After two failed rounds of elections in April and September 2019, Israel will hold a third national election on March 2. In the previous rounds, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Right-Wing Likud Party nor former military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance was able to secure the 61-seat threshold needed for a majority in the 120-seat parliament. The inconclusive results of the elections situated Arab voters and their representatives at the center of the government formation debate. This was especially the case during the September elections when the Arab coalition represented by the Joint List emerged as the third major party after the Blue and White party and Likud party.
The Joint List is an alliance of four parties—Hadash, Taal, Balad, and the United Arab List— that was formed in 2015 after Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman pushed for legislation raising the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent. Liberman’s bid to increase the voter minimum was an effort to exclude Arab parties from the legislature. Before the April 2019 election, the Joint List split into two competing blocs, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad, due to power-sharing disputes. Such a divide partially explained the lower Arab voter turnout the April elections (49 percent) compared to the 2015 elections (64 percent). The Hadash-Ta’al list won six seats, but Ra’am-Balad barely won the four seats required to represent voters in the Knesset. Together, they earned ten seats and lost three of their 2015 seats.
Learning from their mistake, however, Arab parties revived the Joint List during the September 2019 elections. They mobilized voter turnout in the Arab community, driving it back up to 60 percent while vowing to remove Netanyahu from office and bring improvements in public services. The unification gave the Joint List 13 seats in the Knesset, making them the third-biggest party. These Joint List gains also limited Netanyahu and Gantz’s ability to secure majorities. The political strengthening of the Joint List and its importance for creating an opposition government to defeat Netanyahu made the allied parties a target of scrutiny and racism by right-wing politicians such as Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Netanyahu himself.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz refused to make concessions on critical issues, such as who would serve as prime minister in the first rotation. Consequently, both sides failed to form a unity government. Gantz’s other option would have thus been to try to form a minority government that would be dependent on the Joint List’s support. Anticipating such a move, Netanyahu launched a campaign to block Gantz’s efforts. He declared on Facebook that “Arabs want to annihilate all of us.” At a Likud “emergency rally” on November 17, Netanyahu also stated, referencing a potential government sharing agreement with the Joint List: “such a government is an existential threat to the State of Israel. If a minority government like this is formed, they will celebrate in Tehran, Ramallah and Gaza the way they celebrate after every terror attack. This would be a historic national terror attack on the State of Israel.” He accused members of the Joint List of openly supporting terror organizations and “calling our soldiers murderers.” Netanyahu added, “Arabs can be Zionists and support the state of Israel, but they aren’t Zionists, and they don’t support the state of Israel.” He continued in the same rally: “to be dependent on them all the time, especially at the current time, is an enormous danger to Israel and a breach of a kind never seen before in the history of the country.”
In this speech, Netanyahu was citing the Joint List’s opposition to Israel’s “Operation Black Belt,” which targets the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. The operation started after Israel assassinated Abu al-Ata, the head of the northern Gaza branch of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, who was responsible for numerous rocket attacks on Israel. Some Joint List members of the Knesset spoke out against the targeted killing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group’s senior commander Baha Abu al-Ata, as well as the IDF’s airstrikes in Gaza. However, none expressed support for Islamic Jihad or its targeting of Israeli civilians.
Netanyahu understands that without significant participation of Joint List members in the government, he will remain prime minister. By inciting against members of the Joint List and their voters, the prime minister is effectively delegitimizing any attempt to oust him by Likud members who want to avoid a third election. Any attack against Netanyahu is portrayed as a support to a minority government with the anti-Zionist Arab Joint List members. Netanyahu is also employing this strategy to block any chances of Avigdor Liberman, who was leaning toward aligning with the Blue and White party, from joining a minority government with the Join List as one of its members. The two leaders had expressed hostile opinions against Arab citizens of Israel. Indeed, Avigdor Lieberman ruled out joining a government with the Joint List. Last month, Liberman reiterated his stand against cooperating with Arab-Israeli parties. Lieberman used the recent trial of Sheikh Raed Salah, the previous leader of the banned Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, to further discredit Arab members of the Joint List as terrorists and unworthy coalition partners. On November 24, the Haifa Magistrates Court convicted Sheikh Raed Salah for supporting and previously leading the banned Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. He was also convicted for inciting terrorism by publicly praising three Arab Israelis who killed two police officers in a July 2017 attack in Jerusalem.
