As Election Day approaches, Arab society is more fractured than ever

ARAB AFFAIRS: Within Arab politics, there is also dissension and fracture.

POLICE SCUFFLE with Arab-Israelis in Nazareth during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the city earlier this month. (photo credit: RONI OFER/FLASH90)
POLICE SCUFFLE with Arab-Israelis in Nazareth during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the city earlier this month.
(photo credit: RONI OFER/FLASH90)
Arab society is approaching the election in the midst of a deep crisis.
Violence is raging in the streets, and murders are reported every other day. According to an Abraham Initiative tracking project, 113 Arab-Israeli citizens were killed in violent crimes during 2020. Since the beginning of 2021, seven Arab citizens were killed.
It is estimated that there are 300,000 illegal weapons in the Arab sector.
Last Saturday, following a murder in his town, Umm el-Fahm Mayor Samir Mahamid said he intends to resign if a comprehensive governmental plan against violence in Arab towns is not approved by the end of next month.
In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, he explained the move by saying he feels “helpless.”
“I was there in the protest [after the murder], and I met the sisters and cousins of the young man who was murdered,” Mahamid said. “They slammed me for doing nothing, and I had no answers for them. Whoever has the tools to fight these violent acts is not using them. The government needs to set a new policy – an operative plan.”
Within Arab politics, there is also dissension and fracture.
After a tense meeting at the party’s headquarters in Shfaram late on Wednesday, it was finally decided: the Joint List is dismantling.
After weeks of discussions, arguments and reconciliation efforts, one member on the list described it as a “talaq mushtarak,” an agreed-upon divorce.
While it is unclear whether some of the parties will run together, one thing is almost certain: Ra’am (the United Arab List), the party that represents the southern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, will not be part of it.
Ra’am is a unique phenomenon. It is a religious movement that shares some of its values with political Islam (such as the extreme Muslim Brotherhood movement), yet at the same time, it is a pragmatic party that wishes to increase its power by cooperating with non-Arab parties to the extent that has not been accepted so far by other Arab parties.
On a list of conditions that it sent the other parties earlier this week to keep the Joint List together, Ra’am demanded the Joint List abstains from Knesset votes that are “harming the religious and conservative identity of Arab society,” and to allow Ra’am the freedom to vote however it wishes.
The first condition is a sign of major tension in the list, which revealed itself after a vote over a Meretz bill last summer that was aimed at preventing LGBT conversion therapies. Some members of the Joint List, including leader Ayman Odeh, voted in favor of the bill.
Waleed Taha, one of Ra’am’s four Knesset members, told the Post that according to their worldview, people are free to do whatever they want in their homes, but their fury poured out over what they see as Odeh’s unique position.
“The leader of the Joint List can’t act like a simple MK,” Taha said. “He should act like the leader of the Joint List, which some 600,000 people voted for – the vast majority of our Arab society is conservative, whether it’s Muslims, Christians or Druze.”
This is exactly the paradox that lies within the Joint List: it is one party but represents a diverse society with different beliefs, ideologies and worldviews. It would be as if Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism and Bayit Yehudi ran together.
ARAB SOCIETY in Israel can be divided into three main political-ideological streams. The first is Hadash (al-Jabha, the front), the current incarnation of the old Israeli-Arab Communist Party, which according to polls receives the most support among Arabs in Israel. As a party that believes in joint partnership with non-Zionist Jews, it traditionally has one Jewish member.
A second stream is Balad (al-Tajamou), the most hawkish among the four. Balad considers itself part of the Palestinian national movement, and thus rejects all forms of cooperation with the country’s institutions. It also rejects the idea of the Jewish state, believing the government in its current form should be dismantled and a new “country for all its citizens” be built.
Ra’am, a religious party, gains most of its support among the Bedouin in the Negev, and in the area of the “triangle,” east of Israel’s coastline.
Finally, there’s Ta’al, a party not so much about ideology but rather about finding the balance between working with the country’s institutions and protecting the Palestinian cause. It is led by the most well-known of the Arab MKs, Ahmad Tibi, a physician and a previous adviser to PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
Until 2013, the four parties ran either on their own or in pairs, but after the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu initiated a move to raise the electoral threshold to 3.75% – a move that was seen as an effort to harm the Arab parties – the four decided to join hands out of fear that one of them might not make it into the Knesset and their votes would be lost.
The list’s biggest success came in the last election in which it won 15 seats, becoming the third-biggest faction in the Knesset.
The one platform that all four parties share is the flat-out rejection of sitting de-facto in a coalition. Members of all parties told the Post they could not be part of a government that initiated attacks on their own people, whether in Gaza or in the West Bank.
This stubborn position has attracted criticism from inside Arab society, with many wondering why they should vote for a list that announces from the beginning that it will refuse to be part of the cabinet – essentially relinquishing any positions of influence.
