The Joint List: The Achievement and the Price

Author
In current issue of Bayan, Dr. Rana Zaher analyzes the achievements of the Joint List in 23rd Knesset elections and the challenges that lie ahead.
Date

חברי כנסת מהרשימה המשותפת בזמן הגשת הרשימות לבחירות לכנסת ה-22
Knesset members from the Joint List, August 2019.
Zaher333 from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Summary

The achievement of the Joint List in the elections was made possible by the maturity of its constituents, the presentation of clear vision and objectives, the management of prudent media campaigns, the cumulative experience of parliamentary activity, and the response of Arab citizens to racist statements against them by Jewish politicians.

The election of four Arab women for the Knesset on behalf of the Joint List breaks the glass ceiling for the political representation of women in Arab society. Arab women have high electoral potential and can reduce the gender gap between them and men.

In the current political configuration in Israel, the Joint List has a significant political power and can no longer be ignored. However, unity has its price as the unique space of each constituent party is shrinking.


As a field activist for the Joint List’s campaign for the 23rd Knesset elections, and as one who follows the social and political developments that resulted from those elections, I can point to the emergence of several noteworthy social and political messages. On the one hand, these messages paved the way for new relations between the various ideological and political streams in Israel’s Arab-Palestinian society. On the other hand, they spurred new relations between Arab-Palestinian society (and all of its ideological streams) and state institutions, independent of the results of the negotiations for a government coalition. These messages are the result of the remarkable achievements of the Joint List party, which are no less important than the achievement of securing 15 seats in the Knesset. In this essay, I will detail these achievements and expand upon the price of unity.

The Achievements of the Joint List: From the Inner Circle to the Outer Circle

There is no doubt that the 15 seats won by the Joint List are an achievement for the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel. For us, this is a historic result. The accomplishment can not only be attributed to the functioning of the party on the election night, but also several internal and external factors, both present and past. According to Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory[1], it is possible to conclude that direct and indirect factors influenced the electoral victory in an ecological manner – from the outside in. Since the party operates in different circles, it is necessary to examine its achievements from a comprehensive standpoint.

Achievements in the inner circle:

  1. As compared with previous elections, on the eve of the last elections, relations between the Joint List’s component parties reached a point of maturation that enabled them to rise above their differences in opinion. This fact strengthened the party’s appeal to voters.
  2. The party and its representatives presented a clear vision and objectives. Chief among those objectives was increasing their representation in Knesset, not only to remove Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s chair and prevent him from establishing a government, but also to influence the future livelihood of the Arab minority, which suffers from exclusion and delegitimization. Looking back, the Joint List did not achieve this objective, but it did present a clear aim rather than an ambiguous one.
  3. The Joint List positioned its vision for the future and goals within the wider inner circle. Their vision and goals were clearly translated in media through the party’s campaign and in the field through the activities of its MKs, candidates, and activists.

The party’s achievements in the outer circle of operation consisted of:

  1. The party’s activities during the election campaign were based on the accumulated experiences of previous campaigns and on action and protest trends that had reached maturation. These trends had a longer-term orientation than in the past. A few examples include: achieving budget allocations such as the government’s 922 program, fighting against police brutality, attempting to abolish the Kaminitz Law (or at least ease its effects); leading activities to obtain recognition for academic degrees earned abroad by Arab students; and the recent successful attempts (even before the elections) of the party’s chair, Ayman Odeh, to return young citizens who had been detained abroad on various charges to the country.
  2. Among the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, there is a prevalent sentiment of indignation, protest, and outrage at being repeatedly targeted and facing racist condemnations by Jewish politicians. The main incident was Trump’s “Century Plan” and its consequences for the state’s Arab citizens, especially the denial of Israeli citizenship to Arab citizens of the triangle region.
  3. Ahead of the elections for the 21st Knesset, there had been a call encouraging Arab voters to boycott the Joint List. However, that call was met with fierce public opposition and proved that those calling for a boycott were unable to present an alternative to the Joint List. This conclusion was strengthened by an investigation that was broadcast on Channel 12, which contended that one of the boycott campaign's main financiers was a Jewish settler.[2] 
  4. In the national circle, strategic and communication errors in the unions of the Center-Left, such as Labor-Gesher-Meretz, created disappointment among their voters for their participation in these unions. The Blue-White partnership did not present a real alternative to the Likud and the Right-wing. This was demonstrated by Netanyahu’s continual incitement against the Arab minority’s representatives in Knesset and the fact the Blue-White party held backdoor talks about a “Jewish Majority”.

Each victory in these circles and the connections between them gave birth to the Joint List’s undeniable electoral achievement and strengthened the party. Presently, the party’s biggest challenge is to maintain this strength and use it for the advantage of its constituents, Arabs and Jews alike.