In response to Salah’s charges, a large crowd of Palestinian activists and political leaders—including members of the Joint Arab List—gathered inside the court hall and outside Haifa's Magistrate's Court to stand in solidarity with the Sheikh Raed Salah, and to call for the protection of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Joint List’s presence provoked reactions from an Israeli right-wing lawmaker who equated Arab MK’s support for Sheikh Raed Salah to terrorism. Liberman tweeted after the ruling, “I hope the punishment to be imposed on him will be appropriate and that whoever saw the pilgrimage today of Joint List members to the court and their show of support for a terrorist will understand this is a fifth column.” The members of the List were accused of being “a fifth column” for their ties to and support for the Palestinians. Even more, the members were also charged with promoting terrorism.
Support for the sheikh is due to the role the movement, under Sheikh Raed Salah’s leadership (from 1996 to 2015), played in preserving the holy sites in Jerusalem. The movement was also responsible for providing social and charitable services in the community during this time. In the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discriminatory state policies toward Palestinians in Israel, Salah’s Nothern Branch filled a much-needed gap for its base. This made the Islamic movement a main pillar of Palestinian political engagement since the 1980s. Supporters of Salah view the Sheikh’s prosecution as an extension of Israel’s oppressive policies toward the Palestinian community in Israel and the Palestinian cause in general. As Joint List MK Youssef Jabareen explained, “the conviction of Salah is another step in the political persecution of the Arab public and its leadership and the dangerous radicalization of ‘securitization’ in relation to them.” Jabareen tied the conviction to Netanyahu’s recent campaign against a hypothetical minority government led by the centrist Blue and White party and supported by the Joint List.
Goading Joint List members for political gains is not a new tactic for right-wing politicians. Netanyahu and his associates have a long history of inciting hatred and mistrust against Israeli Arabs in general and Arab Knesset members in particular. He has repeatedly branded them as terrorists and traitors without offering proof in a bid to energize his right-wing base. In 2015, Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting in “droves.” Ahead of April 2019 elections, Netanyahu targeted prominent Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, depicting him as a threat to national security. Tibi is critical of government policies toward Palestinians living in Israel and the territories. As such, Netanyahu has been reiterating a campaign mantra: “Bibi or Tibi” in an attempt to discredit Jewish Israeli parties to the left of Likud by alleging their need to work with Palestinian parties to form a governing coalition.
Netanyahu’s statements had consequences on the ground. At the end of November 2019, a group of right-wing activists protested the participation of Tibi in a Shabbat cultural and political event. Protesters accused Tibi of being a “terrorist” and “murderer.” One shouted, “You’re not wanted here!” while another said, “Terrorist supporters — not in our city.” Tibi claimed that he has been receiving dozens of death threats and has indicated he is taking precautions for his safety. Joint List leader Ayman Odeh also stated that he had received numerous death threats such that he demanded protection from the Knesset.
Although Netanyahu’s tactics seem to have prevented the formation of a minority government, they have failed to intimidate and deter Arab voters from taking to the polls. In fact, turnout increased among Joint List voters who are motivated by the prospect of ousting Netanyahu. According to Ayman Odeh, the strengthening of the List prevented Netanyahu from forming a majority government. Odeh claims: “our contribution to his failure [Netanyahu’s] to form a government was highly significant in the September elections, and there is no doubt our influence will grow if more of us vote.” The Joint List representatives believe that the goal is within reach now that it has proven to voters that they played a significant role in Netanyahu’s failure to form a radical right-wing government. Odeh and Tibi believe that with intensive campaigning, including door to door canvassing, the List can achieve 15 seats in the Knesset. This is backed by recent polls, which indicate a possibility for the Joint List to receive as many as 15 members in the March 2 elections.
Indeed, the ideological differences between the Joint List and Zionist parties regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make the likelihood of the Joint list being a member of the next government slim. But increasing the representation of Arabs in the Knesset could not only close the door to another Netanyahu led government, but also increase the number of votes required to pass the electoral threshold. This could help Arab voters gain confidence in their collective influence, despite formal and informal obstacles that prevent their full political participation. While coverage of the Joint List focuses on their stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the list has sought to improve the wellbeing of Arab-Israeli citizens. They have requested from the state to fund Arab communities, crack down on gun violence in Arab towns, and accelerate the pace of development plans approvals in these communities’ areas. Increasing the number of Joint List representatives could help them push the government to address these issues more effectively.
Anwar Mhajne is a visiting assistant professor at Stonehill College, where she writes and teaches about gender, religion, security, and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Twitter @mhajneam.