Arab Politics in the 2019 Election Campaign

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A review of political and ideological streams in Arab society in Israel - towards 2019 elections.

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Political and Ideological Streams in Arab Society in Israel

Arab society in Israel is not a homogenous political or ideological community, but rather -- a mosaic made up of four main streams: Arab-Israeli (Zionist); Arab-Jewish non-Zionist (communist); Islamic, and Nationalist. The Arab-Israeli stream is represented in Jewish-- Zionist political parties (on the Right and Left), and the other three are currently represented by the Joint List. The latter three streams all emphasize the Arab community’s Palestinian identity, but differ in certain aspects of their world views. Whereas the nationalist stream stresses the Palestinian nationalist component of the Arab minority's identity, the Islamic stream stresses the religious (Islamic) component, and the Arab-Jewish stream believes in Arabs and Jews joining forces in social activism.

These four approaches have been dominant in the Arab sector since the State of Israel was founded, although they were not all politically represented at local or national levels. In the first Knesset (1949), two streams were represented: the Arab-Israeli stream whose representatives were incorporated into the Arab satellite lists of Mapai (and later Ma'arach – Labor Alignment); and the communist Arab-Jewish stream, represented by the Maki party (the Israeli Communist Party).

Arab satellite lists were at the peak of their power in the 1950s-1960s, with more than half of the Arab electorate voting for them. From the 1970s, their power gradually declined, until they disappeared from the political map in the 10th Knesset elections (1981). This was due to the growing prominence of the Rakah )New Communist List) (and later Hadash-Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) political parties, as the Palestinian national identity became stronger and stronger among Arab Israelis. At the same time, in the early 1970s, Mapam and later the Labor party, welcomed Arab members, and the satellite lists became politically obsolete.

Maki (the Israeli Communist Party) was set up as a joint Arab-Jewish party but was beset by difficulties and ideological differences. The Communist Party split up in 1965, ahead of elections to the sixth Knesset. Most of Maki's members resigned from the party and set up Rakah (the New Communist List), which in turn formed the core of Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) which was set up in 1977, ahead of elections to the ninth Knesset. Together with other left-wing activists, some Maki members (the party that Rakah broke off from) set up Moked in 1973 and Sheli in 1977, and the other members joined Hadash.

The nationalist stream organized politically at a later date. Until the 1980s, there were several uncoordinated efforts to organize politically. The nationalist movement of Al-Ard (the Land) was active for a short period in the eraly 1960s but eventually it was outlawed in 1964. In the 1970s, the Sons of the Village movement was set up and was primarily active among Arab students. In the 1980s, the Progressive List for Peace was set up as a joint Jewish-Arab party that was represented in the Knesset from 1984-1992. In 1996, ahead of the fourteenth Knesset elections, the nationalist stream led by Azmi Bishara coordinated efforts and set up Balad, the National Democratic Alliance, which is still represented in the Knesset.

Islam has always been an active social and religious force in Arab society, but only became a political entity in the early 1980s, when Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish set up the Islamic Movement. The Movement fared well in local council elections in the 1980s and 1990s but in 1996, ahead of the fourteenth Knesset elections, the Movement was split by a deep rift regarding the question of participation in the elections. There are now considered to be two branches of political Islam: a parliamentary movement (the Southern Branch) which is still represented in the Knesset, and an extra-parliamentary movement (the Northern Branch) whose members boycott Knesset elections. The Israeli government outlawed the Northern Branch in November 2015. In light of the changing regional reality, the Southern Branch movement drew up a new charter in the summer of 2017 to try and restate their political outlook.

Participation in Knesset Elections and Voting Patterns of Arab Citizens

Arab citizens have been taking part in Knesset elections since the state's founding. Overall, their r voting patterns can be divided into three main time periods. First, from 1949 to 1973 (1st to 8th Knesset) when the Arabs were becoming accustomed to their minority status; in the 1950s and 1960s, the average Arab voter turnout was higher than the national average (86% versus 81%). Military rule was still in effect between 1948-1966, enabling mass recruitment of voters based on clan allegiances. In the second period-- from 1977 to 1992 (9th to 13th Knesset)-- the ramifications of the Land Day protests (1976), the First Intifada, and the strengthening of the Palestinian component of Israeli Arabs’ identity came to the fore. As the level of Arab citizens' political awareness increased, so did the controversy on the benefits of participation in national elections. During this period, the average voter turnout for elections in the Arab sector decreased, and stood at 72%, as compared with the national average of 79%.

The third period, from 1996 to 2013 (14th to 19th Knesset), began with an increase in Arab voter turnout in the 1996 and 1999 Knesset elections, due to Balad and the Islamic List's entrance to the parliamentary sphere. However, following the violent confrontations between Arab citizens and police squads in October 2000, which took place in Arab localities in the Gallilee and in the central part of Israel and led to the killing of 13 Arab young people, the alienation between Arab citizens and state institutions deepened. This period was also characterized by growing conflict between Israel and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These developments led to a sharp decrease in voter turnout and the boycott of Knesset elections. In the four election campaigns that took place since October 2000 (excluding the most recent election for the 20th Knesset, 2015), the average voter turnout in the Arab sector was only 57% (as compared with the 66% national average).

