By: Jacob Lewis
Although the Arab proportion of the population of Israel has steadily increased, their political parties continue to face exclusion and derision from the Jewish-Zionist parties within the Knesset. Recent elections have caused an appearance of change in this relationship; but in order to determine whether these developments will have any lasting effects, the current iterations of the Arab political parties need to be defined. The contemporary ideologies of the Arab parties and the way they function among a vast majority of Jewish Zionists in Israeli politics must be explored to comprehend how the parties fit into modern Israeli governance. To refine the focus of this paper, only the predominantly Arab political parties within the Knesset will be discussed.
The leading Arab political parties of Israel are Hadash, Balad, Ta’al, and the United Arab List (UAL). Their ideologies reflect the various aspects of identity of the Palestinian community in Israel. Hadash, which grew out of the communist Arab Rakah party as a means of institutionalizing “its formal base, [enhancing] its legitimacy as the leading Arab party, [expanding] its social base and [exercising] political control,” was established in 1977. The party wished to shed any past relationship with the communist Jewish party Maki and consolidate its power among the Palestinians. Specifically, Hadash “tends to implement the principles of scientific socialism… the ideological goal of the party focuses on the establishment of… a socially just society based on democratic and human values,” as well as a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These political planks are a continuation of traditionally communist goals of justice and equity in Israeli society. Additionally, Hadash includes political goals framed around Palestinian self-determination, such as a “complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, recognition of the PLO… the Palestinian ‘right of return’… the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and full equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.” While the political platform of Hadash echoes support of Palestinian nationalism, it also reflects the concerns of equity of treatment and means for the Palestinian community living in Israel. Although Hadash attempted to represent itself as the main voice of the Palestinian people, successfully garnering 50% of the Arab vote in the 1977 elections, their support had been reduced to 32% in 1984 with the emergence of other Arab parties such as the Islamist UAL.
The next two noteworthy Arab political parties are Balad and Ta’al. Balad, led by Dr. Azmi Bishara, “constituted the nationalist front and made its substantial presence from 1996 onward… [Balad] advocated a change in the definition of the State of Israel from a ‘Jewish state’ to a ‘state of all its citizens,’” and the granting of a national minority status to the Arab population.” Balad was founded specifically for the advocation of Palestinian nationalism, particularly that of a collective national minority within the state of Israel. The party was also highly critical of the course of the Israeli-Palestinian peace deals brokered between the PLO and Israel, as they left out the discussion of the Palestinian community in Israel. In terms of voter support, 21% of Arab voters voted for Balad in the 2003 Knesset elections, showing that there is specific support for their nationalist platform within the Palestinian community in Israel. Ta’al, founded by Dr. Ahmad Tibi in 1996, focused “on the need for change and democracy and the emphasis on a new breed of young leadership in the Arab sector.” Ta’al represents the view that there must be change in the Arab political leadership in Israel. They have partnered with both Balad, Hadash, and the UAL separately in the past, emphasizing Tibi’s support of the nationalist minority agenda of the Palestinian community in Israel. Additionally, Tibi was barred by the High Court from running in elections due to his close ties with Yasser Arafat, although this was rescinded in 2003.
The last major Arab party list in Israel is the United Arab List. The list is composed of “the political wing of the Southern Islamic Movement… and the National Democratic Assembly, which represents nationalists and secularists… it wants Israel to become a country of all its citizens, rather [than] the state of the Jews.” Although the UAL has similar positions to the other major Arab party lists on Palestinian self-determination and collective rights, it is distinct from them in that it is Islamic and therefore not secular in nature. The party is socially conservative, unlike the rest of the Joint List. This difference has contributed to the breakup of the Joint List, the vehicle through which the four major Arab parties have run together in Knesset elections in the past, prior to the next Knesset elections on March 23rd, 2021.
