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The Joint List: Representing Palestinians in Israel

The joint list
(L to R) Ofer Cassif, Jewish member and candidate for the Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) party that is part of the Joint List alliance, applauds with Heba Yazbak, member and candidate for the Balad (National Democratic Alliance) party as Osama Saadi, member and candidate for the Arab Movement for Change (Taal) party raises his hands together with Balad party member and candidate Mtanes Shehadeh, Hadash’s chairman and candidate Ayman Odeh, Taal’s leader and candidate Ahmad Tibi, Hadash’s member and candidate Aida Touma, and the Islamic Movement’s member and candidate Iman Khatib Yassin before supporters at the alliance’s campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019. Photo: Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP

On 20 December 2019, Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party said that Israel’s political leadership had been wrong in not supporting the “loyal people within the Arab community”.

However, the former defence minister stopped short of endorsing the country’s Palestinian parties. “Instead of fostering and strengthening loyal people, we’re trying all the time to appease Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, who are forcefully leading the Arab minority to confrontation with the Jewish majority,” he said at a press event.

Odeh and Tibi, who lead the Hadesh and Ta’al parties respectively, came together in 2015 to form the Joint List along with fellow minority groups Balad and Ra’am. The Joint List is headed by Odeh.

Odeh, a Haifa-born and European-educated legal professional, took the helm of Hadesh in 2006. Formed from communist roots in 1977, it has typically been the party of choice for Palestinian voters. It emphasizes social justice issues and the creation of an Israel that can be a home for both Jews and Palestinians. It was itself a merger of earlier movements including Rakah, an additional communist list formed in 1965, as well as the old Israeli communist party Maki and the Black Panthers.

Tibi, a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) since 1999, served as its deputy speaker between 2006 and 2013. Before that, he was an adviser to Yasser Arafat between 1993-1999. His stint as spokesman for the Palestinian delegation took place during the negotiations that led to the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, an agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the transfer of land from Israel to Palestine.

Tibi withdrew Ta’al from the Joint List prior to the April 2019 elections, unwilling to join a coalition whether it was formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party or a centre-left party.

He has been a vocal critic of the treatment of Palestinians in Israel but won praise from his Jewish colleagues in 2010 after a speech in the Knesset on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Government minister Yossi Peled, himself a holocaust survivor, said “As a survivor, I say to you that you moved me.”

The other two parties in the Joint List are led by Mtanes Shehadeh (Balad) and Mansour Abbas (Ra’am). They ran together in the May 2019 elections as part of the Balad-Ra’am list but rejoined the Joint List in June 2019, along with Ta’al, ahead of the September 2019 elections, winning 13 seats.

Balad, a Hebrew acronym for National Democratic Assembly, is a far-left party established in 1996. Among its policy positions is granting the right of return for all Palestinians and establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Balad has also been critical of Israeli policies, and the arrest of 20 Balad party members in 2016 was suspected to be politically motivated.

The same year, two of Balad’s MPs were banned from the Knesset because they met with the families of the slain Palestinians who killed three Israeli teenagers. One of the MPs was Haneen Zoabi, but attempts to disqualify her from running in elections were overturned by the Supreme Court.

The first female Palestinian MP, Zoabi has been censured a number of times by Israeli lawmakers, including for joining the flotilla that set to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza in 2010. She announced in 2019 she would not be seeking re-election.

Ra’am is an Islamist party and is associated with the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which champions Islam among Palestinians and Circassians. The southern branch split from its northern counterpart over whether the group should participate in the Knesset.

Ra’am mainly focuses on socio-economic issues affecting Palestinians in Israel, but its conservative outlook has put it at odds with other, more liberal Palestinian parties.

The Joint List, which emerged as a potential kingmaker early on in the leadership debacle that has kept Israel in political limbo for months, ironically unified in response to a new law in 2014 that aimed to curb Palestinian participation in the Knesset by raising the electoral threshold from 2 per cent to 3.25 per cent.

The list has since enhanced the profile of Palestinian politicians and increased the footprint of its international advocacy in addition to becoming the third largest faction in the Knesset.

The initial set of principles the list released in 2015 endorsed a two-state solution, although this is not a position held by all parties in the list. Balad, for instance, only supports a two-state solution as a halfway point to a single democratic state.

“Just because they are Arabs in contrast to a Jewish majority doesn’t mean they are all alike, and there are radical disagreements between them,” Ofer Zalzberg from the Crisis Group, an independent conflict analysis organization, told Fanack.

The list has faced internal disputes over everything from seat rotations, language and cooperation with Israel’s left, which led to its split before the April 2019 elections. But as two separate lists, they only won ten seats , losing three of the seats they had gained after the 2015 elections.

What the parties share are several non-negotiable policy positions that are widely unpopular in the Knesset. These include freezing home demolitions in ‘unrecognized’ Palestinian villages, tackling violence within Palestinian Israeli communities and reversing the nation-state law that proclaims Israel a nation state for Jewish people.

For that reason, not everyone agrees that it is possible to adequately represent Palestinians or Palestinian Israeli issues in the current political context. This is why the recent decision to recommend the Blue and White party’s Benny Gantz, a less conservative option than Netanyahu, as the new prime minister, did not meet with the list’s full-throated enthusiasm.

Despite scepticism over the effectiveness of representing Palestinian Israeli issues in the Knesset, a recent poll showed that 76 per cent of the Palestinian Israeli electorate wants to be represented in government.

This underlines the other overarching goal of the Joint List’s strategy, which is to get more Arabs to vote at election time. The mere presence of a Palestinian party means a higher Palestinian turnout at the polls, which diminishes the odds of right-wing parties crossing the four-seat electoral threshold.

As a unified movement, the Joint List has proven successful, acquiring the necessary seats to have a parliamentary presence and even being elevated to kingmaker status when the government hit an impasse. If voters choose to empower the list further, it may even affect real change.

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