The general political arena in Israel and its dynamics are sometimes surprising. It would be difficult to say that the Joint List is the main beneficiary of the last election cycle, even though its representation grew considerably. On the other hand, the party certainly was not this cycle’s biggest loser. I submit that the party’s main achievement was not only political but also social. The social characteristics of the unity of the Joint List shows that we, Israel’s Palestinian society, have overcome numerous difficulties to achieve unity. This message is not only for the Palestinian people within Israel, but also for Arab people at large.

One of the most important barriers to unity is sectarianism. Ninety percent of Muslims and Christians voted for the Joint List out of a sense of belonging and in the name of a common goal. But among the Druze there was also a significant increase in the percentage of votes cast for Arab parties, the highest percentage since the country’s first national election. Another barrier was based on ideological conflicts. In voting for the Joint List, secular Arabs voted for a party that includes the Islamic Movement. Conversely, Islamists voted for a list that includes secular and Communist representatives. Palestinian Nationalists voted for a party that raised the flag of Arab-Jewish cooperation, while Jews voted—perhaps not with complete conviction, but with understanding and acceptance-- for a list whose agenda represents Arab, Islamic, and Palestinian interests.

The party’s unity was also demonstrated by its 15 Knesset Members’ unanimous endorsement of one candidate - Benny Gantz - to form the next government. Their unity was not disrupted despite strong reservations about Gantz and internal fighting, which is a natural occurrence in any party, irrespective of the result. The List’s unified behavior contributed to the easing of friction between its component parties in the field.

Arab Women: Rising Political Potential

As a feminist activist, I believe gender and the political representation of Arab women is the most important issue facing the Joint List. The Joint List continued breaking the glass ceiling by doubling the strength of Arab-Palestinian women in the Knesset and by bringing Iman Khatib, the first hijab-wearing woman, into the Knesset. This fact has great symbolic significance in terms of its influence on the discourse about religious Arab women. After all, Islamophobia is a global phenomenon. Khatib has repeatedly stated that her hijab is a personal matter, and she is correct in this. However, the important point here is that Khatib is a woman with considerable skills and abilities to serve in Knesset, and the hijab she dons cannot be ignored, even if we wanted to. So long as we are living in a patriarchal society and so long as we are dealing with racism and Islamophobia, her hijab will spark debates and symbolize a call for change.

One of the most important figures on gender was published by the Israel Institute for Democracy in 2015.[3] It stated that voting rate of women was lower than the voting rate of men by 8 to 12 percent. This voting gap mainly reflects women with little education and low income, women living in the socioeconomic margins. The List’s placement of women in its 14th and 15th seats for the Knesset encouraged many Arab women to go out and vote. In this way, Arab women shrank the gap between male and female voters and played an influential part in the last election cycle. Nevertheless, the Joint List must ensure higher places on its list for women and not  push them to the bottom, where they are unlikely to become members of Knesset. The Joint List must remember that this segment of the population has the potential to hold great electoral power. But so far this notion hasn't received proper attention – and neither has the idea itself of integrating women into politics, strategies for action, or the campaign trail.

In addition to the electoral power women possess, we must take into account research that has shown that when the strategic environment is positive toward women – which is to say, when the representation of women grows and the connection between politicians and the female public is stronger – the likelihood that women will participate in politics increases.[4] When successful women take part in politics, they are likely to contribute to the growth of women’s participation in politics at large. On the basis of this assumption, we may say that while Iman Khatib is the Knesset’s first religious Muslim woman, she is likely not to be the last.

In total there are 4 women in the party’s 15 seats, which is to say, a little more than a quarter of the party’s Knesset members. This fact strengthens women’s social standing in Arab society and sends a message to Israeli society that refutes many prevalent stigmas. Naturally, the entry of four women to the Knesset is a cumulative achievement not only for the Joint List but for the Feminist Movement in Israel. This movement works through several feminist organizations and groups that include men and women. Part of the movement's activists are party members and they continue to fight for the improvement of women's position in Arab society and especially in politics as they have done for decades.These important social achievements do not mean that Arab society is free of religious or ethnic sectarianism, nor from gender-based discrimination. Unfortunately, such phenomena continue to exist. However, it is possible to say that Arab society has gotten stronger and its management of these conflicts has matured. Today, the Joint List is the address for Arab citizens, “the government” in their eyes, especially in light of the current government’s antagonism toward the existence of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel and their demands. More importantly, this achievement marked a milestone in the strength and ability of Arab citizens and that of their partners – the Jewish democratic parties – to influence what comes to pass in the political arena. The Joint List’s supporters in Israel now know the party’s strength and its ability to influence. Presently, it would be difficult to turn back the wheel and convince the List’s supporters that any of the List’s components parties would achieve better results in a national election if they ran separately.

