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The Joint List: The Israeli Left's last hope?

In light of the Joint List’s newfound strength, it might be high time for centrist and leftist parties to renegotiate their understanding of what it means to be Israeli.

By Louis Fishman

Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh at a press conference, February 11, 2015. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh at a press conference, February 11, 2015. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Much attention has been given to the Jewish-Arab Hadash party’s unification with the Arab parties, which are running in the current election under the name the “Joint List” (not the Arab Joint List, as much of the Israeli press is reporting). Even if this was done in order to ensure the parties pass the election threshold, it has turned into a major force on the Israeli political map, joining together communists, nationalists, Islamists, Arabs and Jews.

If polls are correct, the party could even come in third place, winning between 12 and 15 seats of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats. While it is hard to imagine that the two expected winners of the elections, the Likud and the Zionist Camp (Labor), will enter in to a unity government, if they do, such a scenario could turn the Joint List into the main opposition party.

As opposed to the past, when most of the Israeli media brushed off the Arab parties as unworthy of election coverage, often even discarding Hadash as “Arab,” despite its Jewish constituency, the Joint List’s strength can no longer be ignored, leading to the obvious conclusion that Israeli Jews will also for the first time have to come to terms with the fact that the Palestinian minority constitutes almost 20 percent of the population.

Israel is a country made up of multiple sectors, divided along ethnic, religious and ideological lines, which leaves the winner of the Israeli election scrambling for the 60 seats needed to form a government. Despite the tough maneuvering to form a government, none of the major parties in Israeli history has ever invited anti-Zionist Jewish-Arab parties to be part of the government, making coalition-building even more difficult.

A chance for change

If this was not enough, in Israel, unlike most democracies where leftist parties adopt the struggle of the minority, the Labor Party also excludes the Arab constituencies. For example, by adopting the name the “Zionist Camp,” and attempting to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi from running in the election, it made it clear that it does not differ from many in the Israeli Right.

Of course, there is the precedent from the 1990s when Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin relied on the Arab votes in the Knesset to save his government during the critical years of the Oslo accords in votes of no confidence; however, this was met with racist cries in the parliament, demanding a “Jewish majority” be reached on issues related to the peace process.

The exclusion of the Arabs from the political scene highlights the fact that Israeli democracy essentially lacks the basic component of a true democracy, which is a sense of citizenship. In Israel, being an anti-Zionist might get you a seat in the government if you are a Haredi Jew, but for Arabs the door is blocked, under a cloud of racism.

With the newfound strength of the Joint List, it might be high time for the Center and Left parties to renegotiate their understanding of what it means to be Israeli. There is no doubt that it can be an important link in securing a peace deal with the Palestinians, ending almost 47 years of occupation.

For this to happen, however, a new force needs to emerge among the Jewish Left, which will give precedence to the sanctity of citizenship. For years, many in the Israeli Left placed hopes in Meretz. Unfortunately, even when it has been a leader in promoting civic rights, it has failed to provide a transformation to a vibrant democracy.

If the Israeli Left congealed over principles of citizenship, a new dynamic could emerge allowing a future for Jews and Arabs to both express their love of the homeland within the same state structures. In other words, it would not end Israel as a Jewish state but provide its Arab citizens with a path to cultural autonomy — a necessary step in the move toward a citizen-state.

While it is still too early to see whether or not the Joint List will succeed in remaining a single party after the elections, its value should be seen in its creativity to unite opposing factions under the banner of citizenship. There is no doubt that it has captured the imaginations of both Arab and Jewish citizens, introducing an important dynamic that could revitalize the Israeli Left.

After decades of political deadlock, the Joint List is indeed a dynamic force of change.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York and writes on Turkish, and Israeli/Palestinian affairs. His upcoming book is on Ottoman Palestine. He has lived most of his life between the U.S., Israel, and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv He blogs at:http://louisfishman.blogspot.com.

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    1. Jello

      The banner which united the Arab parties is not citizenship. It is a joint Arab hatred for the State of Israel. This makes the premise of this article laughable from the get-go. The main value of the Joint Arab List is to demonstrate to Israeli Jews that despite all the ideological and religious differences between the Israeli Arab parties they can all unite when needed in their hatred for the country they live in.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        “It is a joint Arab hatred for the State of Israel”. Nonsense. Many Arabs seem to be happy to be Israelis and only seek an end to discrimination and full equality with their fellow citizens. I think what you probably mean is “Arab hatred for the State of Israel as a Jewish state” and that would of course be hardly surprising since who wants to be permanently cast as a second-class citizen?

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          First they are after eliminating the Jewish state. Then they are for flooding Israel with Arabs. Then they are for creating a single state here with Jews as a persecuted minority. And at that point they can rename it and have yet another failed Arab Muslim state here.

