At 6 p.m. on a Saturday in mid February — while Jewish Israel was just powering back on after the Sabbath — about 2,000 Arab Israelis gathered in a ballroom in Nazareth’s industrial zone. The occasion was the campaign kickoff of a unified bloc of Arab political factions running together on one list for the first time in history, ahead of the Israeli election.
Men in keffiyehs and suits, women and young families streamed into the room as reporters set up tripods near the stage. A group of college-age students wearing red shirts in support of Hadash, the joint Jewish-Arab communist party, stood in the back of the ballroom. Soon, the Knesset’s Arab luminaries, including Haneen Zoabi and Ahmad Tibi, took their seats at the front of the room. Dov Khenin, a Jewish parliamentarian in Hadash, sat at the end of the row. Later in the evening, the Beatles’ “Imagine” would play on the loudspeaker ahead of his Hebrew-language speech.
“It’s historic,” said Mariam Farah, a 28-year-old activist from Haifa and former parliamentary assistant to Balad’s Basel Ghattas. Farah came to the event with a friend who had never voted before. “For years, you would hear the same argument: ‘If you get together, we will vote.’ Now, it came true.”
The joint list represents four different Arab parties inside Israel: Hadash, the Jewish-Arab communist party; Ra’am, an Islamist group whose base is in southern Israel; and Ta’al and Balad, two nationalist groups. All four parties are currently represented in the Knesset: Hadash has four seats; Balad and Ra’am both have three. Ta’al’s only lawmaker is Tibi.
The impetus behind their unification, announced in January, was a new law engineered by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to raise the threshold for entering the Knesset from 2% to 3.25% of votes cast. That’s the equivalent of four seats, which would disqualify small parties.
“We admit that it is a challenge for us because of the threshold law,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of Hadash, who is fifth on the list. “That made us very keen about coming together in order to avoid the situation, or the danger, of not being able to be represented in the next Knesset.”
Widely seen as an effort by Lieberman to oust Arab parties from the government, the new regulations will likely do just the opposite. With the election less than a month away, polls show that the joint list could yield as many as 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset, making it the third largest bloc in the Israeli government, behind Likud and the Zionist Camp. (Other polls show the list neck and neck with Jewish Home with 12 seats.)
“Even a right-wing government has to understand that this is a new game now,” said Touma-Suleiman.
Though the candidates have been united historically on most issues regarding Israel’s Arab minority, the joint effort bridged ideological fault lines, particularly on women’s rights. In the past, Balad — currently represented by Zoabi, an outspoken feminist — partnered with Hadash to increase Christian and Muslim women’s access to civil courts, a move opposed in the Knesset by Ra’am, the Islamic party, according to Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for Arab Israelis.
More recently, Khenin caused a small political quake among the list when he said he supported the sale of French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Israel and was criticized by Arab Israelis who were insulted by the publication’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
The joint list’s platform — which was distributed at the Nazareth event — contains eight points. Foremost is a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two states, with East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue based on the right of return as enshrined by the United Nations. The platform calls for the dismantling of all West Bank settlements and the “racist separation wall.” “I think this is the one thing we didn’t have to argue about,” said Touma-Suleiman.
Other mandates include implementing full equality for the Arab-Palestinian public inside Israel, abandoning the Prawer plan to resettle Bedouins, overturning the draft requirement for Druze citizens, fighting against poverty and for workers rights, preserving the status of the Arabic language and, lastly, eradicating nuclear weapons — including Israel’s — from the Middle East. (Israel has never publicly acknowledged its nuclear weapons cache.)
The list has the possibility not only to change Arab representation in the Knesset, but to fundamentally remake grassroots Arab politics inside of Israel for the first time in four decades. In 1976 — 10 years after Israel ended its military rule of Arabs inside the state — Israel announced that it would confiscate thousands of dunums of land in the Galilee for settlement and security reasons, sparking a series of Arab strikes and protests. In the ensuing clashes with the Israeli army and police, six Arabs were killed and hundreds arrested. Land Day, as the event is remembered by Palestinians all over the world, was a turning point in Arab citizens’ relationship to the state, marking the end of Arabs voting for the Labor Party and the rise of Hadash.
