Disintegration of the Joint List poses new challenge to future of Arab politics

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The fifth in a series of articles and videos prepared by the Israel Democracy Institute in the run-up to April 9, explaining and critiquing what goes on during an election period

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 (both on the Right and Left), and the other three had been represented by the Joint List. These three streams 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 component, and the Arab-Jewish stream believes in Arabs and Jews joining forces in social activism.   

Arab citizens have been taking part in Knesset elections since the state's founding.  Overall, their voting patterns can be divided into three main time periods. 

First, from 1949 to 1973 (1st to 8th Knesset), the average Arab voter turnout was higher than the national average (86% versus 81%), mainly because of the Military Administration which was imposed on Arab localities between 1948 and 1966 and encouraged massive Arab vote for Zionist parties in Knesset elections. 

In the second period-- from 1977 to 1992 (9th to 13th Knesset) -- 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%.

The third period, from 1996 to 2013 (14th to 19th Knesset), was characterized by growing alienation between Israel and its Arab citizens as a result of the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in September 2000. Thus, the average voter turnout in the Arab sector in election campaigns held after the outbreak of the Second Intifada was only 57%.

The 2015 elections (20th Knesset) signaled a turning point in Arab political involvement.  The four main parties representing the Arab community 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 as in the previous decade. The majority (82%) of Arab citizens voted for the Joint List.

The Joint 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." 

However, this political alliance in the last Knesset was not always smooth sailing and endured a serious crisis on the issue of rotation amongst its members, causing deep internal unrest for almost an entire year. Three months before Election Day, MK Ahmed Tibi announced that his party, Ta'al (Arab Movement for Change), was withdrawing from the Joint List.

As a result of Ta'al's withdrawal from the Joint List, local politics in Israel's Arab community was in a state of crisis.  Eventually, the Joint List disintegrated when its four components regrouped and created bi-partisan, smaller unions that will compete on the Arab vote on Election Day. The United Arab List, representing the Islamic Movement, created a union with Balad, while Hadash joined forces with Ta’al.

The future of Arab politics in Israel will be determined by two factors:  whether these two competing lists will be able to preserve democratic and constructive discourse in their election campaign; and whether they will able to convince Arab citizens to take part in the elections and demonstrate a renewed vote of confidence in the Arab political leadership.

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.