Arab Parties Face a Test of their Relevance and Legitimacy

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The surprising decision for the Arab political parties to run on three separate lists must be understood both through structures of each of the parties and by the political behavior of Arab voters.

Many people were completely surprised by the recent developments among the Arab political parties in Israel. Balad, a party with a strong nationalist-Palestinian orientation split off from the Joint List, which now consists of two parties: Hadash – a non-Zionist party that promotes Arab-Jewish cooperation, and Ta’al – an Arab party with a moderate nationalist orientation. Ra’am, an Arab party with a conservative and religious orientation will run separately. Thus, three separate Arab lists will be running in the upcoming elections on November 1, a return to the “three-way structure” of Arab politics that was seen in the decade prior to the formation of the Joint List in 2015.

To understand these developments in Arab politics, we should look at two levels of these politics; First, the political configuration of the parties representing the Arab population, and second- the political behavior of Arab voters. These two levels impact one another, however the current situation differs from the past. Until ten years ago, the people were led by the parties: the parties determined their own political lineups for elections, and the public chose which party to vote for. Today, it is the public that determines the general political direction. The parties react to the public’s wishes, partly on the basis of surveys, and then determine their political makeup.

The Arab parties find themselves in a dilemma common to national minority parties that have to face two tests: the test of relevance and the test of legitimacy. Relevance is determined by the party’s size: the more votes it gains and the more members it sends to the parliament (in Israel: the Knesset), the greater its relevance in the coalition-building process. Legitimacy is determined by the extent to which a party's political orientation matches the political mainstream of the general public in the country. This is a difficult test for minority parties that need to gain “a stamp of approval” from the main ruling parties indicting that they are worthy of being a political partner.

In Israel, the ongoing political deadlock between the Likud-led “Netanyahu camp” and the “Change camp” led by Yair Lapid only reinforces the relevancy of small parties, such as the Arab parties, in the mathematics of coalition building. The question is whether the latter are viewed as legitimate parties by the big Jewish parties. Ra’am has already proved itself a reliable political partner in the Bennet-Lapid government, and has become a legitimate partner for future coalitions. Hadash-Ta’al may possibly be relevant as a partner in a future coalition, but its preconditions regarding the Palestinian issue for recommending a candidate as Prime Minister make it very difficult for Hadash-Ta’al to pass the test of legitimacy among the Jewish parties. At present, Balad does not pass either of the tests. Its explicit calls to abolish the Zionist nature of the state, and the fact that polls show it is not expected to pass the threshold, prove that it neither passes the test of legitimacy nor the test of relevance.

Yet, an analysis of the current state of the Arab parties only reveals part of the picture. To complete the analysis, we must examine Arab voters’ political behavior. In the most recent elections, voter turnout in Arab communities stood at just 44.6%. In-depth surveys conducted in recent weeks have shown that the expected voter turnout on November 1st will hover around the 40% mark. A clear picture has emerged in the past two decades: Voter turnout among Arabs has declined steadily in what seems to be an irreversible trend. A new generation has grown up in Arab society that has simply become accustomed not to participate in elections.

It may yet be that Balad’s decision to field an independent list in the upcoming elections could actually lead to an increase in voter turnout. Many of Balad’s supporters, who had been undecided whether to vote, have now woken up and proudly declare that they intend to participate and vote for their party. The Arab parties' election campaigns have not gotten off to an optimistic start. However, the very fact that Arab voters now have a choice of three parties which present three different alternatives in the Israeli parliamentary game may breathe new life into the campaigns and encourage Arab voters to go to the polls.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.