          And all this because they hate the country they live in and wish to replace it with an Arab Muslim state.

          Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            This seems over the edge into paranoia, whether posed rhetoric or genuine pathology. Just an observation, no reply necessary.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            I’ll reply anyway. Today it was announced that the “Joint List” would not be signing an agreement with Meretz on sharing extra votes which would have meant an extra seat either for Meretz or for the “Joint List”. Meretz is signing one with Labor instead, leaving Lapid also without a similar agreement. This means that the anti-Bibi group is going to waste a seat they could have won.

            The reason why such an agreement was not signed was because within the “Joint List” several factions (but mostly Balad) rejected the idea of signing any such agreement with any “Zionist” party (how “Zionist” Meretz is at this point is questionable). This again demonstrates that the idea that the Arab parties came together under the banner of citizenship to be absolutely baseless. This party is incapable of cooperating with even the most liberal non-Arab dominated parties.

            The stuff I wrote is a pessimistic rephrasing of the position of Balad, which explicitly wants to eliminate the Jewish State, to flood Israel with Arabs, to create a single state where Jews are a minority, and then they would leave the name of the country up to fate. It is not paranoia. I just happen to be listening when they are talking.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            They are quite rightly opposed to the very concept of a Jewish state in the same way as American Jews were opposed, quite rightly, to the idea of the USA as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant state. You know perfectly well that your fear-mongering about inundating Israel with Arabs is nonsense. Refugees have every right in international and humanitarian law to return to their homes, but there is simply too much water under the bridge for such a just solution to be executed. Arabs displaced from Palestine will not return any more than Arab and Russian Jews will return to their homelands. You know perfectly well that there have been times when some sort of peace solution was within spitting distance and the Arab negotiators were ready to compromise on a symbolic return, a recognition by Israel of its moral responsibility for the Nakba, and a positive program for compensation and resettlement. Israel should have seized the day, because the alternative is looking increasingly like a one-state solution emerging from the post-Apartheid resolution that is surely coming.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            They are opposed to the Jews being here except as a persecuted minority in an Arab Muslim state. They made that much clear when they couldn’t even cooperate with a secular democratic party that believes in equal rights.

            And I know perfectly well what Balad politicians say because I actually listen to them rather than pretending that they are what you want them to be. They want to flood Israel with Arabs and turn me into a defenseless persecuted minority after destroying my country.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Brian

      That the Arabs and Jews of the Joint List experience themselves now experimenting within their party with democratic forms and modes of compromise instead of being insular, divisive and neutralized (thank you Avigdor Lieberman) and that the Jews of Israel experience them as a political presence is a hugely interesting and important development. Towards a true sense of citizenship. Away from the Jewish State sense in which no one has “Israeli” nationality only Jewish or Arab nationality. Citizenship! Israeliness can be so much more interesting than it has become. This article by Fishman is terrifically interesting. Thank you.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Brian

      Bougie and Tzipi will change nothing. Vote Joint List.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Maya

      Dear Prof. Fishman,

      You have chosen to support the BDS campaign at your university* and, therefore, I think, you can no longer expect Israelis to engage in a (virtual) conversation with you, and listen to what you have to say.

      The “freedom of speech” excuse for support of BDS activists doesn’t cut it. Would you take action to support your department or institution sponsoring and event with, say, speakers for “conversion therapy”? They too would make fanciful arguments for their cause, supported by “evidence”.

      I sincerely hope that the answer is no: that you would not act to give institutional sponsorship, as respectable academic institution, to this highly morally bogus and factually dubious propaganda. The same goes for the campaign that you have chosen to take action to support.

      I sincerely wish the inclusion of members of the Joint List in the governing coalition in Israel. But please respect me by showing intellectual integrity: you have taken action to support the calls to boycott me so that I’m excluded from the conversation. Please do not expect that I should still engage in conversation with you and hear your advice.

      *Link: http://louisfishman.blogspot.de/2013/02/freedom-of-speech-at-brooklyn-college.html

      Reply to Comment
    5. shlomo

      m.k zuabi said that the joint list will not reccomend herzog to the president.that means if it will happen that the joint list will ensure that netanyahu will be the next p.m. so a vote for the joint list is a vote that may be against the wishes of the arabs and the few jews that will vote for them.that reminds me of an elections almost 100 years ago.in germany in 1925 the elections for the president werw between the republican camp supporting the weimar democratic constitution and the right.the candidates werwe on one side marx from the weimarists and hindenburg from the right.all depended on the communist strong party.they said they will vote for their leader telman .so hindenburg won.so when you say i don’t want both you can ensure that you will actually vote for someone u r totally against.politics is not about purism it is about realism.

      Reply to Comment