The 2015 elections (20th Knesset) signaled a turning point in Arab political involvement. The four main parties representing the Arab community -- Hadash, Balad, Ra'am (the United Arab List) which represents the Islamic Movement and Ta'al (the Arab Movement for Change) headed by Ahmed Tibi, united into one bloc and formed the Joint List. Consequently, the Knesset once again became a relevant political arena for most Arab citizens, and in 2015 the average voter turnout in the Arab sector rose to 64% but with no change in voting patterns. The majority (82%) of Arab citizens voted for the Joint List, and only 17% voted for Jewish-Zionist parties (1% voted for lists that did not pass the electoral threshold). This distribution of votes is not expected to change in the near future.

The Joint List: Partnership and Political Work in Action 

On the eve of the last elections, this list was set up as a joint political bloc of the four parties. The list achieved unprecedented gains, winning 13 seats in the Knesset, the largest number of seats that the main parties representing Arab citizens had ever won in total. The Joint List became the third largest faction in the Knesset and proved that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." The list's election slogan was "A Nation’s Will". It was presented as an authentic expression of the Arab sector's desire for its elected representatives to put aside their internal disagreements and unite as a parliamentary bloc for the sake of a common goal.

However, this political alliance in the last Knesset was not always smooth sailing and endured a serious crisis on the issue of rotation, causing deep internal unrest for almost an entire year.

And what about the List's functioning in the Knesset? According to the "Parliamentary Work Index for Israel’s Political Parties", which evaluates the functioning of the ten Knesset factions according to several parameters, including: attendance at committee meetings, submitting queries and bill proposals, and one-minute addresses in the plenary. The Joint List ranks fifth overall and is one of the leading factions along some parameters such as queries, one-minute speeches in the plenary, motions for the agenda, and the scope of information requested from the Knesset’s Research and Information Center. The Joint List ranked first, significantly ahead of all the other factions, on submitting parliamentary queries in the Knesset. This parliamentary tool is used mainly by the opposition parties as a way of monitoring the work of the Knesset and the government. By contrast, the Joint List ranks low on other parameters, especially on legislation (number of bills that passed).

List Proportion of total eligible votes
The Joint List 82.40%
The Arab List 0.60%
Hope for Change 0.20%
Total Arab and Arab-Jewish Lists 83.20%
The Zionist Camp 4.90%
Meretz 2.60%
Kulanu 2.30%
Yisrael Beitenu 2.30%
Shas 1.60%
Likud 1.50%
Yesh Atid 0.70%
The Jewish Home 0.20%
Other 0.70%
Total Jewish-Zionist Lists 16.80%

Arab Politics against the backdrop of Internal Splits, Dissolution of the Alliance and the Nation-State Law

Three months before Election Day, MK Ahmed Tibi announced that his party, Ta'al (Arab Movement for Change) , was withdrawing from the Joint List, citing that the other three partner parties – Hadash, Balad and the Islamic Movement – refused Ta'al's request to refresh the order of candidates in the list. Tibi was trying to get them to agree to give Ta'al a greater number of realistic slots on the Joint List for the 2019 elections. (In the 20th Knesset election, only two of the list's thirteen elected MKs were Ta'al representatives.) He even suggested that the order of the candidates and the Joint List's platform be determined by a "referendum" among the Arab public; however his proposals were rejected.

As a result of Ta'al's withdrawal from the Joint List, Arab political system is in a state of crisis. The nightmare scenario of the Arab sector is the loss of tens of thousands of Arab votes, if Ta'al fails to pass the electoral threshold, leading to a drop in the number of MKs representing this sector in the Knesset.

The political future of the Joint List will be determined by two factors: whether the three remaining factions are able to preserve internal unity; and whether they are able to convince Arab citizens to take part in the elections and demonstrate a renewed vote of confidence in the List. These questions become even more pointed when taking into account the prevailing political climate. In addition to the internal turmoil in Arab politics, the Nation-State law which was passed this summer will definitely impact the election campaign in the Arab sector, especially for those who question the benefits of even voting.

If there was any question that the Nation-State law might cause some or all of the Arab parties to rethink their position and withdraw from the parliamentary game, this option was quickly shown to be irrelevant. The parties began their internal preparation for the forthcoming elections before these were even called. Even before it was passed, some Balad members were of the opinion that, if and when the Nation-State law would pass, the fitting response would be to increase the Joint List's activities in the Knesset and to ensure a 70% voter turnout in the general elections. The Islamic Movement held a party conference shortly after the law was passed, sending out a message of "business as usual." Dr. Mansour Abbas, the former spokesperson and current deputy chairman of the movement was elected to head Ra'am and be the Islamic Movement's representative in the next Knesset.

The real test of Arab politics is whether the public's belief in Knesset elections in general and in the Arab political lists in particular, will be strengthened. The Arab voter will overcome external constraints such as the Nation-State law, but not internal crises. It is now becoming clear to many that the hoped-for unity was an illusion which collapsed when put to the test. Will the coalition among the three remaining parties of the Joint List be preserved, or will the entire partnership be dismantled? What will happen to Ta'al and who will be Tibi's new partners? These questions are at the top of the political agenda among Israel’s Arab citizens. They await a response.