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Will new Arab alliance determine Israel's election?

Ahmad Gharabli, AFP | Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, in Jerusalem on March 9

Israel's fractious Arab parties are standing as a single force for the very first time in March 17 polls, a move that could see this marginalized minority become the third political force in the country.

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The campaign wasn’t easy, and Basel Ghattas, the candidate in 11th position on the Arab "Joint List", is the first to acknowledge this. “We started very late,” said Ghattas. “And we've had to agree on everything, even though we're not used to working together.”

It was only on January 22, 2015, just two months before the March 17 parliamentary election, that Israel's four main Arab parties announced they would submit a Joint List.

Credited with 13 seats in the polls, they could become the third force in the Knesset, after the centre-left Zionist Union and the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

'We don’t want you here'

“It’s a historic moment,” said Yousef Jabareen, the director of the Arab Centre for Law and Politics, and 10th candidate on the list. “Arabs have waited a long time for us to unify our forces, and many are worried about the rise in racism. Our alliance gives them hope for change,” said Jabareen.

The leader of the list, 40-year-old Ayman Odeh, a lawyer, says the union is about defending those “who are attacked, marginalized and oppressed”. The image of Arab parties has deteriorated within Israeli society. The right and the far right present them more or less openly as the “fifth column” of Palestine. Arab leaders, especially since the last Gaza war, have expressed solidarity with people living in the Palestinian Territories. It’s not unusual to see a Palestinian flag in their political gatherings.

On March 5, Ayman Odeh was himself attacked during a televised debate. “Why are you in this studio rather than in a studio in Gaza? Why do you present yourself at the Knesset and not in Ramallah? We don’t want you here,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Odeh responded by saying, “As it is written in the Book of Proverbs, ‘whoever digs a pit, will fall into it'.”

None of the other candidates on set reacted to the remarks. Neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union, participated in the debate.

Ironically, it was the same Avigdor Lieberman who indirectly encouraged the union of Arab forces last year. In engineering an increase in the threshold of votes needed to enter the Knesset, he encouraged smaller parties to join forces.

The various groups forming the Arab Joint List – including Nationalists, Islamists and Communists – say they don't intend to abandon their respective beliefs. But most often in the Knesset they already voted along similar lines. “Our alliance is not tactical, but strategic,” said Ghattas. “Our partnership will be complicated but we have the will to succeed.”

Boosting turnout

Said Suidan, the coordinator of a cooperative for young Palestinians in Haifa, says he supports the union of Arab parties. “It’s an important step in our fight,” said the 25-year-old. While he normally shuns elections, the new alliance has persuaded him to cast his very first ballot on March 17.

According to the Abraham Fund, a Jerusalem-based group that works to foster cooperation between Israel's Jews and Arabs, the Joint List will increase participation by 10 percent compared to the legislative elections of 2013.

Some candidates say they hope to gain 15 seats in the Knesset, but Asad Ghanem of the University of Haifa believes a total of between 9 and 13 seats is more realistic. He fears that many of the hopes of the Arab minority will not be realised.

“The campaign is weak,” said Ghanem. “The candidates have slogans but no strong programme. Their argument is ‘We’re Arab and united, vote for us!’ That’s not enough”.

Israel's underprivileged

In his interviews, the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, calls for greater cooperation between Arabs and Jews. His alliance has published a list of eight key policies, including the end of settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, nuclear disarmament, recognition of Israeli Arabs as a national minority, greater rights for women, and a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage.

More than the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israel's Arabs, who account for 20% of the population, are concerned about their own hardships as many suffer from discrimination.

The figures speak volumes about this marginalization: one out of every two Arab families is considered to be living in poverty, against one out of five families nationally. Only about 20 percent of Arab women are employed. Not one Arab town has been created since 1948, while 600 Jewish municipalities have been established.

In 2004, three times more public funds were allocated to Jewish schools than to Arab schools. The Council of Higher Education launched a plan two years ago designed to make universities more accessible to minorities, with Arabs representing only 11 percent of undergraduate students. Also, Jews live on average three years longer than Arabs.

A new opposition leader?

Whatever the election results, the Joint List has ruled out participating in the next cabinet. “To be a part of the government means being responsible for all of its actions, which can include new hostilities in Gaza, the construction of new settlements, etc,” said Ghattas.

But the new coalition plans to carry more weight in Israeli politics. Until now, the influence of Arab parties was almost negligible.

“We can have representatives in multiple parliamentary committees, and perhaps even lead some of them,” said Ghattas.

With a group of about a dozen members of parliament, the Joint List could block the formation of a centre-left majority, as well as a “homogenous” right. Nobody in these two camps will accept to form a government dependant on the vote of Arab MPs, a situation that could encourage the formation of a “grand coalition”, excluding extremist parties.

Should this happen, Ayman Odeh hopes to become the head of the opposition. “I believe that whether Herzog or Netanyahu are tasked with forming the government, they will both head to a national unity cabinet,” he recently told The Times of Israel.

“That means we will lead the opposition, which is an extremely important podium. Every foreign guest who visits the country, including heads of state, meets with the head of the opposition. This is an opportunity for us to present our issues, the issues of the Arab public.”

However, some doubt that change will come from the future parliament. For Haifa-based Said Suidan, Arab politicians should concentrate their efforts outside the Knesset.

“The change will come from the street”, he said. "Until now, during protests, there have always been one or two parties that have refused to participate. My hope is that everyone will mobilize together, on the ground, on subjects like land ownership.”

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