Arab Politics in the 2022 Election Campaign

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Will the Arab public’s belief in Knesset elections in general, and in the Arab political lists in particular, be strengthened? The Arab voter may overcome unjust policies by the government, but not internal crises. Dr. Rudnitzky reviews the main political and ideological streams in Arab society in Israel, ahead of the November 2022 elections

The election campaign in Arab society is now underway, and three different approaches can be identified among the Arab parties: The first (taken by Ra’am) seeks direct influence on Israeli politics by participating in the ruling coalition; the second (Hadash-Ta’al) believes in wielding political influence from outside the coalition, with the aim of countering the pro-Netanyahu bloc; and the third (Balad) seeks to challenge the general Israeli political mainstream, and offer a political alternative to Arab voters who do not identify with the other two approaches. Below, Dr. Rudnitzky provides a historical review of the Arab parties in Israel, from 1948 to the present day.

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); Islamist; and nationalist. The Arab-Israeli stream is represented in Jewish-Zionist political parties (on the Right and Left), while the other three are represented in Arab electoral lists: The Arab-Jewish non-Zionist stream is represented by the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality in which the Israeli Communist Party (ICP/Maki) is the major component; the Islamist stream is represented by the United Arab List (Ra’am), and the nationalist stream is represented by the National Democratic Alliance (Balad). These 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 Islamist 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, the Labor Alignment); and the communist Arab-Jewish stream, represented by Maki (the Israeli Communist Party).

Arab satellite lists were ad-hoc political organizations established in the leadup to each election cycle by the ruling Zionist party at the time, Mapai. Their representatives in the Knesset were obliged to follow Mapai’s political line and did not develop any political platform of their own. At the peak of their power in the 1950s and 1960s, Arab satellite lists drew the support of more than half of the Arab electorate. 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 Rakah (the New Communist List) and later Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), 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 9th Knesset. Together with other left-wing activists, some Maki members (the party from which Rakah broke away) 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 early 1960s, but eventually it was outlawed by state authorities 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 14th Knesset elections, the nationalist stream, led by Azmi Bishara, coordinated its 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 14th 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. On the religious level, it preaches for a more moderate and tolerant (wasati) Islamic worldview, so as to make it easier for Muslims in Israel as a Muslim minority in a non-Muslim majority country to maintain religious practices while respecting state laws. On the political level, it calls upon the Muslim community to take part in all political fields of action, such as the municipal or the national spheres, so as to influence state authorities and prevent them from taking discriminatory measures against the country’s Arab community.

Participation in Knesset Elections and Voting Patterns of Arab Citizens

Arab citizens have taken part in Knesset elections since the state's founding. Overall, their voting patterns can be divided into three main time periods. The first lasted from 1949 to 1973 (1st to 8th Knesset), a time when the Arabs were becoming accustomed to their minority status. During this period, the average Arab voter turnout was higher than the national average (83.8% versus 81.4%). The military government was still in effect in Arab localities between 1948 and 1966, enabling mass recruitment of voters based on clan allegiances, especially for the Arab satellite lists and for Mapai.

The second period, from 1977 to 1999 (9th to 15th Knesset), was characterized by the ramifications of the Land Day protests (1976), the First Intifada (1987–1993), and the strengthening of the Palestinian component of Israeli Arabs’ identity. As the level of Arab citizens' political awareness increased, so did the controversy over the benefits of participation in national elections. During this period, the average voter turnout for elections in the Arab sector decreased to 73.4%, below the national average of 78.9%. Nevertheless, it would remain relatively high due to two key developments: the entry of new parties into the parliamentary fray—Balad (National Democratic Alliance) and Ra’am (United Arab List), representing the Nationalist and the Islamist streams respectively; and the change in Israeli domestic and foreign policy under the 1992–1996 Rabin-Peres government, which included affirmative action policies vis-à-vis Arab citizens of Israel.

The third period, from 2003 to 2021 (16th to 24th Knesset), began under the shadow of the October 2000 events and the Second Palestinian Intifada in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Following the violent confrontations between Arab citizens and police squads in October 2000, which took place in Arab localities in the Galilee 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 marked by intense conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1967 territories following the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Together, these developments led to a sharp decrease in voter turnout and the emergence of boycotts of Knesset elections in Arab society. In the four election campaigns held over the decade following the October 2000 events (16th Knesset in 2003 to 19th Knesset in 2013), the average voter turnout in the Arab sector was only 57% (as compared with the 66% national average), which marked a sharp fall of almost 20 percentage points compared to the average turnout in the Arab sector in the 1990s. Nevertheless, all Arab parties would maintain a solid representation in the Knesset due to the fact that the vast majority of Arab voters—between 70% and 80% in the period under discussion—voted for Arab parties, thus allowing these parties to pass the electoral threshold and secure seats in the Knesset.

