The Political Crisis of Israel’s Joint Arab List Party and the Danger of its Dismemberment

The Joint Arab List in the Israeli Knesset is in deep and unprecedented crisis that raises questions about its popularity among Israeli-Arab voters and its future. The List is an amalgamation of four Arab parties: Hadash, the National Democratic Assembly (NDA or Balad in its Hebrew acronym), the Islamic United Arab List (UAL) and Taal. Other than the major ideological differences between for example Hadash (the former Israeli Communist party) and UAL, an Arab average voter does not understand the subtle ideological differences between these Arab parties. But all of these four parties concur on the major condition for achieving peace with Israel: creating a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with Israel with its capital in East Jerusalem.  The List was a kind of forced marriage after that the Israeli Knesset raised the electoral threshold from 2 to 3.25 percent, which means that a party that would get less than 3.25 percent of the total votes that is translated into almost 4 seats in the Knesset, would not enter the Knesset. The List has been coping unsuccessfully with the issue of interpretation of the rotation agreement and the allocation of seats among the above mentioned four parties that compose this list.

This crisis has been brewing since December 2016, when former MK Basel Ghattas of Balad Party was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and was arrested on charges that he smuggled cell phones to Palestinian prisoners. Ghattas’s resignation reshuffled all the cards, as it stripped Balad one seat in the Knesset. Based on one clause in the original Join List agreement of 2015, each of the three senior parties in the List, Hadash, Balad, UAL, would be allocated four seats and the junior party of Ahmad Tibi, Taal, would get one seat only. Yet, another clause in this agreement indicates that MKs, who hold spots 12 and 13 on the list should submit their resignation to the Knesset after serving half of the current Knesset term in order to allow the subsequent two candidates, who are holding spots 14 and 15 on the list to enter the Knesset. The contradiction between these two clauses of the agreement created a major rift within the ranks of the List and threatens its future existence, as Balad demanded its consecutive candidate to enter the Knesset who is ranked number 19 on the list so that Balad would occupy 4 Knesset seats as well.

The main malfunctioning of the Joint List is its failure to appoint a judiciary committee of its own to adjudicate on issues of dispute among the four parties. Currently, the four parties are resorting to traditional Arab practices of seeking mediation to resolve the crisis through Arab dignitaries, who in fact possess no official authority.

It is clear that the main goal of the rotation agreement is to allow more candidates of the List to enjoy the benefits of an MK and especially the salary and pension. The rotation is mainly about personal and party interests and it has nothing to do with allowing representation of underrepresented constituencies of Israeli Arabs.

Historically speaking, the first political assassination in Israeli history took place in 1981 on the backdrop of the refusal of one Arab MK, Hamed Abu Rabiaa, to uphold a rotation agreement and withdraw from the Knesset in order to allow another Arab candidate, Jaber Moaddy, to replace him. The latter ordered his sons to assassinate the former.

In general, the Israeli-Arab society has the longest and richest experience of all Arab nations in dealing with democratic processes and it could constitute a yardstick about the evolvement of democracy elsewhere in the Arab world and the link between democracy and Arab culture. The fact that these Arab parties failed or probably refused to create an independent judiciary organ to rule on a disputed issue and the reluctance of a minority to accept the rule of the majority indicates that these Israeli-Arab parties have not yet internalized the rules of the game of a democratic system.

About the Author
Yakub Halabi teaches International Relations and Middle East politics at the University of Haifa and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.