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The Joint List: Unpacking Israel’s Unity Bloc of Arab Parties

May 15, 2020

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List

Coffee drinkers in Israel love a good café hafuch, the Hebrew word for cappuccino that literally means “upside down.” But Israelis say the word applies to more than coffee. In general, they claim, life itself is often hafuch in Israel. At the time of this writing, Israelis are in COVID-19 lockdown, confined to their homes in the Land whose very existence is meant to guarantee freedom for the Jewish people. Life upside down.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, hafuch had captivated the headlines as well, but this time in the political arena. The world looked on bemused when, after three elections, Israel seemed unable to form a government for the first time in her 72-year history. Israelis went to the polls, politicians bartered, coalitions were formed and then crumbled and elections were held again—all to no avail. Neither the right nor the left seemed able to break the deadlock and bring together a coalition that would govern the nation. After the third election was over and votes had been counted, the right failed in its coalition building efforts. The left was at last poised to take over. Until it all came crashing down around them—again. Politics upside down.

Although the situation was fraught with complexity, for the first time in Israel’s history, Arab voters were poised to play a critical role in the third election’s final outcome. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had won 36 Knesset (Parliament) seats and through their coalition-building efforts ended up with 58— only 3 short of the necessary 61. Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White opposition party that had won only 33 seats in the election, cobbled together a coalition that brought their final numbers to the sought-after 61. At the heart of the win—and eventually the loss—was the Joint List, a unity bloc made up of Israel’s four Arab parties. Together, they had garnered 15 seats, making them Israel’s third largest party and a seeming necessity for any winning coalition.

The List

MK Mansour Abbas, Ra’am party member

The Joint List is a bit hafuch itself. It was formed in 2015 as a united slate of political parties with vastly differing ideologies and political goals. So differing, in fact, that they disbanded in January of 2019. However, they came together again for the September 2019 election for the sole purpose of unseating Netanyahu’s right-wing government. But who are they and what do they actually believe?

Hadash is the largest and oldest of the parties, founded in 1977 by the Arab Israeli Communist Party. It advocates for a two-state solution, social democracy, separation of religion and state and favors pro-environment solutions. It is demographically inclusive with Knesset members who are male, female, Muslim, Arab–Christian, Druze and even Jewish.

The party, led primarily by Islamists and Palestinian nationalists, drew grave criticism in 2019 when one of its Knesset members, Yousef Jabareen, spoke at a pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) conference in London. Calling Israel an apartheid state guilty of illegal occupation, he called for Palestinians to mobilize against it. Accusing Israel of war crimes, he demanded the boycott of “settlement products” and international companies who deal with Israel. Israel’s Public Security Minister made an unsuccessful attempt to keep Jabareen from participating in the conference. “This is a black day for the Knesset,” he said. “Arab MKs spewing lies and hatred against Israel.”

Ahmad Tibi, former adviser to Yasser Arafat

Balad was established in 1995. It calls for the creation of a Palestinian state and refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It is opposed to cooperating with any Zionist entities and has seen many of its most senior members convicted of supporting terrorism. The chairman of the party, Azmi Bishara, was investigated for assisting Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War, while MK Basel Ghattas was imprisoned for smuggling cell phones to Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail. Perhaps most famous, however, is MK Hanin Zoabi, who participated in the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010. Zoabi sailed on the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, bound for Gaza and carrying armed activists who attacked Israeli troops, resulting in the death of 10 activists and the wounding of several soldiers.

MK Hanin Zoabi, Balad party member

Although the other parties are for the most part nationalist and secular, Ra’am is home to the radical Islamist sector of the Arab population. It was established in 1996 by the Southern Islamic Movement and has openly supported terrorism. More recently they have called for greater cooperation with the Jewish population and have integrated women into the party hierarchy. Today their members are religious Muslims supporting a two-state solution, a strong religious involvement in matters of state, and social welfare policies. The party draws significant support from the Bedouin communities of the Negev.

Ta’al was founded in 1980 by Ahmad Tibi, former adviser to Yasser Arafat. The party supports a two-state solution and the separation of church and state, but is much more center leaning on social issues. Founder Tibi promotes the subjects of national pride and honor, which draw significant support and popularity among young voters. Many believe that without Tibi, the party would eventually disappear.

The Coalition Came Tumbling Down

Gantz had campaigned on a Jewish-only government platform, a government that would not rely on the Arab Joint List. He was joined by Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel’s most right-wing politicians, and his Yisrael Beiteinu party. But when Gantz at long last received the recommendation of 61 Knesset members to form a new government, the Arab Joint List were card carrying members of the coalition. At the very last moment, three Jewish coalition members withdrew, unable to sign on the dotted line with coalition partners who were anti-Zionist terrorist supporters.

Joint List party activists

What ensued was a maelstrom of political maneuvering. As the baton appeared to pass from left to right and back again, one of the few constants was the disappointment and anger expressed by the Joint List. They had trusted Gantz and imagined an Israel in which they could influence the kind of change they had hoped for for decades. But on April 20, Netanyahu and Gantz signed an agreement to create a unity government, dashing those hopes and moving Tibi to accuse Gantz of “crawling on his belly” to shamefully unite with Netanyahu. The Joint List’s future effectiveness is called into question. Will they ever regain the influence this last election bought for them? But the effectiveness of the unity government also remains a question mark. All the parties may be in for more political hafuch, or is this perhaps the beginning of Israeli politics finally right side up?

Photo Credit: Click on photo for photo credit

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