The Joint Arab List split up alters the political landscape - analysis

Balad, which was one of three parties in the Joint Arab List broke away from the other two, making it less likely that they will pass the electoral threshold.

 Joint List final list, without Balad, as the parties broke apart, September 16, 2022.  (photo credit: ELIAV BREUER)
Joint List final list, without Balad, as the parties broke apart, September 16, 2022.
(photo credit: ELIAV BREUER)

In the run-up to last Thursday night’s deadline for parties to file their final lists for the November election, Prime Minister Yair Lapid took a page out of rival Benjamin Netanyahu’s playbook and got very involved in other parties’ business.

Lapid watched as Netanyahu was proactive in trying to avoid splits inside the right-wing camp that could possibly have led to the loss of tens of thousands of key votes. Netanyahu made sure that Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, would run together with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, and also ensure that Avi Maoz’s Noam Party would be represented there as well.

Netanyahu even pledged to the haredi parties that teaching math and English in their schools would not be a prerequisite to getting government funding, thereby ensuring that Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael would not split and would run together again as United Torah Judaism. Anything so that no party in his bloc would run alone and risk not passing the 3.25% electoral threshold, which is expected to be equivalent to four seats’ worth of votes.

Netanyahu even pledged to the haredi parties that teaching math and English in their schools would not be a prerequisite to getting government funding, thereby ensuring that Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael would not split and would run together again as United Torah Judaism. Anything so that no party in his bloc would run alone and risk not passing the 3.25% electoral threshold, which is expected to be equivalent to four seats’ worth of votes.

Lapid tried his hand at the same game. He expressed concern – though a concern not born out by consistent polling – that either Meretz or Labor, if they ran alone, would not cross the voter threshold, leading to a loss of a significant amount of voters to his bloc. So he pressured and cajoled and brought the heads of the parties together – à la Netanyahu – to get them to merge. But to no avail. Both parties filed separately on Thursday evening.

In retrospect, however, Lapid’s attention should have been focused elsewhere. While he was zooming in on Meretz and Labor, inside the Arab Joint List – a union of the socialist-communist Hadash, the super Palestinian Nationalist Balad, and Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al, which is somewhere in between the two poles – trouble was brewing.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid briefs foreign press on the Iran Deal and Israel's opposition to it. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO) Prime Minister Yair Lapid briefs foreign press on the Iran Deal and Israel's opposition to it. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

At the last minute Balad broke off from the other two factions and filed a separate list, surprising everyone and conceivably altering the outcome of the next election.

Not only is Balad now not expected to make it past the electoral threshold, but by running separately, it could conceivably draw votes from Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am Party – the two parties ran together in April 2019 – thereby driving that party below the threshold as well.

Likewise, the only poll taken since the Joint List broke up, a KAN News poll released Saturday night, had Hadash-Ta’al – like Ra’am – polling at four seats, precariously close to not making it into the Knesset.

If that poll ends up benign accurate, it would be a dramatic drop for the Arab parties, going from a peak of 15 seats in the 2020 election to possibly only eight seats this time around.

One of the big questions on Sunday was whether Lapid, rather than trying to engineer a Mertz-Labor union, would not have better spent his time paying attention to what was happening inside the Joint List, and trying to make sure that the Join List would run again as only one party.

Why should Lapid have focused on the Joint Arab List?

Why would that be in Lapid’s interests? Because this party is surely in the anti-Netanyahu camp, and the more seats it would garner, the less able would Netanyahu be able to reach the magic 61 seats needed to form a coalition.

Lapid, however, did not interfere in the inner workings of the Arab parties. There are a couple of reasons explaining this.

First, if Lapid was unable to facilitate the merger of two Jewish parties that would like to see him serve as the next prime minister, then what type of realistic influence would he have on the internal dynamics of three largely Arab factions who don’t necessarily hold the prime minister in the highest esteem?

Second, how would this look to Jewish voters Lapid is trying to woo from the “soft Right?” Lapid’s active intervention in the internal politics of Arab parties would be seen as paving the way for his acceptance of Hadash-Ta’al in the next coalition, something that because of the anti-Zionist and hostile attitudes toward Israel of these parties, is anathema to many.