Following the raising of the election threshold (from 2% to 3.25%) ahead of the 2015 Knesset elections, the four Arab parties—Hadash, Ra’am, Balad, and Ta’al—were forced to join forces, fearing that if they ran separately, all or some of them would not pass the threshold. This was the backdrop for the establishment of the Joint List.

In the 2015 elections, the Joint List scored an unprecedented achievement, gaining 13 out of 120 seats in the Knesset—two more seats than the average combined power of its four components when they ran separately in the previous decade. It became the third largest faction in the Knesset, and proved that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The Joint 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, the political partnership between the four parties did not go smoothly. Chronic political instability in Israel, which led to four election campaigns in less than two years between April 2019 and March 2021, also caused instability among the Arab parties, which oscillated between unity and division. Ahead of the 21st Knesset elections (April 2019), the Joint List disintegrated, and its constituent parties competed in two small alliances. In response, Arab voter turnout plummeted to 49.2% as many Arab voters expressed their disappointment from their parties’ conduct. The Arab parties secured only 10 seats in the Knesset. In the next two election campaigns (22nd Knesset, September 2019 and 23rd Knesset, March 2020), the four parties reunited as the Joint List and won 13 and 15 parliamentary seats respectively, due to an increase in Arab voter turnout (59.2% and 64.8%, respectively). However, political disagreements and personal rivalries subsequently led to the withdrawal of the Islamist Ra’am from the Joint List in the lead up to the 2021 Knesset elections.

In the 2021 Knesset elections, three parties—Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al—continued to run under the Joint List banner, while Ra’am ran independently. Despite the historic slump in Arab turnout in these elections (44.6%), both the Joint List and Ra’am still managed to pass the electoral threshold, owing to the fact that they gained the support of 80% of Arabs who voted supported them. However, together they won only 10 seats, compared with the historic achievement of 15 seats just one year before, when all four parties ran together as the Joint List.

  2015 (Knesset 20) April 2019 (Knesset 21) September 2019 (Knesset 22) 2020 (Knesset 23) 2021 (Knesset 24)
General turnout 72.30% 68.50% 69.80% 71.50% 67.20%
Arab turnout 63.50% 49.20% 59.20% 64.80% 44.60%
Arab vote to Arab parties 83.20% 71.60% 81.60% 87.60% 80.10%
Arab vote to Jewish parties  16.80% 28.40% 18.40% 12.40% 19.90%

Arab Parties Under the Tests of Relevance and Legitimacy, and Arab Voter Behavior

2020 Elections

As noted above, at the March 2020 elections the Joint List—then comprising all four parties—won an unprecedented 15 seats in the Knesset, becoming the third largest Knesset faction after the Likud (headed by Binyamin Netanyahu) and Blue and White (headed by Benny Gantz). From a purely objective perspective, the Joint List seemed to offer great potential for Blue and White, which was seeking to end Netanyahu’s grip on power and form an alternative coalition. But the List failed to pass the legitimacy test: In national and political discourse in Israel, the Joint List is perceived as a party that represents the Palestinian position, and is thus opposed to the Israeli political mainstream.

2021 Elections: Ra’am Joins the Coalition

Ahead of the 2021 elections, Ra’am (headed by Mansour Abbas) left the Joint List. One of the party’s strategic goals was to reposition itself on the general political spectrum in Israel, so as to be in alignment with the mainstream of the Israeli public. Ra’am thus chose to downplay the Palestinian national issue and its own Islamist orientation, so as to avoid conflict with the Israeli mainstream, and instead placed at the top of its agenda the day-to-day problems faced by Arab citizens. In this way, Ra’am sought to address issues of legitimacy even before the elections, and become a legitimate potential partner in a future coalition. In the elections themselves, Ra’am won just four Knesset seats, which objectively speaking should have made it the least relevant party for the task of forming a government. Yet paradoxically, due to the stalemate between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs, Ra’am had the power to tip the scales, and joined the coalition government headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

Though the Bennett-Lapid government has not survived long, it has given Ra’am the opportunity to pass the legitimacy test as a coalition partner. The party stood out as a loyal member of the government, able to maintain coalition unity even during times of tension between Jews and Arabs within Israel, and between Israel and Hamas in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Immediately after the dissolution of the Knesset was announced, Mansour Abbas announced that Ra’am would continue its new policy, which has been termed al-nahj al-jadid (“the new approach”), and will join any coalition that will address the urgent problems of Arab society in Israel. Abbas made clear that Ra’am will again stand independently in the elections, setting his party apart from the other three Arab parties, which at the time still remained in the framework of the Joint List.

