Israel’s Arab Parties Aren’t All the Same

Benjamin Netanyahu wants to portray all Israeli Arab politicians as an existential threat. If his opponents are wise, they’ll distinguish among them and pave the way for a winning coalition.

Ayman Odeh (C), and  Ahmad Tibi (L), lead a demonstration by Arab Israelis against house demolitions carried out by Israeli authorities in Arab neighborhoods, in front of the Knesset  in Jerusalem on January 23, 2017.
Ayman Odeh (C), and Ahmad Tibi (L), lead a demonstration by Arab Israelis against house demolitions carried out by Israeli authorities in Arab neighborhoods, in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 23, 2017. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

As Israel enters the final days of the Knesset campaign season, “Bibi or Tibi” has become a rallying cry for embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he pursues re-election. The chant, recycled from the 1996 Knesset race, refers to Ahmad Tibi, the head of the secular Palestinian-Israeli party Taal.

The problem with the slogan is, of course, that Tibi has no current designs on the premiership. But Tibi, who served as an advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat during the Oslo peace process, is probably the best-known Israeli Arab politician among Israeli Jews. His name makes for a convenient stand-in for “the Arabs” generally as Netanyahu whips up nationalist sentiment in the last stages of the campaign.

Netanyahu’s challengers have not done much better when it comes to Palestinian-Israeli political participation. Benny Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and Blue and White alliance head, suggested in late February that he would not form a coalition with Balad. This makes sense: Balad is a radical pan-Arab nationalist party, infamous, among other things, for its former leader Azmi Bishara’s alleged activities as a Hezbollah agent.

Yet two weeks later, Gantz also ruled out Tibi (who is not a Balad member and has expressed interest in cooperating with Blue and White) and subsequently stated that he would work with “anyone Jewish and Zionist,” seemingly excluding Israeli Arabs from his political calculus altogether. Yair Lapid, No. 2 on Gantz’s list, has rejected the notion that Blue and White would even talk to Arab parties. Lapid previously courted controversy in 2013 when he called Israeli Arab lawmakers “Zoabis,” a reference to the vocally anti-Zionist Balad legislator Hanin Zoabi (who is not seeking re-election).

Based on the rhetoric coming out of the Netanyahu and Gantz campaigns, one might be forgiven for thinking all Israeli Arab political parties are the same. They’re not, and the critical differences among them could determine the shape of Israel’s next government.

In the 2015 Knesset election, four Palestinian-Israeli parties ran together on a united ticket appropriately dubbed the Joint List. But beyond a shared Palestinian Arab identity, the Joint List was mostly a product of political necessity. Ayman Odeh of the communist Hadash party ended up leading a bloc of Islamists and pan-Arabists into the Knesset.

In another country, partisans representing these ideologies might have found themselves on opposite sides in a civil war, but in Israel they banded together to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent—the minimum percentage of the national vote a party must win to enter the Knesset. In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman advocated raising it in a not-so-subtle effort to keep small Arab parties out.

Behind the veneer of solidarity, however, the Joint List proved to be an unhappy marriage. Balad sank a surplus vote agreement with Meretz (the left-most anti-occupation Zionist party), an arrangement that would have allowed the Joint List and Meretz to “share” excess votes that would otherwise not equal a full seat in parliament. Odeh now concedes that this was a missed opportunity.

Complicated rotation agreements intended to preserve equal representation among the Joint List’s constituent factions instead became perennial sources of disagreement. When elections were called for April 2019, Tibi split his Taal party from the list. Odeh ultimately joined him, leaving Balad and the Islamist United Arab List behind. The result of the split is one Arab list (Hadash-Taal) that seeks to participate in the Israeli system in some fashion and one rejectionist front (United Arab List-Balad) that denies Israel’s legitimacy altogether.

When Tibi first separated himself from the former Joint List in January, he gave an interview to the left-wing +972 Magazine in which he hinted at plans to support a minority government to block another Netanyahu premiership. This would mean Hadash-Taal would recommend a center-left Zionist candidate as prime minister (presumably Gantz) when President Reuven Rivlin consults party heads after election day but would refrain from joining the government.

More recently, Odeh penned a New York Times op-ed calling for a united Jewish-Arab front to oust Netanyahu and gave an interview with the Times of Israel setting out his conditions for backing Gantz’s candidacy: support for peace negotiations, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and repeal of the nation-state law.