So Lapid didn’t get involved, and the Join List broke up.

This is the third significant breakup within the Joint List since it came together after the election threshold was raised from 2% to 3.25% for the 2015 elections.

Ra’am and Balad broke away and ran alone in April 2019. They then rejoined the Joint List for the September 2019 and 2020 elections. However, Ra’am split again in 2021 because of a willingness to cooperate with any government that would be formed.

This current breakup, however, is as much a petty battle over ego as it is ideology.

Some said that Balad broke off because it was insistent on the Joint List not recommending anybody as prime minister to the president and not participating in a future government after the next election. At the same time, the more pragmatic Hadash-Ta’al – looking at the budgets Ra’am got for the Arab sector as a result of joining the coalition last year – wanted to keep all options open.

That’s the ideologically pure explanation. The more mundane reason had to do with whether a rotation plan for the No. 6 slot on the Knesset list would be filled by a Balad representative for half a year or just three months.

What the Jewish public saw on display was that the same ego-driven politics that bedevils the Jewish political parties inflict the Arab ones as well – it’s just that it gets a lot less media attention.

What are the ramifications of Balad's split?

The possible ramifications of Balad’s stunning move are far-reaching.

The first is the most obvious. If three separate Arab lists run, the likelihood of all three passing the threshold is slim. Though this happened in 2013, it was when the electoral threshold was only 2%.

If one, two or all three of the list don’t pass the threshold, the votes cast for those parties are lost to the anti-Netanyahu bloc and benefit the former prime minister

However, In that first poll Saturday night following the breakup of the party, the pro-Netanyahu bloc garnered 60 seats, one short of being able to set up a coalition, and the anti-Netanyahu forces got 57. This is not significantly different from the three polls taken before the results of the Joint List break-up could be measured in.

Another possible implication of Balad’s withdrawal will be that it may make the Joint List – void of Balad’s stridently anti-Zionist positions – more palatable to Lapid as a potential partner in some type of configuration. It’s not that Hadash’s’ Ayman Odeh or Ta’al’s Ahmed Tibi are proud Zionists, but the factions they head are less extreme in their anti-Zionist viewpoints than Balad’s leader Sami Abou Shahadeh and other former Balad luminaries, such as Azmi Bishara and Hanin Zoabi.

If Balad goes ahead and runs and fails to pass, Netanyahu benefits.

If, however, Balad at the last minute drops out because it doesn’t want to cost the anti-Netanyahu bloc any votes, or if it is disqualified and the Joint List goes on to get between four and six seats, then Lapid will benefit since without Balad, there will be much less opposition to him eventually working somehow with the Joint List.

On Sunday, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party already appealed to disqualify Balad from running. On the one hand, a disqualified Balad would mean that votes for the anti-Netanyahu bloc would not be lost. Nonetheless, it could drive down voter turnout in the Arab sector since – in this eventuality – many Arabs might conclude that the “game is rigged against them” and they might as well not participate in the process so as not to give it legitimacy.

Not surprisingly, in the last five elections going back to 2015, the higher the Arab turnout, the more seats the Arab parties won in the Knesset. In 2015, Arab turnout was at 63.5%, and the Joint List won 13 seats.

In the next election, in April 2019, the Arab turnout dropped by 14%, and its Knesset seats dropped from 13 to 10 seats. In the second election in 2019, turnout soared to 60%, and the Arab party seats went back up to 13. And in 2020, when the Arab turnout was 65%, the Joint List won a record 15 seats.

Last year the turnout slipped 20 percentage points to 45%, and the Arab party Knesset representation dropped by 33 %, from 15 seats to 10.

At the end of August, a KAN poll predicted that Arab-Israeli turnout might slip to an unprecedented level of 39% this year – and that was before the Balad split off from the Joint List, something that might drive the Arab voter turnout even lower than that prediction. Fewer Arabs voting means fewer seats for the Arab parties and fewer seats in the bloc that wants to keep Netanyahu from returning as prime minister.