Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin 'Bibi’ Netanyahu came out victorious on Tuesday 17 March after three months of intensive campaigning. Beating Isaac 'Buji’ Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s center-left alliance—The Zionist Union—by six parliamentary seats, Netanyahu’s Likud party finished at 30 seats, making Netanyahu the most likely candidate to form and head a new right-wing government. While the campaign was mostly marked by a very personal and often vile battle between Bibi and Buji, the two main protagonists, a new and very unique political alliance was also stirring up Israeli politics. For the first time in Israel’s political history, the four parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel – Hadash, Ra’am, Talal and United Arab List – joined forces and presented themselves to voters as the Joint List, running on a platform of equal rights and an end to the Israeli occupation.
Headed by the chairman of the socialist Hadash party (Hebrew acronym for The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), Ayman Odeh, the Joint List managed to win 13 seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset. Founded in response to the new Election Law, which raised the election threshold to 3.25%, making it nearly impossible for any single Arab party to get into the Knesset on its own, the Joint List has made sure the right-wing attempt to politically marginalize Israel’s Palestinian citizens failed. The prospect of winning a substantial number of seats in the new Knesset also lead to a higher voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel, which came close to a historic 70%, causing Netanyahu to release a video on his Facebook during election day in which he accused “left-wing NGO’s” of bringing “Arabs” in buses to the polls, leaving “the right-wing government in danger.”
Fight for equal rights and just peace
Although the Joint List never really had the ambition to be a part of a new government, Odeh expressed the Joint Lists plan to “use every parliamentary mechanism - such as attempting to be appointed to the head of certain Knesset committees - to promote our programme of peace and equality, and create concrete improvements in the lives of Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel.” According to Odeh, in recent years, the Knesset has voted great deal of anti-Arab legislation into law, undermining the equal rights of the Palestinian minority, which makes up 20 percent of the Israeli population. He also stressed the rise of incitement against his community, for example during the recent Gaza war in the summer of 2014.
Anti-Arab incitement was forefront in the campaigns of many right-wing parties, particularly that of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman who has notoriously labelled Palestinians citizens as a dangerous fifth column. During the lead up to this week’s elections, Liberman labelled Ayman Odeh a terror supporter, proposing he move to Gaza during a live television debate. Liberman also stated that Arabs who are “against us, cannot be helped, we must lift up an axe and behead them — otherwise we will not survive here.”
The Joint List not only tried to put equal rights on the Israeli political agenda, but was the most vocal about ending Israel’s occupation and achieving peace with the Palestinians, resulting in calls of support by Hamas on Twitter and other Palestinians political factions.
“The Joint List is building support among democratic forces within the Jewish population, presenting itself as the only option for achieving true equality, fighting racism and ending the occupation,” Odeh told Al-Jazeera English a day before the elections. In order to reach those goals, avoiding a new right-wing government would be the first important step, according to Odeh. Tuesday’s results, however, did not pan out the way Odeh had hoped.
Talking to the Jerusalem Post Ahmed Tibi (formerly of the Ta’al party and now number four on the Joint List) told The Jerusalem Posthe was disappointed with the overall election results, stating that the Israeli public “acted in a tribal way, and therefore we are left with Netanyahu.” Tibi called the Joint List’s 13 seats “not a dramatic success, but the beginning of a path that could lead to future achievements.”
Although the Joint List managed to raise the level of representation for the Palestinian community in Israel, it was never seen as a viable coalition partner by any of the centrist or left-wing parties. An Arab-Israeli party has never been part of an Israeli coalition government, nor has an Arab-Israeli politician held a high ministerial position. It has become clear that even a unified political front has not managed to change this.
Boycotting the elections
The unifying effort of the Joint List also eclipsed efforts by Palestinian-Israeli activists to boycott the elections, as the high voter turnout and the election results of the Joint List clearly show. It seems that the display of unity countered the traditional lack of faith in achieving any changes through traditional political participation, although many activists did carry on with their boycott nonetheless. With the Joint List now standing as the third largest party in the Knesset, voters seemed to believe that the party would be able to exert more influence on Israeli politics. Boycotters argue that the participation in elections and in the Knesset of Palestinian parties is merely cosmetic, and only serves to enhance Israel’s claim to be the only real democracy in the Middle East. Although this time the boycott movement failed to gain much support, Balad, one of the parties that make up the Joint List, has a history of boycotting the election. In 2001, the movement’s efforts lead to a mere 18 percent voter turnout amongst Palestinian Israelis. Reasons for the success of that boycott was the so called “October Ignition” in 2000, when 13 Arab-Israelis were killed due to excessive use of force by the Israeli police during protests in northern Israel that called for an end to the discrimination of the Arab-Israeli community.
This year, the boycott movement not only encountered the force of unity between the four largest Palestinian parties, but also failed to organize and play a major role in the public debate. Talking to the Middle East Eye, Hind Alsana of Adalah, the legal center for Arab Israeli rights, said she was disappointed in Abnaa al Balad, one of the main groups supporting a boycott of the elections. “I haven’t seen a single flier from them stating their views. They publish all their statements on Facebook, but not everyone is on Facebook. Statements don’t mean anything, they should be present in the streets and talk to the people so that the people can feel some sort of connection,” Alsana said.