Israeli Arab party made election history. Now it hopes to make progress.

Symbolizing how the united party hopes to win Jewish supporters for its aims, a demonstration against home demolitions was held Tuesday in the heart of Tel Aviv.

Joshua Mitnick
Jeries Matar, the local council head of the Arab Israeli village of Elaboun, addresses hundreds of demonstrators in central Tel Aviv on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, to protest recent demolitions of homes of Arab citizens.

Carrying Palestinian flags and chanting “No to racism” in Hebrew, hundreds of Israel’s Arab citizens from far-flung villages gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Tuesday evening to stage a first ever protest on Israel's most well-known public stage.

The protest was part of a campaign to draw attention to an upsurge in home demolitions and alleged discriminatory land policies affecting the country’s Arab minority. But it also highlighted a new sense of confidence and buoyed expectations ever since an alliance of three Arab parties – known as “the Joint List” – finished third in March's parliamentary election.

The challenge now, say party leaders and analysts, is to address those expectations by finding ways for the Arab lawmakers to use their political power to deliver tangible results to their constituency.

“We want to bring our voices into Tel Aviv, to the general Israeli Jewish public, to make them understand what kind of pain the demolitions are causing,” says Aideh Toumeh Sliman, a parliamentarian.   

“Part of what we promised when we formed the Joint List for the election is to try and develop our tools and methods of struggle to protect our people,” Ms. Sliman says. “Here we are doing something different. We are not only protesting inside our villages where no one pays attention. We are taking our issues into the center and making the center listen to us.”

Culminating a hard-fought election campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied his right-wing supporters with a much-criticized warning that masses of Arab voters were flocking to the polls. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party won decisively, resulting in no real change in the tenor or direction of the Israeli government.

Nevertheless, politicians and political analysts say the Joint List’s showing marked a milestone achievement that was reinforced by a jump in voter turnout among Israeli Arabs, who are a fifth of Israel’s citizens, by about 10 percentage points.

Long divided and marginalized politically, the Arab legislators and their new leader, Ayman Oudeh, are now sought after by an apologetic Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and others in the Arab world.

Israeli Arab expectations are high

The buzz has inflated expectations, and many Arab constituents hope the party will make gains on civil rights and improve their economic situation.

They are likely to encounter plenty of pushback. Facing a new right wing-religious coalition that aims to emphasize Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic values, the Joint List will be confined to the parliamentary opposition where its influence on legislation will remain marginal, potentially disappointing voters.

“There’s no doubt that the Joint List’s performance was a seminal moment for domestic Arab politics. But if the results had brought about the fall of the Likud, they could have had much more impact,” says Jacky Khoury, a journalist at the Haaretz newspaper who covers Arab politics. “There are high expectations among the Arab public that they will solve problems. If they don’t bring results, in the next elections it could bring be the opposite results.”

One of the top challenges of the united Arab party will be striking the right balance between issues of peace and sovereignty for their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, and focusing on issues of civil rights and socioeconomic equality inside Israel.

With Netanyahu’s new government opposed to renewing peace talks with President Abbas, some expect the Joint List to train its sights on domestic goals such as Tuesday’s anti-home demolition campaign in Tel Aviv.

The Joint List – the union of an Islamic, Arab nationalist, and Communist Jewish-Arab parties – also faces the basic challenge of whether it can paper over its ideological differences. Formed initially in response to a change in Israel’s election law that raised the minimum threshold of votes to get seats in parliament, members of the party and analysts say voters expect the parties to maintain the unity that made them so popular. 

New party chief is a key asset

Jafar Farah, director of the Arab Israeli civil rights group Mossawa, says the party’s success depends both on developments with Israel’s control over the West Bank and whether it can find majorities in parliament to better the situation of Palestinians inside of Israel. The party will also have to confront internal issues among Arab Israelis regarding women’s rights, respect for the rule of law, and religion and state, he says. Mr. Farah complains that at a recent party event there were no women speakers.

“The weakness of this Joint List is that unifying the Arab community is not enough to guarantee civilian or human rights, or equality and peace,” Farah says. “The representatives of the Arab community should strategize in a way they can guarantee 61 seats [a majority in the Knesset] that will be pro-equality and pro-peace. This is the first stage, but not the end result.”

One of the party’s best assets, it seems, is the party chief. Mr. Odeh, a Haifa lawyer and freshman legislator from the Communist faction, has tried to cater his messages of inclusion and cooperation so as to win the hearts and minds of Israel’s Jewish majority. That is a departure from the provocative remarks of Arab legislators like Hanin Zuabi, a Knesset member since 2009 from the pan-Arab nationalist faction. In the run-up to the election, Odeh faced down ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, who called him a “fifth column” in a televised debate, and instead appealed to create an “alliance of the discriminated” with Israel’s working-class Sephardic Jews – who normally support the right wing.

Odeh has already been invited to meet with Netanyahu – presumably in order to smooth ties with Arab Israelis after the vote. He has conditioned the meeting on a discussion of the home demolition policy and a solution for Israel’s unrecognized Bedouin villages, which are frequently dismantled in a decades-long dispute over where the nomadic people should be relocated. 

Since the election, Odeh has already paid a visit to meet with leadership of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and the electoral success even spurred reports of an invitation to address the Arab League.

A model for occupied territories?

Indeed, the success of the alliance between three divergent parties is being seen as a model for emulation in the occupied territories, where Palestinians are divided between Abbas’s secular Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza.

“This is a more savvy approach. I envy those Palestinians who have reached the point of forging a new list,” said Nour Odeh, a former spokeswoman for the Palestinian Authority, at a public discussion this month in Ramallah on the Joint List. “Here in the occupied territories there is less political maturity. We have a lot of catching up to do in that sense.’’

That’s a striking change for a community of Palestinians who have lived at the margins of wider Arab society because of their status as Israeli citizens. Despite the embrace from the West Bank, however, observers say the main test of the new party remains inside Israel.

Nohad Ali, an Arab sociology professor at Haifa University, says that while the Joint List has to function as a lobby for peace and avoid infighting among its rival factions, it needs to look for “win-win” issues where it can cooperate with Jewish parties in parliament.

“We know what we don’t agree on. But we’ve never worked on what we do agree on,” he says. “They need to change the Arab Israelis’ double marginalization in Arab society and in Israeli society and make them part of the political vista.’’

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