The 20 Percent

03.13.15 9:15 AM ET

Will Arab Israelis Oust Bibi?

The Arab parties’ Joint List may win the third largest voting bloc in the Knesset on March 17.

JERUSALEM — In Israel’s March 17 parliamentary elections, four mostly Arab parties will run on the same ticket in an effort to secure unprecedented clout for Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens, who make up slightly more than 20 percent of the total population. 

Analysts are already hailing the vote as historic, and campaigners are hopeful that the unexpected alliance between once bickering, sidelined parties will get young, formerly disillusioned Arab-Israelis out to the ballot boxes and further involved in the national debate.  

“We have needs as a people, and as individuals, to deal with the daily problems of discrimination, racism, and this is where you come in,” Ayman Odeh, the charismatic and pragmatic Arab politician who heads the Joint List, tells his fellow Arab citizens.   

Personally addressing a group of students gathered around him in the beating sun— girls in hijab, guys in jeans and modified Skrillex haircuts, and a few in T-shirts that read, “Together we are stronger”—Odeh says, alluding to Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech and adds, resolutely, “This is our time to fight.” 

Arab parties traditionally have remained on the margins of the Israeli Knesset, and have been in turn largely ineffectual in implementing constructive change in the daily lives of Arab-Israelis.  In the 2013 elections, only 57 percent of Arabs voted, compared to the nationwide rate of 67 percent.                                                     

But next week, voter turnout is expected to rise, especially among young Arab-Israelis who prioritize civil rights and integration into Israel over an independent Palestinian state next door.  

The Joint List platform has resonated, for instance, with 24-year-old Ejad Eliad, an accounting student from Tamra in northern Israel, who will be voting for the first time next week. During the 2013 elections he was swamped with exams, but, really, like most of his friends and family, simply didn’t think there was much point.  

“I think it will be better this time, because of Ayman,” he says. “Since the last elections, the situation has gotten worse for us, especially with the proposal of the ‘nationality law,’” which emphasizes Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic nature, thus further marginalizing Muslim and Christian Arab minorities. 

While Arab-Israelis technically have full rights, they say they are treated as second-class citizens, and many say the state increasingly seeks to suppress their freedom of expression. 

When Iliana Mohamid, a 24-year-old international relations student from Umm al Fahm, peacefully demonstrated against the war in Gaza last summer, she and her friends were attacked violently by security forces. Some of her peers were threatened with expulsion from their university because of posts on their Facebook walls expressing sympathy with the people of Gaza. 

“There’s racism in every society, but here it receives legitimacy from the leadership very clearly,” she says. “I’m optimistic, though, because I’ve met students who previously didn’t want to even hear about politics, and who now want to be part of the change that’s coming.”  

Many of the Joint List supporters, both Arab and Jewish leftists, argue that the daily injustices are directly related to, though less immediately pressing than, the larger question of a Palestinian state. 

They say that the hefty budgets allocated to the wars in Gaza and the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank should instead be used to redress the systematic problems in education, employment, and housing sectors, which have increasingly plagued both Jewish and Arab society. 

The Joint List, moreover, speaks to young Arab-Israelis who, unlike their parents’ generation, confidently balance multiple identities as both Israeli citizens and Palestinian nationals.  

“Engaging in politics and Israeli decision-making just a generation ago, before the Rabin government, would be considered taboo, even close to treason in some circles,” says Arab-Israeli political commentator and former Knesset member Mohammad Darawshe. 

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Ironically, the Joint List was born of efforts by the Israeli right to raise the minimum threshold of votes required of each party in the Knesset. Some saw it as an effort to completely elbow out the small, fragmented Arab parties, but it eventually had the opposite effect of bringing the Arab parties together under a united ballot with a refurbished image.

The election committee’s pressure on the Arab parties reflects a deeper anxiety common over the presence of Arabs in the highest levels of government, where they would have access to sensitive war materials, and could work to undo the Jewish foundations of the state.  While Odeh has rejected a coalition under the current circumstances, he has not ruled out joining one in the future.  

The fault lines of the Joint List already have been cause for heated debate among Israelis.  The bloc includes conservatives who believe in polygamy, and also those who rally for women's rights. Ayman Odeh’s Hadash party, a coexistence-communist party calling for an “alliance of the disadvantaged” between both Jewish and Arab citizens, alongside Haneen Zoabi, of the nationalist Balad party, who is notorious among Jewish-Israelis for being belligerently divisive. She was banned from the Knesset last summer after saying that the Palestinian militants accused of abducting and killing three Israeli teenagers in June were not terrorists, and has repeatedly applauded Palestinian resistance.  

Moreover, the wider Israeli public is wary of the more radical views of some of the Joint List’s members, such as its Raja Zatraa, who at Bar Ilan University on Tuesday denied that Hamas was a terror organization, and said that ISIS learned its crimes of rape, looting and murder from the Zionist movement. 

But 26-year-old lawyer and political activist Shada Ameer is optimistic, saying that this time around, heightened expectations will compel the parties to overcome their conflicts, and make coexistence a top priority.  “What is important is our common goal against the rising right, fascism, and, more than anything, that there will be an open discussion,” she says.

The latest polls indicate the Joint List will win 12 seats in the Knesset, which could easily make it the third-largest bloc in government.  Depending on the course of the coalition, moreover, it also has a real chance at chairing important committees and even leading the opposition. 

While political analysts doubt that the group has the stamina to stay united after the elections, some say that Odeh’s star power and sophisticated, soft-spoken countenance already has achieved much in the way of battling Arab stereotypes.  

Odeh first came to the attention of the Israeli public after a televised debate on Channel 2, in which he spoke in eloquent, accented Hebrew, fending off allegations by Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman that he “represents terror groups,” and that he has no place at the table.   Odeh calmly responded by pointing to the fact that the Joint List was far ahead of Lieberman’s party in the polls, and underscored his connection to the Holy Land by quoting, “He who digs a pit (for others), falls into it,” from the Old Testament’s Book of Proverbs. 

“It’s definitely an improvement and a huge difference from what we’ve seen in the past,” says Molham Damouni, a 23-year-old activist with the Joint List. “What is new here is that we want to fight for a better future and complete equality that is in the interest of both Jews and Arabs, regardless of religion, gender or race.”