Since then, several other Arab political parties have made it to the Knesset, but their influence within the Israeli government has been limited. Though Arabs make up 20% of the Israeli public, no Arab party has ever been part of a governing coalition. (There have been Arab ministers in Zionist parties, however. Raleb Majadale, a Labor Party politician, became Israel’s first non-Druze Arab minister in 2007 when he was named Minister without Portfolio; he later served as the Minister of Science, Culture and Sport.)
Arab voting in Israel has been on a downward decline over the past few decades: In the 2013 election, about 57% of Arabs voted, compared with the overall voting rate of 67%. Analysts estimate that 10% to 15% of the Arab public boycotts the Knesset elections as an ideological rejection of Israeli rule in historic Palestine. The Northern Islamic movement, a faction in Arab politics in favor of an Islamic state in Israel, opted not to be included in the joint list for this reason.
But many other Arabs simply don’t see the point in voting, particularly given Israel’s rightward shift in recent years, which has brought a host of proposals aimed against them, such as Jewish Nation State Bill, an effort to cement Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Arabs also point to the Central Election Committee’s disqualification of Zoabi — later overruled by the Israeli High Court — as further evidence of how Arab Knesset members are marginalized in the Israeli government. Over the summer, several Arab Knesset members were roughed up by the Israeli police in protests against the Gaza war.
“I think a lot of Palestinians, and it is a growing number over the past 20 years, have lost their faith in both the Israeli establishment and in a sense of being part of the parliament,” said Hana Amouri, co-director of Sedaka-Reut, a joint Jewish-Arab youth program in Jaffa. “People don’t see any sense in this. There’s a political analysis that says that Israel uses the Arab representatives to say it is a democracy, and in order to fight Israel we need not to vote and we need to boycott the parliament and then we can say we are not a represented minority.”
The unification of the Arab parties into a single Knesset list could begin to reverse the trend of low voter turnout among Arabs in Israel. According to a study published by the Abraham Fund, a not-for-profit focused on Jewish-Arab coexistence, voter turnout could rise by around 10%, up to almost 67% of voters.
Yet ironing out the unification details took time, and the list has just begun its get-out-the vote efforts. “They started very late and they have a long history of not cooperating,” said Amouri, who is also a Hadash activist and will be reaching out to new voters herself. “Now they need to sit and vote together. It takes time.”
Touma-Suleiman said that she is also aiming to sell the list to Jews in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “I’m traveling a lot and visiting a lot of the Jewish communities and I see the interest in the list,” she said. “Many of the Jewish citizens are really disappointed in the other parties that exist who fail to protect democracy, who did not deliver any solutions. They are willing to take that step [to vote for the Arab list] in order to guarantee that there will be a very clear voice protecting all.”
Some observers say the election could bring about a new political reality among Arab Israelis, not only in the Knesset, but also on the ground, by strengthening the democratic process inside Arab communities. Arab-Israelis could, among other things, elect representatives for an Arab national body, which would no doubt influence the makeup of a future Knesset list.
“In the next election, people will ask themselves, ‘Who said this is the only political power that exists in the Arab community?’” said Jafar Farah of Mossawa. “This will push everyone to a situation where they will tell themselves, ‘We need to go to a direct election internally.’”
Israel’s political right, meanwhile, has reacted strongly to Arab unification. Lieberman slammed the Arab factions as a joint project to obliterate Israel, a claim that Tibi refuted at a recent Haaretz conference on Israeli democracy, saying, “I would like to declare here on behalf of the list that we are not here to destroy the state of Israel. Lieberman and Bennett [a representative of far-right Jewish Home] do it so much better.”
The center-left Zionist Camp also distanced itself from the list when it voted to disqualify Zoabi from the Knesset.
Jafar Farah said that the unification of the disparate parties should be an example to Arab states around Israel. “[Jewish] Israelis don’t understand that there is a regional process taking place, and the Arab community is looking for its way to create a democratic platform in the Palestinian community to reach a consensus of how to work together,” he said. “This is the challenge that the community is facing today — how the secular or national groups will find a way to work with Muslim movements.”
Mariam Farah, the activist at the joint list kickoff, said that she had already started her own get-out-the-vote effort with her parents, who previously did not see the point of voting. “I see the Knesset as a utility,” she said. “It’s the way people can hear your voice.”
This article has been updated to reflect the fact there have been Arab ministers in the Israeli government.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.