Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, confounded his detractors by staging an unlikely comeback from a looming electoral defeat in a snap election held on March 17. Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 seats, the highest in number in the parliamentary elections. A large part of the late voter surge on the Election Day was triggered by Netanyahu’s racist appeal to his hardcore right wing base to come out and vote because ‘Arabs are heading out to the polls in droves’. This last-ditch racist appeal has contributed to Likud party’s electoral fortunes.
Netanyahu’ words were condemned by the White House and the US President as racist and destructive to the norms of democracy in Israel. Netanyahu has since apologised for his remarks which the Arab Isarelis have dismissed as the latest proof of Israel’s entrenched discriminatory and racist policies. However, the appeal brought to the fore two strands of anti-Arab mainstream political opinion: the Arab Israelis are dominantly thought of as the other; and the residual electoral representation must be further undermined.
These dominant anti-Arab sentiments were echoed earlier by Avigdor Lieberman, of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. In the run up to the election he termed the Arab Israelis as fifth columnists.
Earlier in March, Lieberman, as the outgoing cabinet minister, was the architect of an amendment to the Israeli basic law which raised the threshold for small parties to enter the Israeli parliament from 2 per cent to 3.25 per cent votes. By common agreement the new law was seen as an underhand attempt to push small Arab Israeli political parties out of the parliament (these parties have consistently polled less than 3 per cent votes in the last eight elections). This law came hard on the heel of the Jewish state bill presented in the parliament last year after fractious cabinet approval. Sensing these well-coordinated moves to further curtail Arab Israeli’s rights and representation, most Arab Israeli, Arab Jewish and the left groups banded together to form the Joint List.
The Joint List is an alliance of four Arab Israeli parties: Raam (United Arab List), Ta’al (Arab Movement for Renewal), Balad (National Democratic Assembly) and Arab-Jewish party Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality). The Joint List’s formation was forged to beat the newly hiked threshold for parliamentary representation which was widely perceived to be inimical to the preservation of Arab-Israeli parties. The Joint List elected Ayman Odeh, the charismatic leader of Hadash, as its new leader.
Arab Israelis make up 20 per cent of the population of Israel. In the beginning the Arab Israeli vote went overwhelmingly to the Zionist parties. From 1990 onwards, however, the Arab Israel vote has veered towards Arab-Israeli parties with voter turnout of around 55 per cent on average in successive elections. But with little collective power these parties failed to make a dent in the general discriminatory thrust of Israeli politics.
It was only during the administration of Yitzhak Rabin that the Arab-Israeli parties had some say in the peace process. Since then, Arab Israelis’ ability to influence the mainstream politics has sharply declined. This process has accelerated under Netanyahu’s administration. Against this background, the formation of the Joint List was widely welcomed among the disillusioned Arab Israelis. The result was a higher turnout which was accounted at 65 per cent. The Joint List benefited from this voter surge and grabbed 13 parliamentary seats which make it the third largest parliamentary block after the Likud and the Zionist Union, renamed Israeli Labour Party.
Ayman Odeh is a fresh face among leaders — a lawyer with considerable skills as a campaigner. The Joint List has staked out bold position on issues such as the Palestinian state and the inherent discriminatory practices of the Israeli state. It has called for end to occupation — actually used the word occupation, and an end to discrimination and formation of the Palestianian state. The Joint List is advocating equality between Arabs and Israelis within the state of Israel.
Ayman Odeh has already signalled his intention to organise Martin Luther King style march to demand greater equality between the Arabs and the Israelis and an end to discriminatory practices against the Arab Israeli population. Over the years, historical discrimination and marginalisation faced by the Arab-Israelis have grown worse as symbolised in the creeping eviction of Arabs from Israel and the robust enforcement of discriminatory policies. In particular, the Joint List is focusing on rollback of the proposed Jewish state bill which seeks privileges for its Jewish citizens over the concept of equal citizenship.
Unsurprisingly, the Joint List has stirred the placid and consensual political waters of the Israeli politics.
Some analysts do not read much in the rise of the Joint List because of the Israeli political landscape being historically weighted against Arab-Israeli political parties. This reading is further informed by longstanding differences between different parties composing the Joint List. Other analysts, however, take the view that Arab-Israel parties have no other option except to coordinate a joint strategy against the unified Jewish mainstream which has corralled almost all Israeli parties into its anti-Arab antipathy.
The Joint List stands to gain hugely from a unified position and coordinated strategy in a political landscape in which small scale movements against the rightward drift of Israel are sprouting all over Israel. These movements have arisen in response to growing inequality, the rising cost of living and the squeezed middle class. In 2011, Israel saw the biggest ever demonstration to articulate these concerns.
The Joint List, apart from coordinating on Arab-specific concerns, is best placed to form larger alliances with such movements. With Netanyahu set to dominate the Israeli political scene as polarisation entrepreneur, the Joint List has a hell of a job on its hand.
Therefore, this juncture in Israeli politics presents a historic opportunity for the left and Arab-Israeli political parties to articulate an alternative vision of mainstream politics. The Joint List has the hand of history thrust upon its shoulder which it cannot afford to spurn.