Arab List steals spotlight in deadlocked Israeli vote

The Joint List alliance, led by Ayman Odeh, is predominately supported by Palestinian citizens of Israel, often referred to as Arab Israelis. It won 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
Saturday 21/09/2019
An Israeli election banner of the Joint List coalition reads in Arabic: "one million Arab votes, our unity is our strength", in Nazareth, September 18. (AFP)
An Israeli election banner of the Joint List coalition reads in Arabic: "one million Arab votes, our unity is our strength", in Nazareth, September 18. (AFP)

LONDON - The Joint List, comprised of four small Arab parties, won the third-largest number of parliamentary seats in Israel’s elections, which have yet to produce a ruling coalition.

The Joint List alliance, led by Ayman Odeh, is predominately supported by Palestinian citizens of Israel, often referred to as Arab Israelis. It won 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

The centrist Blue and White alliance of former army chief Benny Gantz won 33 seats, while the right-wing Likud, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, won 31. One of the two parties would have to form alliances with smaller parties to secure the 61 seats needed to form a coalition government.

There is also a possibility, albeit not a strong one, that the two biggest parties would join forces. Such a scenario would grant the Joint List the status of being Israel’s official opposition.

The leader of the opposition would be granted a special platform in parliament as well as have monthly consultations with the prime minister. He would also have access to high-level security briefings and meet with visiting dignitaries.

“This is a very significant, unprecedented level for us. When presidents from around the world come, they’ll meet with us as well,” Odeh told Army Radio.

Although the Joint List won 13 seats in 2015, it is the first time that the alliance has the prospect of becoming the country’s official opposition.

Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 21% of the country’s population of 9 million but they often complain of systemic discrimination. The Joint List’s electoral success is expected to highlight the plight of the community.

The turnout of Palestinian citizens of Israel was 59%, a significant jump from the community’s 49% in the April elections, which failed to produce a government and lead to a rerun of elections.

Ahmad Tibi, leader of the Arab Movement for Change, which is part of the Joint List, ruled out being part of the next governing coalition but observers said many members of the community, given the chance, want to be represented in government.

“There is a call by a young generation of university graduates. They want to be part of the coalition; they don’t want to be in the opposition,” Eran Singer, an Arab affairs reporter and editor for Israeli Public Broadcasting, told Foreign Policy magazine 

“They don’t want to be marginalised. If we’re part of the legislative and the judicial branches, there’s no reason why we won’t be part of the executive branch.”

The higher voter turnout was seen by observers as a response to Netanyahu’s rhetoric against community representatives.

“The Arab turnout reflected the voters’ desire to cast out Mr Netanyahu, who has used Arab politicians as a foil and waged what Arab parties described as a racist campaign over the summer,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

In their bid to oust the prime minister, Palestinian citizens of Israel also voted for the Blue and White alliance in areas that would give Gantz an advantage over Netanyahu. Observers calculated that one or two seats won by Gantz were because of Palestinian votes.

“Most people today are talking about how many seats the Joint List of Arab parties won but, in fact, a major development that has been overlooked is how much support [Blue and White] got from Arab voters,” Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit organisation that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, told Haaretz.

“They seem to have pushed it into the Number 1 spot.”

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