OPINION: Will the Arabs unite? The key question for Israel’s election

OPINION: Will the Arabs unite? The key question for Israel’s election

James marlowBy James Marlow, Israel political and election analyst

Members of the three radical anti-Zionist Arab political parties met again this week to determine whether they should run on one party list in the upcoming general election but failed again to reach an agreement.

Surveys show they could win 14 seats and become the fourth largest political party in the Knesset if they were to put aside their political and ideological differences and form one united list. But it seems the only thing they agree on is criticising and condemning Israeli policy and Israeli society.

The three parties of Balad, Hadash and Ra’am-Ta’al-Mada won 2.56 percent, 2.99 percent and 3.65 percent respectively in the 2013 election.

Last March, however, the Knesset passed the Governance Law that raised the electoral threshold (the minimum number of votes a party must win to enter parliament) from two per cent to 3.25 percent. Arab members of Knesset protested the law with all their might, charging its supporters with “racism” and orchestrated a dramatic “silent protest” at the podium that was joined by some Jewish left-wing MKs. But they failed to stop its passage.

The law of course did not explicitly target Arab parties, but was supposed to be a deterrent to stop smaller parties running in an election which causes continuous instability in the democratic governing process.

Other parties affected by the change of law include Kadima, which rose to fame in 2006 with 29 seats and received 28 seats in 2009 but fell to two seats in 2013. Former Shas leader Eli Yeshai’s new party will also struggle to make it into the Knesset as will Shas itself. Meretz is not even guaranteed Knesset representation.

In the past few weeks, a flurry of efforts to unite the fractured Arab parties has taken place. The chairman of the largest Arab party, Ra’am-Ta’al-Mada, MK Ibrahim Sarsur, said: “If we form one party we can help shape the government, or bring it down.”

Such declarations from Arab MKs are not the normal rhetoric, as they rarely play the game within the democratic system. The chairman of the secular-nationalist Balad, MK Jamal Zahalka, tells anyone who will listen the new unity talks were his idea. But Sarsur notes it is his party that has talked about a unified Arab party since 2006 when his party Ra’am-Ta’al (Islamic Movement) formed a joint list.

The party mostly draws devout and religiously inclined Muslim voters and feels it would lose support if it joined with the secular Hadash (Communists) or Balad. MK Hanna Swaid of Hadash is a Galilee Christian with a doctorate in engineering from the prestigious Technion Institute.

His politics is a far cry from the impoverished Muslim bedouin of the Negev who are a key base of support for Ra’am-Ta’al. In a Knesset debate over the bill last year, Balad’s Zahalka said: “There is a huge gap between me as a secular, modern, enlightened nationalist and the communists [in Hadash] or the Islamists [in Ra’am-Ta’al]. It’s paternalistic to say, run as a single party – you’re all Arabs.”

MK Ahmad Tibi of Ra’am Taal says: “We believe unity can bring a real jump in voter turnout in the Arab population and 14 seats is a realistic number.”

In past elections, Arab parties have largely run against each other, competing for a limited ethnic base. But while their rhetoric is often focused on right-wing Jewish politicians, their campaigns nevertheless highlight their differences from other Arab parties, rather than their shared interests.

Now Arab politicians must first show they can construct a unified list and decide who will lead if they wish to avoid possible political extinction. With its party-list system, Israel’s Knesset is arguably one of the most representative among the world’s democratic parliaments, for better or worse.

Changes in the national mood or shifts in the demographic or religious makeup of Israeli society are quickly and dramatically reflected in the country’s parliament.

But the system of small parties holding a government coalition together and then bringing it down when they feel like it benefits no one and government stability must be a key factor in the future.

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