Joint List changes signal chance for unity in Israeli politics - opinion

The Arab Israeli electorate and the new generation are changing. The political campaign game should change with it.

JOINT LIST members gather at party headquarters in Shfaram during the Knesset elections in March. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
JOINT LIST members gather at party headquarters in Shfaram during the Knesset elections in March.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
It’s been a historic year with many shifting alliances in the Middle East. The most obvious being the Abraham Accords. But there’s another massive shift taking place within Israel in the Arab-Israeli community. The upcoming elections provide a unique opportunity for Jewish political parties to expand their electoral base in perhaps unexpected places.
The vast majority of Arab Israelis vote for the Joint List, despite an array of disagreements about policies. There are many reasons for this including family-style voting, with large families being affiliated with a party for decades and voting along party lines in each election. This phenomenon is similar to what we see with segments of the ultra-Orthodox population and parties such as Shas.
Another factor is that the Joint List has done a particularly good job of highlighting social divides in Israel and capitalizing on the incitement from Jewish extremists. Despite the fact that people inciting against Arabs are the minority, this gives fuel to the already marginalized Arab community to get out the vote. But getting out the vote alone wouldn’t be enough to vote for Joint List. The Joint List is also terrific at making empty promises and blaming everyone but themselves when those promises don’t come to fruition.
This long-standing policy of refusing to sit in the coalition started to crumble with MK Ayman Odeh’s comments in August 2019 stating he would be willing to sit in a coalition of Benny Gantz should Blue and White win the election. “We will seriously consider joining him,” he said.
Despite the fact that the only reason they considered joining the coalition was to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Joint List did follow through in some respect and recommended that Gantz receive the mandate to form a government – the first such time the Joint List took such an action. However, despite these steps, the Joint List ultimately continued down the same path, acting against the interests of its own electorate and refusing to work with Likud.
In the 23rd Knesset, the Joint List continues to act against the interests of its voters, for example, by voting against the Abraham Accords despite the agreement providing tremendous opportunities for the Israeli-Arab sector. But the self-sabotaging actions aren’t without internal political push-back.
Ra’am, one of the four Arab parties which make up the Joint List, recently abstained from the vote to dissolve the government and go to elections. The move was hardly the first of unusual events from Ra’am, with party chairman MK Mansour Abbas recently said the Joint List has an obligation to the electorate to make a change in Arab society. As such, he believes the best way to do so is to actually work with the government, be it headed by Netanyahu or anyone else. This attitude shift is virtually unprecedented for Israeli-Arab politicians, yet the electorate seems to be biting. Recent polls showed that if the Islamic Movement (a faction of Ra’am) were to run separate from the Joint List, it would receive four mandates in the upcoming election.
All signs point to changing attitudes in Israeli-Arab society. In the last few elections, we’ve seen a significant rise in Arab-Israeli turnout, which has led, in part, to strengthening the Joint List. Despite this, the Joint List is divided, divisive and a complete political failure that continues to let down those who vote for it.
The biggest dilemma for Israeli-Arab voters today is that there is simply no alternative. Obviously, an alternative Arab political party (or Arab representatives) who act in the interests of their community and are willing to sit in the coalition would be the best option for Israeli-Arab voters, but in the absence of such a party, Jewish political parties have a unique opportunity to find common ground and pose a viable alternative for this voting bloc.
Already, Yamina has jumped on the bandwagon, opening a campaign headquarters in the Arab sector. While it’s a step in the right direction, any political party that hopes to take votes from the Israeli-Arab community would need to invest in campaign messaging that actually speaks to the community and identify common ground. It would need to be a voice against the rhetoric of incitement we’ve seen in previous elections about the Arab-Israeli community. And perhaps most importantly, it would need to put Arab-Israeli representatives in realistic positions within its list.
We have already had three elections of political stalemate in which Arab-Israeli votes were largely thrown away because of poor leadership in the Joint List. We don’t need another. The Arab Israeli electorate and the new generation are changing. The political campaign game should change with it, too, instead of continuing to stand against it. Israel’s Jewish political parties should not miss this opportunity for unity.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.