Balad’s decision on Sunday to join its partners in the Joint List by endorsing Blue and White head Benny Gantz to form a coalition government came as a surprise to Arab Israelis, who appeared to be divided on the move.
While many welcomed Joint List’s unanimous endorsement of Gantz, others expressed disappointment over Balad’s change of heart.
After the election in September, Balad refused to join its allies in the Joint List by endorsing Gantz for the premiership.
In recommending Gantz then, Joint List leaders told President Reuven Rivlin that “for us, the most important thing is to remove [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu from power.”
Balad, whose stated goal is the “struggle to transform the State of Israel into a democracy for all its citizens, irrespective of national or ethnic identity,” justified its refusal to endorse Gantz by arguing that his “Zionist ideology, his right-wing positions are not much different from the Likud.”
In an article published in Haaretz on September 26, 2019, Balad secretary-general and MK Mtanes Shehadeh explained his party’s stance on Blue and White and Gantz.
Blue and White “can be considered part of the traditional Right,” Mtanes said. “Its views on the occupation aren’t far from Netanyahu’s, even if they’re less extreme than the settlement project Netanyahu tries to advance. The same is true for its views on Israel’s character and identity and on economic policy.
“For now, it can be said that Blue and White isn’t hostile to the legal system. It doesn’t want to destroy the separation of powers to serve its ideological goals, and it doesn’t see democracy as a threat. But on questions relating to the status of Israel’s Arabs – issues like substantive equality and recognizing Arab citizens as a national minority with collective rights – it’s virtually indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s Likud.”
Mtanes and his party have also justified their opposition to “General Gantz” by pointing out his role as IDF chief of staff during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip. More recently, Mtanes was quoted as saying Balad would not endorse Gantz because of the latter’s support for US President Donald Trump’s plan for Mideast peace and the “annexation” of parts of the West Bank.
So why did Balad now change its mind and join the other Joint List parties in recommending Gantz?
Mohammad Darwashe, a prominent political analyst and director at the Givat Haviva Institute, told The Jerusalem Post that Balad’s decision to join the three components of the Joint List in recommending Gantz sets a number of new precedents.
“It’s the first time that the Joint List activates a decision-making apparatus which is based on the majority,” Darwashe said. “The endorsement [by the Joint List] confiscated the individual party position, and forced Balad to adhere to the positions of Hadash and the other parties.”
Hadash is one of the four parties that make up the Joint List. The other three are Balad, Ta’al and the United Arab List.
According to Darwashe, Balad “understood from the September 2019 election that it has no chance of getting into the Knesset if it runs alone, and it needs to stay part of the Joint List.” Balad, he added, understood they would simply disappear if it didn’t adhere to the position of the Joint List.
“Balad is paying back the debt to the other Joint List components who stood with them in a solid unified position when MK Heba Yazbak [of Balad] was facing the possibility of being barred from running in the election,” Darwashe said. “Most importantly, I would dare say that this is the beginning of the reign of [Joint List head] MK Ayman Odeh, who is finally proving his leadership capacity and forcing his partners to abide to his political strategy.”
Prior to the March 2020 election, several parties requested that Yazbak be banned from contesting the vote under the electoral law banning candidates who had openly supported armed conflict against Israel after she referred to Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar as a “martyr.” The High Court green lighted Yazbak’s run for the Knesset.
While several Arab Israelis praised the Joint List’s endorsement of Gantz, others accused Balad of “hypocrisy” for supporting the move.
“Balad has betrayed its voters,” said Samir Abdullah, a supporter of the party from Haifa. “I’m very disappointed with the leadership of Balad for endorsing General Gantz. We see no real difference between Gantz and Netanyahu. Both have been delegitimizing the Arab citizens of Israel.”
Balad officials defended their position by stating that the removal of Netanyahu from power and the integration of Arab Israelis into society was currently a No.1 priority for the Joint List.
“We didn’t recommend Gantz out of love for the man, but because we believe there’s an urgent need to prevent Netanyahu from remaining in power,” a Balad official told the Post. “Netanyahu has been inciting against the Arab citizens for a long time and we consider him a big obstacle to the full integration of the Arabs. On the other hand, we’re hoping that a Gantz-led government would endorse a new and better policy toward the Arabs.”
Balad later issued a statement in which it said that the reasons it opposed Gantz last year did not change significantly.
The statement said Balad “took into consideration the position of our partners in the Joint List, as well as accomplishments that were obtained during the negotiations with Blue and White, first and foremost recognition of the principle of refraining from taking unilateral steps regarding the annexation of some areas of the West Bank and the status quo at the Aqsa Mosque.”
According to Balad, other “accomplishments” achieved during the negotiations with Blue and White include a commitment to suspend demolition of illegal houses, a practical project to combat violence and crime and an increase in public funds allocated to the Arab sector.
“We took these matters into consideration and decided, despite our rejection of the endorsement [of Gantz], to abide by the decision of the majority in the Joint List, which won the confidence of the overwhelming majority of our people,” Balad explained.