The purpose and ideology of the Joint List as a whole is important to the discussion of Arab political party influence in Israel. The Joint List was formed in response to the Knesset’s passage of the Governance Law in 2014 which raised the electoral threshold for a party list to enter the Knesset from 2% to 3.25%. Although ostensibly passed in order to strengthen the executive and legislative branches of the Israeli government, it created issues within the Arab political parties as each of the three party lists had three or four seats at the time. The likelihood of none of them crossing the threshold individually was realistic, which would reduce the number of Arab party seats to zero in the Knesset. Thus, the parties convened and with Hadash’s Ayman Odeh at the helm, the Joint List was formed to make sure all the parties crossed the threshold in the 2015 elections.
The Joint List’s slate of candidates included Druze, Christian, and Muslim candidates as well as both men and women in realistic spots on their list. The Joint List claims to represent all Arabs in Israel which is backed by election results and opinion polls that have indicated that the existence of a united Joint List has increased Arab turnout in elections. Importantly, the Joint List is “combatting the image of a nationalist-Palestinian party has been particularly emphasized by Ayman Odeh… he sees promoting the local interests of the Palestinian citizens of Israel as primary on his agenda.” This means that although the Joint List identifies with a Palestinian nationalist agenda, its priorities are focused on domestic issues that the Palestinian community in Israel faces, such as control of their own educational system and minority collective rights.
Several factors contribute to the lack of cooperation between the Arab and Jewish-Zionist parties in the Knesset. It is difficult for the Jewish citizens of Israel to view the Palestinian minority beyond their identification with overall Palestinian nationalism. This causes many Jews in Israel to condemn working with Arab parties as they believe the Arab parties threaten the Jewish nature of the state. The dominance of the Israeli right-wing, which is viewed as discriminatory against Arabs, also makes cooperation difficult. Despite these circumstances, all of the parties in the Joint List except Balad voted to recommend Blue and White’s Benjamin Gantz for Prime Minister after the September 2019 election. Then, after the 2020 election, all 15 Joint List members of the Knesset recommended Gantz in order to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, Gantz ended up forming a government with Netanyahu, and in the run-up to the election this March the Joint List has split with the UAL leaving it.
The UAL has dropped below the electoral threshold in most polls and the Joint List has dipped to 7-10 seats. This is because the UAL stands in opposition to the rest of the Joint List on social issues and there is widespread belief that the Joint List is not properly serving the Palestinian community in Israel. Netanyahu, despite past inflammatory remarks against the Palestinians in Israel, has been visiting Arab towns ahead of the election in order to garner more Arab support with the UAL not ruling out recommending Netanyahu for Prime Minister. Finally, a new joint Arab-Jewish party named Ma’an is running in this election, although they have yet to cross the electoral threshold in any polls.
Although the Joint List received a historic number of seats in the Knesset after the 2020 election, they are now fractured and will certainly end up with at least a third fewer seats. This will further contribute to the idea that the Arab political leaders and the Knesset overall are ineffective in bringing change to the Palestinian community in Israel. The Arab parties will have less power in the next Knesset, and although Netanyahu is courting Arab voters, there is no guarantee that he will do anything to meaningfully advance their domestic agenda. With the Jewish population of Israel viewing the Palestinian community in Israel through the lens of a fear of Palestinian nationalism and the loss of Jewish hegemony over the state, cooperation between Arab and Jewish-Zionist parties appears to be difficult to achieve.
Ideological fragmentation in the unity of the Joint List contributes to these difficulties as well. That being said, with the center-left Jewish-Zionist parties continuing to be far below a majority in the Knesset following the past few elections, they may be forced to find a way to cooperate with Arab parties in order to form a government. Mutually beneficial policies on domestic problems for both the Jewish and Palestinian communities will likely need to be emphasized for there to be any sort of agreement, but the distrust of the communities towards one another and the reluctance of the Jewish community to give up institutional power still makes this task easier said than done.
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Jacob Lewis is a junior studying Political Science and Israel at American University. He loves to write, edit, cook, play guitar and violin, and do community service. He is AU Hillel’s Shabbat Events Coordinator, teaches Judaics at Washington Hebrew Congregation, and is the Business Manager of the TenLi Tunes a cappella group. He is also the president of AU’s chapter of Alpha Phi Omega. Jacob is an avid follower and analyst of Israeli politics and elections.