While these statements do not suggest full participation in the government, they are nonetheless significant and public commitments for Hadash and Taal to make considering the Joint List failed to recommend any candidate as prime minister in 2015. In the current context, a blocking majority facilitated by opposition Israeli Arab support could suit both Hadash-Taal and Blue and White. Neither Gantz nor Odeh and Tibi want to see Netanyahu re-elected, and neither side would have to showcase its mutual support in the open.

There is precedent for this, too: Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party backed the Oslo Accords from the opposition benches during Yitzhak Rabin’s tenure in the 1990s. But for this arrangement to work today, Gantz and his running mates must be willing to accept assistance from their Arab colleagues, and right now, the Blue and White leader seems content to generalize all Israeli Arab candidates as equally unpalatable.

Yet if the ongoing election campaign is any indication, Odeh and Tibi are much more at home running together than they were with Balad and the United Arab List. For one thing, Odeh has been freed from the uncomfortable position of having to reassure Hadash supporters that he still believes in gender equality despite leading a joint ticket with conservative Islamists (something he was compelled to do in 2015 while running as the head of the Joint List).

By contrast, the United Arab List-Balad essentially represents a protest vote. While Odeh and Tibi have made public overtures to their progressive and centrist Zionist colleagues, Balad head Jamal Zahalka was unambiguous in his Feb. 2 remark that his faction “is not part of the Israeli left” but a component of the Palestinian national movement. And whereas Hadash-Taal seeks to prop up the center-left, Zahalka says he sees no difference between Netanyahu and his rivals—a curious echo of the way many mainstream Jewish Israeli leaders have generalized all Arab parties.

In 2019, 63 percent of Israeli Arabs plan to vote for Arab parties (down from 82 percent in 2015, a figure that was likely boosted by the presence of one large Arab list). Still, on its own, Balad’s explicitly separatist orientation is unlikely to win broad support, including among Israeli Arabs: 68 percent support those parties joining a center-left Israeli coalition, and 80 percent support those parties backing the government from the opposition benches. These preferences are borne out in the polls, where United Arab List-Balad is treading water around the electoral threshold while Hadash-Taal is currently projected to win between seven and nine seats, possibly making it the third-largest faction in the next Knesset. With the right-wing and center-left blocs neck and neck, Hadash-Taal could make the difference in obstructing Netanyahu’s path to re-election.

Nevertheless, Hadash-Taal still faces serious obstacles. In March, the Central Elections Committee banned Balad altogether and blocked the candidacy of Ofer Cassif, the sole Jewish member on Hadash’s slate and its most vocally Marxist member while allowing the radical right Otzma Yehudit faction to run. The committee is a political body, and its decision was ultimately reversed by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Yet despite the court’s intervention, the Central Elections Committee’s actions as well as talking points from Netanyahu’s campaign and his own centrist challengers could still have a chilling effect on Israeli Arab politics. A survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami predicted a turnout rate of 58 percent for Arab citizens of Israel, while a poll commissioned by Hadash-Taal projected a showing as low as 50 percent (compared with 63.5 percent in 2015).

With indictments pending in three corruption cases, Netanyahu has abandoned any pretense of decorum as he fights to retain the premiership and stay out of prison. Whether it takes mainstreaming acolytes of the late fundamentalist Rabbi Meir Kahane or benefiting from an army of Twitter bots, very little feels off limits for the prime minister now. He was remarkably candid in a March Facebook post in which he affirmed that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.” He was responding to the Israeli actress Rotem Sela, who wrote on Instagram: “‘And what’s the problem with the Arabs???’ Dear God, there are also Arab citizens in this country.”

Unlike Sela, Gantz and his running mates have simply denied Netanyahu’s charges that Blue and White will work with the Arab parties rather than challenge the prime minister’s fundamental premise. In vowing not to work with any Israeli Arab parties, even Hadash-Taal, Gantz goes into election day with a built-in deficit of as many as nine Knesset seats. To clear a path to the premiership, Blue and White will have to be willing to separate Odeh and Tibi’s camp from the negative stigma associated with Balad and Arab parties more broadly. The approach Gantz takes toward them could very well decide who is the next Israeli prime minister.

Evan Gottesman is the associate director of policy and communications at Israel Policy Forum.

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