Arab voters flex their new muscle

Arab voters flex their new muscle

Opposition role for Joint List possible as coalition talks proceed

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh. A Joint List voter said, “It’s important to have representation, less for specific policies but more to be able to determine agendas.” Getty Images
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh. A Joint List voter said, “It’s important to have representation, less for specific policies but more to be able to determine agendas.” Getty Images

Avigdor Lieberman is kingmaker. But Arab politicians are the nouveau riche in terms of Israeli political capital.

After a frenzied campaign, the Joint List, a constellation of Arab parties, won 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and became the third largest party.

Lieberman, the fierce rival of Benjamin Netanyahu who forced this election by splitting the right, got his wish by pressing a unity government onto the agenda, and positioning his Yisrael Beiteinu party as an essential coalition partner. On Monday night, Pres. Reuven Rivlin summoned Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, and told them to work though their differences and go into a ruling coalition.

At midweek, their negotiatons are ongoing. “Both leaders want to be seen as pro-national unity,” said Jonathan Rynhold, political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “What we are seeing is the opening move of a chess game that will take a while.”

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, said: “I tend to think we’re in the first act of political theater, and it will be a very long play,” with a running time of “a couple of months at least.”

Ironically, if the rightist Lieberman gets his way and the unity talks succeed, he will have elevated the very Arab politicians whom he rages against.

With Blue and White and Likud being the two largest parties in the coalition, the next biggest party would be expected to lead the opposition. Joint List leader Ayman Odeh could have the unprecedented honor of regular briefings on national security, and foreign politicians visiting Israel would be expected to meet with him.

Even if Joint List doesn’t attain this height of power, it has just asserted the power of Arab voters in a most dramatic fashion. It made a break from the practice of the Arab political establishment, and backed Gantz as prime minister.

The mainstream Arab politicians are non-Zionist and scathingly critical of many Israeli policies. This means that when other parties are asked after elections which candidate they want for prime minister, they have pointedly refused to show a preference.

On Sunday, the leadership of the Joint List threw its weight behind Gantz in a meeting with Rivlin. “This is an historic decision,” Odeh said. It was the first time that Arab politicians have backed a candidate for prime minister since 1992.

With the Arab support, Gantz had not just beaten Likud at the ballot box (the final tally was 33 seats to 31), but also in the president’s initial survey of whom Knesset members prefer as prime minister. Rivlin seemed almost certain to give Gantz an opportunity to build a coalition, in whatever way he saw fit.

But Arab voters giveth and they taketh away. The next morning, the Balad party — part of the Joint List — withdrew its backing. Balad, a three-seat Palestinian nationalist faction, said that it didn’t subscribe to Odeh’s position.

The Joint List’s endorsement, which had been worth 13 seats, was devalued to 10. Because of Balad, Gantz’s lead disappeared, and in the final reckoning Netanyahu had 55 Knesset members behind him, compared to 54 who backed Gantz.

Hours later, instead of giving Gantz a free hand to build a government, Rivlin summoned him together with Netanyahu, demanded unity in view of the razor-thin margins, and refrained from putting either of them in charge. Whatever happens in the coalition-building now, two forces in Arab politics have shaped the situation.

As I spent part of Election Day hopping between hookah cafes in Fureidis, near Haifa, it was clear that this was exactly what was motivating people to vote: a sense that they wanted Arab politicians off the sidelines, and in the game. In the last election they ran as separate factions, but they had reached a pact to run together to maximize votes and power.

“It’s important to have representation, less for specific policies but more to be able to determine agendas,” Mahmoud Gafeh, a Joint List voter, told me. This sentiment went hand in hand with antagonism toward Netanyahu. Achmed Moosi, who sipped coffee with friends as he talked, said he was motivated to vote Joint List in part by a feeling that “Bibi is good for Bibi and his friends,” and not for Arab voters.

The Arab voters I met hardly mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the fact that their politicians focus heavily on this. Bria Abed, 45, said that there is not much point on focusing on the conflict. “If [President] Trump can’t solve it, you think we can solve it?” he asked rhetorically.

If the heavy emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intended to keep Arab voters from backing Jewish parties instead, it isn’t working as hoped. Around Fureidis there were Arabic-language billboards for Jewish parties, and some fared well there.

Usama Silman, 53, voted for the Democratic Camp. What about the issue of the Palestinians? He replied that it’s irrelevant to him. “Palestine or no Palestine, [it] doesn’t interest me as I’m an Israeli citizen,” he said. “I’m thinking about the future of my children and my equality as a citizen.”

For years, there has been a dissonance between what Arab voters want — help with the issues that face their communities on a daily basis — and the agenda that their political representatives set. This agenda involves much sparring with Jewish lawmakers, arguing about the Palestinian cause, and standing aloof from some political processes like recommending prime ministers.

Freilich told me on Monday that he thinks two trends combined to get most of the Joint List’s politicians to nominate Gantz. One is that there is the disdain for Netanyahu. “But at the same time, most Israeli Arabs want to be integrated into Israeli society,” he said.

He noted that despite this push to integrate, politicians in the past were reticent because of their need to compete politically with each other. “Before the Joint List, parties were trying to outdo each other in terms of extreme statements on the Palestinian issue, but that’s not where the Arab population is at,” he commented. Removing the competition between the parties has promoted a shift toward the center in Arab politics, which he expects — despite Balad’s objections — will continue.

Nathan Jeffay is a contributing editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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