Showdown in Israel

03.15.15 10:45 AM ET

Can the Israeli Arab Parties Play Kingmaker?

The Arab Join List is polling well in advance of next Tuesday’s election. If enough Arabs vote, the result could be very interesting indeed.

My answer to racism.” This is not a typical campaign slogan for a national political party, but the Arab Joint List party (“Joint List”) in Israel is not a typical political party. And the upcoming Israeli election next Tuesday is far from a typical election, considering that this Arab-led party may very well decide who will be the next prime minister of the Jewish state.

Lost in the spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu using our Congress as a prop for his reelection campaign is the fact that the most Israeli polls have his Likud party trailing the more liberal Zionist Union party headed by Isaac Herzog. It appears that Netanyahu is far more popular among American Republicans than his own people.

But what might truly surprise some is that the Joint List party, per many polls, is either the third most popular party in Israel or just a few points behind the left-of-center Yesh Atid party headed by Yair Lapid for that spot.

The fact that the party is polling so well may lead some to ask: what is the “racism” that the Israeli Arabs (actually ethnically Palestinians) who comprise the Join List talking about with their campaign slogan? After all, Netanyahu bragged in his 2011 to Congress that of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East, “less than one-half of one percent are truly free, and they’re all citizens of Israel!

Well, electoral success doesn’t mean racism has ended, as we see in our own country despite having a black president. In fact, racism directed against Israeli Arabs, who compromise 20 percent of the population, has alarmingly been growing in recent years. And it truly reached startling levels during last summer’s Gaza war with a surge in hate crimes, threats, and the incessant posting on social media of “Death to Arabs” directed against the minority Arab population.

In fact, when the Joint List’s slogan was announced a few weeks ago by party leader Ayman Odeh, he stood in front of a campaign poster for an Arab candidate that had been defaced to read “Arabs out” to make this very point.

And even more disturbing is that this type of anti-Arab racism is increasingly becoming part of mainstream political discourse. Indeed, countering anti-Arab racism is the genesis behind the smaller Arab political parties joining forces for the first time ever to form the Joint List party.

By way of background, last year, right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Israel Beytenu party, together with Netanyahu championed raising the minimum percentage of votes that a political party needs to secure a seat in the Israeli Knesset from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. The result would have been that the smaller Arab parties could have been excluded from securing any seats in the 120-seat Knesset since they typically get about 3 percent of the vote.

As Ahmed Tibi, a current member of the Knesset and one of the leaders of the Joint List party explained to me via email, “this was an attempt to get rid of the Arab parties in the Knesset, and we understood that we needed to come together to stop this from happening.”

But the Arab bashing didn’t end there. Lieberman recently gave a master class in anti-Arab bigotry at a recent debate when told Odeh that since he’s Arab, he should go run for office in Gaza or the West Bank, adding “Why are you even here? You’re not wanted here.” And shockingly, Lieberman said a few days ago that any Israeli Arab found “disloyal” to the country should be beheaded.

While polls numbers are looking good for the Joint List party, one of the greatest obstacles to its winning seats may not be the Israeli right, but getting Israeli Arabs to vote. In past elections, only about 50 percent voted, in contrast to the national average of over 60 percent.

One reason is that some Israeli Arabs have boycotted past elections. Why? As Israeli Arab writer Salman Masalha noted in a recent op-ed in Ha’aretz, he sees elections as simply a “fig leaf” to cover up Israeli’s discriminatory policies against Arabs.”

But this election could be different. A recent poll found that more than 70 percent of Israeli Arabs plan to vote. This could put the Joint List party in a position to be a kingmaker with 13 to 15 seats in the Knesset.

Typically a party with thise many seats could exchange its support for a prominent cabinet position. But again this election is anything but typical.

Tibi noted that the Joint List will be unlikely to join the governing coalition. As Tibi explained, we will “not be part of a government that believes in racism, in the lack of equality between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, that believes in the supremacy of Zionism or that supports settlement expansion, home demolitions, or attacking Gaza.”

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But Tibi noted that if they can lock in 13 to 15 seats, it will send a message to the other Israel political parties that “we are a force that needs to be contended with and that we will not tolerate any racist legislation.”

The Joint List’s true ambition, per Tibi and Odeh, is to be the main opposition party. They believe this will provide them with a greater platform both domestically and internationally since most world leaders who visit Israel meet with the head of the opposition party.

While Tibi notes that both Netanyahu and main opposition leader Isaac Herzog have supported “negative Israeli policies” such as settlement construction and “besieging Gaza,” he acknowledged that there is a substantive difference between the two. And Tibi, who believes that Herzog will likely be the next prime minister, is open minded enough about to say about Herzog’s possible policies, “We will cross that bridge when we get to it.”

I keep wondering deep down, however, if the right offer was made, would the Joint List join the coalition if its leaders could effectively pick the next Israeli prime minister? They say no, now. But the adage “politics makes strange bedfellows” not only applies in the Middle East, it probably was actually coined there.