The Heinrich Boll Foundation sponsored a panel last night on the Arab vote. It was a refreshing change from the otherwise negative tone of many of the most recent events that I’ve attended, in particular last week’s Democracy Conference — which, by virtue of it being held was in itself an unsettling sign.
The Palestinian-Israeli panelists, Aida Touma-Suliman of Hadash, and social worker Samah Salaime Egbaryia described the process of putting together a joint list, which was understandably a challenge given the myriad of views within the community, and touched upon the various reasons as to why the joint list was necessary in the first place. Certainly, the higher threshold imposed ostensibly as a means of creating stability, but suspiciously viewed as a means of banishing an Arab voice from the Knesset, was central to that decision. But the war in the summer, and the subsequent racism that accompanied it, also helped convince many Arab politicians that the best way to deal with these issues would be to do so from a place of greater power, hence a larger bloc of seats in the Knesset. Ironically, or appropriately enough, the threshold law may have achieved what it was initially created to do: foster a sense of cohesion among parties that would not otherwise run on the same slate, and help shift the political system away from fragmentation and unruliness. Furthermore, it has also helped politicians like Touma-Suliman, an outspoken feminist, deal with intra-communal issues (like women’s equality, domestic abuse, etc.) from a more entrenched place of power.
When one currently walks by the Azrealie Center in Tel Aviv, one sees a large campaign poster by the Shas party, with the message in large Hebrew letters: “you aren’t invisible”. True, the message does not specify anything particular and could act as a rallying cry for all those marginalized in Israeli society, but it’s highly unlikely that such a slogan was meant to include within its purview the Palestinian-Israeli population. This, according to Touma-Suliman, is starting to change: already, she claimed, there are murmurs amongst Jewish Israelis about the impact that a joint list will have on the Israeli political system, and questions about what its politicians are trying to achieve.
She attributed this change in part due to the rise of the party slate’s leader, Ayman Odeh, who unlike the demonized MK Hanin Zoabi, was able to define himself to the Jewish public before the right had a chance to do so. There is a sense of real power that a united list brings, a chance to step out from the shadows and remind Jewish Israelis that they too exist and are entitled to their share of the national pie. That power also brings with it a number of opportunities, including inclusion in a number of prestigious committees, the acquisition of high-profile portfolios in the government (in the unlikely event that they are included in the ruling coalition), and the chance to act as a “block” against the ascent of a right-wing coalition. These developments have had reverberations in the West Bank as well, bringing to light the major divisions among various Palestinian factions, and the necessity for them to bridge gaps in order to present a united front. “The right is used to dealing with Hanin Zoabi”, Touma-Suliman exclaimed. “But she is one person; they’ll find that it’s much more difficult to deal with 13 or 14 people this time around”. In regards to working with the center-left, Touma-Suliman was clear that if a Herzog-led government was willing to establish certain red lines (like a settlement freeze), then the list would be willing to support from outside of the governing coalition.
Noam Sheizaf of +972 (who many of our readers may be familiar with) acted as the voice of the Jewish left on the panel, giving both a “glass half full, half empty” assessment of the situation. Polls, he warned, were notoriously fickle, and what was being said now did not necessarily translate to success on election day; hope is a powerful motivator, but it in itself would not suffice. Furthermore, he worried about the fate of parties like Meretz that were hovering dangerously close to the threshold. But Meretz’s current precarious situation also creates new opportunities for it.
Instead of finding itself in constant danger at the polls in appealing to the Jewish Israeli voter, why not, Sheizaf suggested, consider in the future joining up with Hadash and the Arab parties? Envisioning such a scenario is certainly not impossible, especially if the united list brings in a large amount of mandates and is able to successfully project its power following elections. And Meretz voters can certainly find common ground with those on the joint list as victims of the right-wing’s increasing campaign of incitement, culminating in violence against both Arabs and Jews who do not tow the nationalist line.
Still, there is reason for concern, given the right’s behavior in the past; it’s unlikely that they’ll be willing to take a success on the part of the joint list lying down, and as Sheizaf pointed out, will certainly seek to provoke another round of confrontation. What form that confrontation takes, is of course, hard to predict. Lieberman has already tried, and seemingly failed, to exclude a Palestinian voice from entering the next Knesset through underhanded, albeit, democratic means. It’s unknown what other maneuvers within the confines of the Knesset are available to the right, and hard to predict what other measures they would take, given that legislation to ban the list would be nearly impossible to pass.
Sadly, this probably means an uptick in racist behavior and rhetoric from the right, targeting both the Jewish left and the Arabs as a whole. But, as panelists pointed out, opposition is also quite likely to increase electoral participation instead of acting as a form of intimidation. With Lieberman and other far-right parties sitting on the edge of the electoral abyss, and a Palestinian-Israeli public reinvigorated and eager to effect a real change this time around, the right may realize that it got more than it bargained for when it initiated this series of events.