A recent Stat-Net poll showed 25.1% of Arabs intend to vote for a Jewish party if the Joint List is dismantled.
Understanding this division within Arab society – and to extract himself from the current electoral crisis – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started campaigning recently in Arab towns beginning with a visit to Tira, followed by stops in Umm el-Fahm and Nazareth, and on Thursday he went to A’r’ara in the Negev.
Ra’am, the rebelling party, also understood this sentiment on the Arab street, and in recent months it began to insist on working with Jewish parties, especially with Likud. The prime example was seen on December 23, when the party voted against having a new election in alignment with Likud and Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, members of the other Arab parties say that despite his efforts, Netanyahu will not be able to reach the two seats (approximately 70,000 votes) he would need in order to create a Likud-led coalition. They also don’t trust the Likud, or any other Jewish party, to reach out to them after an election.
Ta’al leader Tibi said Netanyahu’s efforts are a charade. The Arab public remembers how he incited against them for years and the prime minister could not be trusted to deliver his promises after the election.
“Now Netanyahu is willing to walk around wearing a jellabiya, to call himself hajj Abu-Yair, hold a masbaha and give kanafeh to the guests,” Tibi joked. But after the election, he said, Netanyahu will not want their support or want to be associated with any Arab MK whom he calls terror supporters – and not only Tibi and Ayman Odeh but also Mansour Abbas [Ra’am’s leader].
Tibi, who starred in Netanyahu's last campaign – in the slogan it’s either Tibi or Bibi – said that the prime minister’s attempt to go after the Arab voter is “pathetic.”
“It a classes Bibistic opportunism,” he said. “He understood that there are five swinging seats, so he said to himself: I’m willing to go to vaccine centers and smile, and there I might find immunity,” he added.
Balad leader Sami Abou Shahadeh also rejected the idea that Arabs will “run in droves” to vote for Jewish parties, and especially for Likud and Netanyahu.
“It’s an insult to our intelligence,” he said. “A man that never was in Judeida-Makr or doesn’t know where is Deir el-Asad or Kaukab Abu al-Hijah. Suddenly he comes out of no where and started talking to Arabs. Who do you think you are?
“We, the Arab parties are strong among our people,” Abou Shehadeh said. “We have people on the ground in every town. They are the people that for years attended protests and represented them in local councils,” he added.
The Arab parties for years avoided recommending to the president any candidate for prime minister after an election. But a sharp turn from this position followed the second election of 2019, in which the entire list recommended Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
The party did it again after the 2020 election, with the intention of supporting a government from the outside – being part of the coalition but not part of the cabinet.
However, hawkish voices in Blue and White refused to join a government that would be based on the support of the Joint List. When the pandemic reached Israel, Blue and White shuffled the cards and decided to form a coalition with Likud – the party it vowed to replace.
Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash) said it was not Gantz’s positions that made them support him, but the ambition to replace Netanyahu.
“I never believed that Gantz was an alternative,” Touma-Sliman said. “Alternative is presenting a different kind of politics, and different stances – and he didn’t do that. At that point in time, it was choosing either to support the continuance of the Netanyahu regime or to get rid of it. We chose to get rid of him – by supporting Gantz. There was no other option, and we had the courage to do that.
“I believe that if Gantz would not have betrayed what he promised to his voters, we might have seen changes in the conditions of Arab society,” she said.
AHEAD OF the elections, Arab society is also facing a planning and infrastructure crisis.
No Arab town has been built in Israel since its establishment in 1948 (except a retroactive recognition of Bedouin villages in the Negev), while at the same time, Arab citizens often face challenges in receiving construction permits and Arab towns are not granted jurisdiction expansion.
This creates a situation whereby there is no place to build more homes, people are forced to build illegally and their homes are under the constant threat of demolition.
Some connect the violence with the planning crisis, saying the main purpose of the weapons is to protect the black market, which funds the illegal construction.
Abraham Initiative co-executive director Thabet Abu-Rass said that to overcome this challenge, Arab citizens should be involved in the planning commissions and should be given the option to decide and design the towns they live in.
“Building permits pass through different stages that are controlled by Jewish staff,” Abu-Rass said.
“Even the local housing committee in my town of Kalansuwa is controlled by a Jewish person. I don’t have any problem with Jewish people working for the Arab community. However, I would like the person who is leading the issue of land and planning in Kalansuwa to know at least the problems, the challenges that face the people of Kalansuwa in terms of land and planning.”
It is still unclear in what form the Arab parties will run – whether it’s a Joint List without Ra’am or two lists made of two parties and will they express their support for the coalition.
Also, the strength of the Jewish parties within the Arab society is still unknown.
However, this election will be a major test for those who will be elected to represent the Israeli-Arab citizens.
It will take many resources and efforts to eliminate the armed mafias and to solve the planning and construction issues.