Unity and its Price

From a political standpoint, the Joint List has established its presence and legitimacy despite all the attempts to deprive it of both. The party opened its doors widely and directed its discourse toward new audiences beyond its usual supporters -- Arab citizens and Jewish Democrats. The party addressed citizens of Russian and Ethiopian heritage, and even reached out to Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Yiddish.[5] This openness made the party the topic of the day on several stages, as unconventional moves tend to draw attention. However, the main goal of this messaging was not to gain votes from these groups but to present a democratic alternative to all citizens. Day by day, the Joint List made sensational headlines in print and online.

In addition, the party’s current political influence allows it to be in a central position. Because of this, the Joint List is a popular address for negotiations from various political streams. There is no doubt that the party’s recommendation of Gantz after the September elections paved the way for its status as a political player. It has been made clear to all politicians of Jewish lists, whether they are on the left or the right, that they can incite against the List or befriend it, hate it or love it, boycott it and neglect it – but they cannot ignore it.

In light of these political and social achievements, there was a call to replicate the Joint List's underlying idea in local elections as well. Dr. Hanna Swaid, a former Knesset member of the Hadash party, made the strongest call for replication in an essay he wrote on the subject.[6] I also enthusiastically supported this idea and even wrote an article on the subject entitled, “Between the National Dimension and the Local Dimension,” which was published in the periodical Nabad – Pulse by the Neve Shalom School for Peace.[7] I continue to side with the proponents of this idea, although today I am unsure what price the various political parties might have to pay for this unity and for the attempt to balance financial interests and personal interests to preserve the identity of each component party.

The question remains how to not only preserve the important achievements listed above, but also how to preserve the uniqueness of each of the List’s component parties. As a social activist in one such party – The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) – I believe that the essential idea of the Joint List and its principles have injured the standing of these parties and their unique political projects. This injury is not felt among activists are among those who are naturally endowed with political awareness, but among regular citizens who don’t engage in politics at all on the conceptual level or in their way of life. Such people can make superficially distinctions between the component parties, but they are not able to delve deeply into the differences in opinion that differentiate one party from another.

Has this unity also been exhibited in the field? And if it has, what is its scope? There is no single answer to these questions because the answers are context-dependent and vary from place to place, according to the relative strength of the parties in a specific location. However, in large communities where there is representation from all the component parties, there weren’t unified field activities among the leadership as there were during the election campaign. Each team functioned separately and autonomously, without coordination or contact with each other. If one thing can be revealed from this method, it is that the idea of unity has not been internalized in the field to the same extent that it has been internalized among the party leaders or on the national level.

In light of other developments, such as the establishment of a unity government under the leadership of Netanyahu and Gantz, some voices cast blame on the Joint List for the voters' disappointment. In contrast, some voices absolved the List of responsibility, laying the blame on the left and center political parties for their total failure. The question remains: Will the Joint List and its achievements stand up to these recent developments, or will it pay a high price for its political line? And, most importantly, will the Joint List transform itself from a list to a stable body with institutions for Israel’s Arab-Palestinian minority? Only time will tell.


Dr. Rana Zaher is a lecturer at the University of Haifa and Tel-Hai Academic College. Her field of expertise is social linguistics, an academic discipline dealing with the dynamics and interrelation between language and various social and political contexts. From 2013 to 2018 she served as a member of the Nazareth City Council on behalf of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash).


[1] U. Bronfenbrenner (1992), "Ecological Systems Theory", in R. Vasta (ed.), Six Theories of Child Development: Revised Formulations and Current Issues (pp. 187–249), London and Bristol: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

[2] “Settler releases campaign to encourage Arabs to boycott the elections” [Arabic] Arab48.com, 12.9.2019.

[3] “Who didn’t vote?” The Israel Democracy Institute (26 February 2015) [Hebrew].

[4] M. Crowder-Meyer & A. R. Smith (2015), "How the Strategic Context Affects Women's Emergence and Success in Local Legislative Elections," Politics, Groups, and Identities, 3(2), pp. 295-317.

[5] "The Joint List Held its Election Campaign in Yiddish, Russian, and Amharic,” [Hebrew], The Communist Party of Israel Website, maki.org.il (16 February 2020).

[6] "Dr. Hanna Swaid: I call to copy the Joint List’s model in the upcoming local elections in Arab locales,” kasmawi.net (12 December 2016), [Arabic].

[7] Rana Zaher (2018), "The Joint List Between the National Dimension and the Local Dimension." In: Amir Fakhoury (editor), Alliances at Hand: The Case of the Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel. Pulse – A Socio-Political Journal (Neve Shalom: The Research Institute, School for Peace), pp. 177-180.