Politics & Government

New Knesset rules lead Israeli Arabs to unite in hopes of winning seats

Israel’s Arab factions reached an agreement Thursday to offer a unified list of candidates for March elections in hopes of keeping their representation in the parliament.

“The Knesset is a parliamentary tool we use, and we think through it we can achieve rights,” said Taleb Abu Arar, a representative of the Raam list.

The factions came up with an agreement after an all-day meeting in Kafr Qara, in northern Israel. Under the pact, the parties will alternate candidates on the list, from which parliamentary seats then will be assigned, according to the percentage of votes the list receives. The head of the list will be Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Hadash Communist party.

Arab citizens of Israel find themselves in a difficult position. Always a minority, they’re feeling besieged months after the Gaza war killed more than 2,000 of their Palestinian cousins and with the deaths last week of two unarmed Arab citizens in the Bedouin town of Rahat, in southern Israel.

Police killed Sami al Jaar, 20, last week during a drug bust. Jaar was unarmed, but police say he participated in protests that broke out when officers arrived to make arrests. A second resident of Rahat died at Jaar’s funeral Sunday when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at thousands of mourners. Police say thousands of locals besieged a squad car; Rahat activists say the car violated an agreement to stay off the road that mourners were using to walk to the burial.

On Tuesday, Arabs in Israel declared a general strike to protest the two deaths, with shops and restaurants shuttered nationwide.

Arab politicians say the events in Rahat drive home the need for representation in the legislature.

“We are an oppressed national minority, and we have to unite to defend ourselves,” said Jamal Zahalka, chairman of the Balad party, one of the Arab factions.

Arab Israelis make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population. They’re a remnant of the Palestinians who lived in this area before they fled or were chased out in Israel’s 1948 war for independence. Although they’re citizens of Israel and vote in its elections, they complain of discrimination and racism. No government has ever included Arab parties in the ruling coalition.

Since the 1980s, Arab voters have chosen from several parties that appeal to a wide range of ideologies. In the current Knesset, Hadash is a Communist party with Jewish and Arab members. Secular Balad advocates for Arab rights in Israel and in the Palestinian areas that Israel controls, the West Bank and Gaza. The lists from the Raam and Taal parties include several prominent members of the Islamic movement in Israel.

Last March, Israel’s parliament raised the election threshold, meaning that parties must draw at least 3.25 percent of the popular vote to attain seats in the Knesset. The previous threshold was 2 percent. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who initiated the increase, said it would reduce the factional bickering that made the coalition government unstable. Arab parties saw it as an attempt to stifle their voices; in the most recent elections, in 2013, only one of the three Arab factions received enough votes to pass the higher threshold.

The new threshold threatens small Jewish parties in Knesset, as well – including Lieberman’s Israel Is Our Home. Arab parties hope the combined list, which is due next Thursday, will net more than the 11 seats Arab factions hold today.

A poll commissioned by the Abraham Fund, an advocacy group that promotes Arab-Jewish cooperation, released a survey Thursday that found a joint list of parties might bring 10 percent more Arab voters to the polls.

The unity imperative has created some strange bedfellows. Abu Arar is an attorney and practicing imam in the Bedouin town of Arara. He effectively has two wives: one a spouse, the other a common-law partner. In Hadash, Dov Khenin, the sole Jewish candidate on any of the Arab lists, is a Tel Aviv lawyer who champions rights for Arabs – and for homosexuals. Firebrand Haneen Zoabi of Balad, the first Arab woman to be elected to the Knesset on an Arab party list, faces possible charges of incitement to violence for calling Arabs who serve in Israel’s police force traitors. Masud Ganaim, of the Raam list, called in 2010 for Israel to be embedded in an Islamic caliphate.

Zahalka, of Balad, said that despite these differences, all the parties had agreed to a shared platform of defending democracy, protecting the rights of the Arab minority in Israel and attaining a just peace with the Palestinians.

“Everyone can have dreams: the Islamists, the communists,” he said. “But that’s not politics, it’s ideology.”

On Wednesday, Khenin of Hadash and Abu Arar of Raam initiated a Knesset discussion on the killings in Rahat. Their tones reflected their party lines.

Khenin recalled his painful meeting with Jaar’s father, who served in the Israeli army. Khenin noted that in 35 cases of police killing Arab civilians in Israel since 2000, only three police officers were convicted of wrongdoing.

Abu Arar seconded Khenin’s call for investigation and proclaimed, “The Israeli police killed Sami in cold blood, with no justification, only because he is Arab.”

No members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet were present to hear their words. Even though the Knesset is in recess, at least 30 parliamentarians had attended discussions earlier that day. Among the absentee lawmakers were members of the Arab factions, as well.

Arriving at a single list of candidates, however, doesn’t mean giving up party identities, said Ayda Suliman-Touma, who holds the second place on the Hadash list.

“We are not becoming one political party,” she said. “We are joining together on a very specific political program to protect the representation of the Arab minority in Israel.”

The Arab parties almost certainly won’t be in the next ruling coalition, whether it’s headed by Netanyahu or his most powerful rival, Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party.

Abu Arar said he wouldn’t feel comfortable commanding levers of power while Israel was effectively at war with his Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.

Some Arab citizens in Israel say that even participating in the government is a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Nearly half of Arab Israelis didn’t vote in the most recent election. In a Haifa protest Tuesday night, about 100 activists flew the Palestinian flag and cried out, “Palestinian blood is not cheap.”

“Us participating in the Knesset gives legitimacy to a state that’s killing us, occupying us and suppressing us,” said Raya Naamneh, a student. “We see ourselves as part of the Palestinian people.”

By contrast, Abu Arar said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been watching the elections with interest. Abu Arar said Abbas had invited him to Ramallah two weeks ago and urged him to unite the Arab parties in Israel.

In response, Abu Arar said, he mentioned the other divided Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, which formally reconciled in April after a seven-year split but have since missed their deadline for holding national elections.

“He asked us to unite, and I told him, ‘If you’re asking us to unite, then you should reconcile, too,’ ” Abu Arar said.