Nir Elias/Reuters/File
An Israeli Arab woman stands behind a booth as she casts her ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station in the Israeli town of Tira, on January 22, 2013.

Israel elections 101: Did merger of Arab parties create a power-broker?

A new law raising the minimum threshold for representation in Israel's next parliament pushed Israeli Arab parties to merge, raising Arabs' hopes of increased clout.

UPDATE 8:40 a.m. Friday: Arab political parties in Israel agreed late Thursday to merge their lists for the upcoming Israeli elections after resolving a dispute over the sharing of any additional representation in parliament. The following story, published hours before the agreement was announced, explains the motivations for, and possible impact of, the merger.

NAZARETH, Israel – For most of Israel’s history, a divided collection of parties representing the country’s Arab citizens has operated at the margins of national political life. But a first-ever push to merge three Arab parliamentary parties into a single slate for this March's general election is generating optimism among a disillusioned minority that makes up one fifth of the electorate. 

Their hope is that the merger, which appears imminent, could help install a more dovish coalition government that would restart the peace process with the Palestinians and redress decades of inequality for Arab Israelis. The Arab parties, which together control 11 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, hope to add anywhere from one to four seats.

But a nagging doubt persists: would such a strategy galvanize higher Arab voter turnout. While participation in local elections has been high – exceeding 80 percent – the trend in parliamentary elections has been downward. In 2013 it was 57 percent, lagging the overall participation rate by 11 percent, because of increasing alienation from the Israeli mainstream and frustration with their own elected legislators.

A united campaign would be a symbolic milestone with the potential to boost Arab voter turnout by about one-third, argues Nohad Ali, a sociology professor at Haifa University, who advised Israeli legislators to raise the threshold for parties' representation in parliament.

“It’s an issue of identity. It will demonstrate to the [Arab] public that the unifier between us is greater than that which separates us,’’ says Professor Ali, who says his surveys show overwhelming public support for the move.

Offsetting that optimism over voter turnout are the political tensions that continue to alienate Arabs in Israel:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned hard for new legislation elevating Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic traditions

• Israeli police have shot dead two Arab citizens of Israel in the last three months

• and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party has called for Umm El Fahm, the second-largest Israeli Arab city, to be ceded to a future Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank being made part of Israel.

New election law

Most of all, many Israeli Arabs say they still feel hostility left over from last summer’s war in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, during which demonstrations expressing sympathy for civilians killed there were criticized as support for Islamic terrorism. Most said they blame the current government and hope the elections will bring change.

“You can’t say just because one Arab did something, all of the Arabs are bad. This government has gone too far to the extreme,” said Khaldi Hkmat, a Bedouin and a veteran of the Israeli army. “I ran to the battlefront during the Six-Day War. Now I’m afraid to go to Tel Aviv because of racism.”

The impetus for the Arab parties to merge has been a new election law under which parties need a minimum of 3.25 percent of votes, up from 2 percent, to be seated in parliament. This reform, enacted by a right-wing government, presented the Arab parties, and other marginal parties, with the choice of uniting or risking elimination.

While backers justified the reform as a means for creating a more stable political system, many Israeli Arabs viewed raising the threshold as an attempt to exclude their parties.

And so negotiations have been held to combine Raam-Tal, an Islamist dominated party, with Hadash, a mixed Arab-Jewish socialist party, and the pan-Arab nationalist Balad party into a joint candidate slate before a Jan. 28 deadline for registering party lists.

Broad support for merger

Opinion surveys performed by Ali in the past and more recent campaign polls show that 80 to 90 percent of Israeli Arabs support such a merger.

The possibility of cooperation between the current Arab parties has dominated the political debate on social networks, in mainstream Arab media and in households, says Jacky Khoury, an Israeli-Arab reporter for the Haaretz newspaper. To a large degree, that jibes with the ideology of parties like Balad and Ra’am Tal, which promote secular and Islamic brands of Palestinian nationalism, respectively.   

“The request of our public is that we will run together. There’s pressure from every direction,’’ says Wasil Taha, the chairman of Balad and a former Knesset member. “It will make our list into a central factor in Israeli politics. We think we can impact who is the prime minister in Israel.”

Arab parties have never been part of a governing coalition in Israel. Their anti-Zionist ideologies make them legislative outsiders, and in 2009 and 2013 right-wing lawmakers tried to have them disqualified. Even the Israeli left and center have been uneasy about such a partnership for fear of being seen as relying on Arab support.

There’s been one exception: following the 1992 election, Arab parties supported Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s peace agreements with the Palestinians even while remaining outside his government.

Israeli Arabs say this year's election is an opportunity to revive that alliance and become a “safety net” for such a government. Older Israeli Arabs nostalgically recall the Labor “Alignment” and remember the Rabin government as promoting integration.

Unity's costs and benefits

About one fifth of the Israeli Arab vote – or about 3 of the 15 Knesset seats that Professor Ali calculates are elected by Arab voters – goes to Zionist parties, many of whom reserve spots for Arab representatives. The Labor party recently recruited a veteran Israeli Arab sportscaster, Zoheir Baloul, who describes himself as a Palestinian Israeli, drawing criticism from Likud.

“The Arabs need to be together. It’s better that way. Afterwards, the Labor party will invite it into the coalition,’’ says Rafa Izzadin, who says he comes from a Labor family. “It was better with the Alignment.”

The Arab parties reportedly have been haggling over which group would benefit from any added seats accrued to the merged list. There also have been ideological obstacles: some of the Jewish-Arab “Hadash” socialist party expressed hesitation about banding together with Raam-Taal, an Islamist party with no women legislators.

Critics say the government essentially forced the Arab parties into an unnatural alliance, stifling political pluralism and hurting democracy.

“It will weaken the democratic spectrum that the Arab community can choose between,’’ said Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an Arab-Israeli civil rights group. “The Arab community will not have the ability to choose between different alternatives, which are always limited.’’

Pocketbook issues

Still, a common frustration expressed privately is that Arab lawmakers focus on Palestinian statehood to the exclusion of domestic issues facing Arab Israelis. With the cost of living issues high on the election agenda, Arab Israelis say they, too, are prioritizing pocketbook issues.

Nazmi Fawzi, a civil engineering student at the prestigious Technion University in Haifa, says the Arab unity move is motivated mainly by political survival, not the broader public interest. His main concern, he says, is finding a job despite what many youths say is discrimination from Jewish employers, and he will support whichever party can deliver.

“If I go to a job interview, I don’t want to be turned away when they see I didn’t do army service,’’ says Mr. Fawzi. “I don’t care if the party is Arab or Jewish. Whoever puts food on the table, that’s who I’ll eat with.”

Whatever the enthusiasm for a unified Arab list, that alone will not be enough to boost turnout, says Mohammed Dawarshe, co-executive director of the Givat Haviva Institute, a non-profit that promotes civic engagement to bridge social divisions.

“If the option is just another place in the opposition to express anger, the public is smart enough to realize that isn’t going to make a difference,’’ he says.

“If it’s a close race between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and he [Herzog] says the right thing, like, ‘I will consider Arab parties in the coalition, or appoint Arab ministers in the government,’ those will be the right messages to get the people out of their apathy.”

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