Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out a victory in Israel’s national elections Tuesday by rounding up right-wing voters with a last-minute appeal to anti-Arab racism. Yet the most striking feature of the elections was the emergence of the Arab-Jewish Joint List, which became Israel’s third largest party.
The new Joint List is now being hailed from the center to the left as the bright spot in the Israeli political scene.
The Joint List is composed of four parties: the Arab-Jewish Hadash (acronym for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), founded by the Communist Party of Israel, and three Israeli Arab parties, two secular and one Islamist. The head of the list, Ayman Odeh, is the leader of Hadash. A soft-spoken and charismatic 40-year-old lawyer and city councilmember from Haifa, Odeh has emerged as a national political figure.
The Arab-Jewish Joint List won 13 seats on Tuesday, more than 10 percent of the 120-member Knesset (parliament). This is a gain of two seats from the 11 the four parties had separately in the previous Knesset.
Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 seats – 25 percent of the total – with 24 for its main opponent, the centrist Zionist Union, based in the long-existing Labor party.
In Israel’s electoral system, the slate with the best chance of forming a 61-seat majority coalition is given the first shot at leading the new government. The voting results indicate a divided Israeli populace, almost evenly split between center-right and center-left.
The Labor/Zionist Union made gains over 2013, but was unable to come out on top. Netanyahu himself got no more than one-fourth of the total, and the overall vote for the right-wing bloc that was the core of Netanyahu’s outgoing government was in fact little changed from the previous elections in 2013 – 44 seats this time versus 43 in 2013. However there are several other rightist parties that will likely enter a coalition with Netanyahu, putting him over the 61-seat hurdle, and leading to a government even more to the right than the previous one.
Netanyahu has been a divisive figure in Israel, and polls have indicated that much of the public is “sick of him.” Economic inequality, insecurity and racism have mounted, the 2014 Gaza war was costly and controversial, Israeli settlement construction in the Palestinian West Bank has escalated, relations with the U.S. have gone downhill, and peace and security seem more distant than ever. Most recently, Netanyahu’s intervention in U.S. politics and open rupture with the Obama administration aroused considerable concern among the Israeli public. Polls leading up to the March 17 vote showed the Likud party slipping and the Zionist Union leading.
So at the last minute Netanyahu launched a far-right offensive to grab votes from other parties on the right.
The day before the elections he declared that there would be no Palestinian state under his government, contradicting his previous claim to support a two-state solution. (Two days after the election, he again contradicted himself, claiming he actually favors the two-state solution. This was seen as an effort to keep the Obama administration from supporting, or at least not vetoing, a renewed Palestinian statehood move in the United Nations.)
On Election Day, even as voting was under way, he made an openly racist appeal for votes, warning on Facebook that “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” (to vote for the Joint List). Widely condemned as incitement of anti-Arab racism, Netanyahu’s move won his party votes at the expense of his right-wing allies, and put Likud out in front.
It is an indication of the rightward tilt of Israeli politics in recent years that the Labor Party-based Zionist Union slate, which would be considered centrist in the U.S., is labeled “left.” Leading up to Tuesday’s election, Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni shied away from taking a stance on ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, focusing instead on economic issues. A Reuters report noted that in an eight-party pre-election debate, the word “peace” was mentioned only three times, and those three were all by Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab-Jewish Hadash.
J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward, a U.S. publication, commented: “The center-left opposition had a stronger argument on security and peace than Netanyahu did, but it was afraid to make its case. Despite the unprecedented outpouring of anti-Netanyahu protest from retired defense and intelligence chiefs – including nearly every former head of the Mossad and Shin Bet and one-third of all living ex-generals – Herzog and his allies steered clear of them.” Thus Netanyahu’s leading opponent gave him a chance to portray himself as the leader of Israel’s security and statehood.
With the right wing ascendant and the center struggling, Israel’s Arab citizens, making up about 20 percent of the electorate, have until now been largely ignored by the country’s political establishment and major media. And the Jewish-Arab alliance, Hadash, and its leading component, the Israeli Communist Party, have typically been labeled dismissively an “Arab party.” And much of the Jewish Israeli left has shied away from associating with Hadash, the Communists and Arab parties. Now a stunning shift has taken place.
“The growing unity in the Arab community, reflected in their turnout and support for the Joint List, is a positive sign of change,” the liberal New Israel Fund said in a post-election email.
“The politeness and restraint Herzog [the Zionist Union/Labor Party leader] displayed in the election campaign are inappropriate to this time of emergency,” the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz editorialized. “He will have to cooperate with Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, who made an impressive achievement in the elections, and promises to fight for the Arab minority’s equal rights.”
“The Joint List is the one truly refreshing thing to emerge from this election,” well-known reporter Amira Hass wrote on Wednesday. Hass cited “the many and weighty tasks awaiting the Joint List, with all its progressive potential as a representative of the oppressed.” These include, she said, “waging a battle over the allocation of resources and budgets to Israel’s Arab population; giving a presence to all the weakened members of Israeli society – Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), women and the disabled – without regard to their national or ethnic origins; and making the eminently logical linkage between social justice and the demand that Israel withdraw from the territories and dismantle the settlements.”
“One additional task – perhaps by the very fact of its existence,” she said, “is to provide inspiration for the Palestinian political system in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Israeli security analyst and former intelligence officer Yossi Alpher noted that along with Israeli Arabs, some Jews voted for the Joint List. “They did so,” Alpher told a post-election briefing hosted by American for Peace Now, “because they saw in this – correctly, I think – an important opportunity to move the Arab community into the mainstream of Israeli politics.”
“In order to advance Jewish-Arab relations,” he said, “I would certainly like to see this party succeed at the parliamentary level.”
Photo: American Friends of Hadash Facebook page