An Unlikely Winner in Israel’s Election

For the first time, the country’s Arab minority could wield some leverage in the political process.

Joint List candidates join hands in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on Sept. 17, as exit poll results are announced.
Joint List candidates join hands in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on Sept. 17, as exit poll results are announced. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—A day after voting in the second parliamentary election in half a year, Israelis woke up on Wednesday to an uncertain picture of who would emerge as prime minister. It was impossible to predict what weeks of coalition negotiations and maneuvering would bring.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the centrist Blue and White party of former army chief Benny Gantz finished nearly even as the largest parties, but neither possessed a clear path to forming a coalition that could command a majority in the 120-seat parliament, known as the Knesset.

Despite the messy top-line result, what was clear was that lawmakers representing Israel’s Arab minority had played a decisive role in weakening Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grip on power, and they were also poised to emerge with some amount of political leverage and influence for the first time in the country’s history.

The Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab parties, is part of a left-center bloc that drew enough votes in yesterday’s election to prevent Netanyahu from forming a governing coalition. With 95 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s bloc controls 56 seats. The Joint List will become the third-largest party in the parliament with 12 votes, a result that exceeded preelection surveys.

Now, the coming weeks of coalition haggling, the party may become a key bulwark for Gantz if he becomes prime minister. In the hours after the voting, the Joint List leaked that party leader Ayman Odeh had spoken with the Blue and White leader by phone.

“They conveyed a message that that Arab voice can’t be ignored,” said Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “The message will be that, ‘We made Netanyahu fall.’”

Arab Israelis make up about 20 percent of the country’s population.

A full partnership in the coalition and cabinet is highly unlikely—right-wing secular leader Avigdor Lieberman was quick on Wednesday to rule out partnership with the Joint List. Lieberman, who emerged from the vote in position to tip the balance of power between Netanyahu and Gantz, in years past has been ferocious in assailing Arab lawmakers. He has proposed ceding Arab towns in Israel to the Palestinian Authority and advocated stripping citizenship of Arabs deemed disloyal.

Still, by serving as a so-called safety net for a coalition—supporting a Gantz government on key votes in parliament without actually joining it—the Arab-dominated alliance would be positioned to demand government funds to invest in their cities and villages. They could also insist on reforms of anti-Arab legislation and neglectful policies.

That would be a dramatic turnaround for a group of parties that used to subsist on the margins of the Israeli parliament.

If, on the other hand, calls for a so-called national unity coalition of the top two vote-getters are realized, Odeh would become leader of the parliamentary opposition by virtue of his party’s standing as the next largest—an official position that would make him privy to weekly consultations with the prime minister and classified security briefings.

“That in itself is a historic achievement,” added Rudnitzky, who also manages the program for Arab-Jewish cooperation at Tel Aviv University.

The vote marked a redemption of sorts for the Joint List. The factions that make up the list failed to run jointly during Israel’s first vote in April. Annoyed voters stayed home from the ballot box, and the two factions together won only 10 seats.

On Tuesday, Arab turnout jumped to 60 percent, from an all-time low of 49 percent in April. In Israel’s nationwide proportional system, that shift diluted the strength of Likud and its allies and diminished their collective vote tally by about four seats.

It appears that Netanyahu unwittingly contributed to that shift by repeated allegations of voter fraud in Arab cities and efforts to encourage right-wing activists to film at polling stations, seen as an intimidation campaign.

“If there is a dramatic change in this election, it’s higher voter turnout among the Arabs,” said Odeh soon after the first exit polls were published. “Netanyahu breathed incitement and lies against us. We have a good feeling that he won’t succeed in forming a government.”

Odeh represents a generation of Arab citizens of Israel who want to see their representatives enter the Israeli political ring and convert their parliamentary seats into tangible dividends for the constituency, said Eran Singer, an Arab affairs reporter and editor for Israeli Public Broadcasting.

For most of Israel’s 71-year history, Arab parties have been small, inconsequential, and shunned as coalition partners by Jewish parties, because they are opposed to the notion of a Jewish state. Their lawmakers have been accused by Jews and Arabs alike of being overly focused on advocating for Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For a brief few years during the heyday of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Arab parties provided a safety net for the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“There is a call by a young generation of university graduates. They want to be part of the coalition, they don’t want to be in the opposition,” Singer said. “They don’t want to be marginalized. If we’re part of the legislative and the judicial branches, there’s no reason why we won’t be part of the executive branch.”

In recent years, Israel’s minority has been forced to accept the passage of the nation-state law, a semi-constitutional piece of legislation that elevates Israel’s Jewish character at the expense of its democratic values. That development was said to have depressed turnout in April—one of the two parties that ran narrowly got enough votes to pass the minimum threshold.

Sensing an opportunity to improve their performance, the Arab-dominated parties voted with Netanyahu and his allies in May to dissolve the newly elected parliament and call an election after the prime minister failed to compose a government. The risk paid off.

“This is very good news which indicates that the April low turnout rate was a temporary decision of the Arab public and not some kind of apathy or disengagement from the Israeli political arena,” said Mohammed Dawarshe, a political expert at the Center for a Shared Society at Givat Haviva. “This promises to provide them with a more significant role in the Israeli political scene.”

Arab Israelis are hoping that the party can strike deals to reduce demolition of homes built in violation of building regulations and to boost police involvement in reducing widespread crime in Arab cities. Arab lawmakers could leverage their influence to obtain chairmanships of powerful legislative committees.

At the same time that the outcome marks a reaffirmation of the potency of Arab participation in Israel’s political system, it will also undoubtedly raise expectations for the Joint List to deliver results.

“Fate played a two-way game with the Joint List. It gave them an electoral victory, but this electoral victory needs to be accompanied with results” to hold up in future votes, said Thair Abu Ras, a doctoral student focusing on Israeli politics at the University of Maryland.

“Nobody is talking about joining the coalition yet,” he said. “But we are in the midst of a historical process in which a generation of Arabs will eventually come to regard joining the government as normal.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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