2022 Elections: The Arab Parties Split into Three

The recent developments in Arab politics in Israel have come as a complete surprise to many. Balad, a party with a clear Palestinian nationalist orientation, was forced to leave the Joint List, which now consists of just two parties: Hadash, a non-Zionist party that advocates Arab-Jewish cooperation; and Ta’al, an Arab party with a moderate nationalist orientation. Running for election alongside these is Ra’am, a conservative and religious party. Thus, there will be three Arab lists for voters to choose from on November 1, returning Arab politics to the tripartite structure it had during the decade preceding the establishment of the Joint List in 2015.

In order to understand these developments, it is necessary to look at two different aspects: The first relates to the political configuration of the parties that represent the Arab public, while the second has to do with the political behavior of Arab voters themselves. Each of these aspects influences the other, but today the situation is different from in the past. Up until a decade ago, it was the parties that led the public: they decided how to organize themselves politically ahead of each election, and accordingly the public would choose which list to vote for. Today, it is the public that decides the general political zeitgeist, and the parties respond to the desires and concerns of the public (as identified by public opinion polls, among other things) and determine their political configuration accordingly.

The Arab parties face a dilemma that is characteristic of parties representing national minorities—not only in Israel, but also in other democratic regimes, mainly in Western Europe. The research literature shows that if such a minority party wishes to be effective, it must pass two tests: the relevancy test and the legitimacy test. Relevancy is decided according to the party’s size in the house of representatives: the more representatives it has in parliament, the greater its relevance in the eyes of the large governing parties when it comes to forming a coalition. But at this stage, the minority party must pass another, more difficult test: it must be granted legitimacy by the large governing parties, and be recognized as a fit and proper political partner. A party’s legitimacy is decided by the question of where it is positioned on the accepted political spectrum, and the extent to which its political orientation accords with the political mainstream in the general public.

All the polls in recent weeks have consistently indicated that Ra’am will pass the electoral threshold and win four seats again. Given the continued political stalemate between the pro-Netanyahu bloc (led by Likud) and the anti-Netanyahu bloc (led by Yesh Atid), Ra’am may again be a key player in the formation of a new coalition.

The Joint List, which now comprises Hadash and Ta’al, is also expected to pass the electoral threshold and win four seats in the next Knesset. This being the case, and given the continuing stalemate in Israeli politics, it could well be a relevant faction for the formation of a future coalition. Yet the conditions set by the Joint List for recommending any candidate for prime minister make it very difficult for it to pass the legitimacy test with the general Israeli mainstream—foremost among these conditions being the demand for renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over a permanent solution, to include an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, as well as the demand to revoke or amend laws that are problematic for the Arab public, such as the Nation-State Law or the Kaminitz Law (relating to the enforcement of policies against construction without permits in Arab towns and villages).

Balad’s platform calls for changing the definition of Israel from a “Jewish and democratic state” to a “state of all its citizens.” This is not merely a semantic question. Balad directly and openly opposes the Zionist character of the state, which it argues maintains a superior status for the country’s Jewish citizens. The party’s leaders will not even discuss the possibility of recommending a candidate from a Jewish party for prime minister. Clearly, then, Balad does not pass the legitimacy test as a potential coalition partner. Moreover, Balad is currently not predicted to pass the electoral threshold, and thus it is not at all relevant to these political calculations.

So much for the current situation of the Arab parties. However, this analysis is only part of the story. To see the full picture, it is also necessary to look at the political behavior of the Arab electorate.

There is one figure hanging over the Arab parties that rightly terrifies them: 44.6%. This was the voter turnout in the Arab public at the last elections, held just a year and a half ago in March 2021. In-depth surveys of Arab society in recent weeks have found that the expected Arab voter turnout at the upcoming elections stands at around just 40%. A review of the voter turnout among Arab citizens at elections in recent years does not reveal a stable pattern, but the picture over the last two decades is clear: There has been a steady decline in Arab voter turnout at Knesset elections, and this trend would seem to be irreversible. In other words, there is now a new generation of Arabs in Israel who are simply used to not voting.

There are many reasons for the lack of Arab participation in elections. Arab social media is currently home to fierce debate about non-participation in the upcoming elections, with some planning to boycott them on ideological grounds. These people argue that the real problem lies not with the Arab parties, but with “the ruling establishment, and especially with the legislative branch, which has marginalized us despite the fact that we are the original owners of this land.” Indeed, many Arab citizens today feel that there is no real democracy in Israel. This, they claim, is proved by the response of the Israel Police to the wave of crime and violence in Arab society, which since the beginning of 2022 has claimed the lives of more than 70 Arab citizens. If the police faced a similar problem in Jewish locations, then undoubtedly it would have acted more effectively to stamp it out and would have solved more murders. If the state’s agencies do not apply democratic policies to all citizens equally, then what is the point of voting?

But in addition to this argument, it would seem that the main reason for the particularly low Arab voter turnout expected at these elections is the rising criticism within the Arab public directed at the Arab parties. Highly critical, even cynical, comments about the conduct of the Arab parties, and the conflicts between them, have become extremely common on Arab social media. In the argument between supporters of the Arab parties and those opposed to participating the elections, it is the latter who now have the upper hand. For many Arabs, the final straw was the crisis between Hadash and Ta’al, on the one side, and Balad on the other, which occurred just before the deadline for submitting electoral lists to the Knesset Elections Committee, and resulted in Balad leaving the Joint List and deciding to stand independently. Some in the Arab public have pointed out that even in the most optimistic scenario, in which all three lists pass the electoral threshold and gain representation in the Knesset, there will remain one undisputed and depressing fact: There is no unity in the Arab political system.

Thus, Israel’s Arab parties have to pass the relevancy and legitimacy tests not only vis-s-vis the political mainstream in Israel, but also vis-à-vis Arab voters themselves. To succeed in the elections, the parties must engage in a direct conversation with their electorate; to forge stronger links with the Arab public and regain legitimacy for representing that public in the Knesset, the parties need to involve their constituents in the design of their political strategy.

For example, at the last elections Ra’am pursued an unusual strategy and became a partner in forming the coalition, though it refrained from fully entering the government and did not demand a ministerial portfolio. In so doing, it attracted a degree of criticism from the Arab public—not for the historic precedent of entering the coalition, but for not demanding a ministerial post in the government. Those who supported the decision of Ra’am to join the government coalition are now asking Mansour Abbas to go a step further and insist on a ministerial position for his party. If the conditions in the Arab public are now right for demanding a minister in government, and if Ra’am is sensitive to the public’s wishes, it can now make its support for a future coalition conditional on such an appointment. Indeed, Abbas has indicated in recent days that Ra’am is not ruling out the possibility of insisting on a ministerial portfolio in the next government.

The Hadash-Ta’al Joint List is chained to political and ideological viewpoints that are seen by the public as being outdated and irrelevant. A fair amount of criticism has been levelled at the lack of appropriate representation for the Negev in the list of candidates—particularly from Hadash, the dominant party in the partnership with four representatives in the top five places. The highest ranked representative from the Negev is in fifth place, which is not considered a realistic spot at this stage. Hadash would do well to move this representative up to a realistic ranking, even at the expense of the Jewish candidate occupying the reserved position in third place. Jewish supporters of Hadash will vote for it anyway, but many Arab voters in the Negev will not vote for the Joint List if they do not have a representative in a realistic placing. In addition, Hadash and Ta’al would be wise to maintain flexibility on the issue of recommending a candidate from a Jewish party for prime minister. If the Hadash-Ta’al Joint List were to indicate that it intends to recommend a particular candidate for prime minister, it would likely increase its relevance not only for the large Jewish parties, but also—and particularly—for the Arab electorate, which wants its vote to have an impact and lead to change, rather than settling for a barren form of representation in the Knesset.

And what should Balad do? Should a minority party do all it can to be accorded legitimacy by the large ruling parties? It would seem not. The research literature shows that in certain cases, parties representing national minorities prefer not to try to become seen as legitimate by the ruling parties, so as not to lose their core support among their natural constituency. The case of Balad offers a clear example of this. In recent days, as soon as the party’s decision to stand independently at the elections became known, many of its supporters—who until then had been unsure about voting in the elections, due to frustration at the difficulties involved in maintaining the political partnership of the Joint List—were enlivened, and have publicly declared that they intend to come out to vote for Balad on November 1. The party’s decision to stand independently offers them a realistic political option that is aligned with their worldview. This option has become a topic of Arab public discourse in recent weeks, and has been given the moniker “the third stream,” positioning Balad’s nationalist approach as a third possibility alongside the streams represented by Ra’am and by Hadash-Ta’al in the Joint List.

The real test of Arab politics is whether the Arab public’s belief in Knesset elections in general, and in the Arab political lists in particular, will be strengthened. The Arab voter may overcome unjust policies by the government, 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.