Is the reunited Joint List enough to bring back Palestinian election boycotters?

Palestinian voters in Israel who previously called for an election boycott say they are willing to give the joint slate of Arab parties another chance. ‘Local Palestinian leadership is all we have now.’

Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh, and Ahmad Tibi (left to right) join hands at the announcement of the return of the Joint List. (Photo courtesy of the Joint List)
Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh, and Ahmad Tibi (left to right) join hands at the announcement of the return of the Joint List. (Photo courtesy of the Joint List)

The immense pressure that the Palestinian Arab community in Israel applied on the Arab parties to unite has borne fruit: they will run as a joint list in the September elections.

The online commentators can finally retire, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. With Eid al-Adha, the Muslim “Festival of Sacrifice,” in full swing, most of the passionate social media pundits are off on vacation somewhere in Europe, or sluggishly moving across the border to Egypt or Jordan. They weren’t too enthusiastic about discussing the Joint List at the moment.

In the run-up to the 2015 elections, after the Israeli right raised the electoral threshold to keep Palestinian parties out, the four Arab parties ran on a single slate to survive. The Joint List ended up winning 13 of 120 Knesset seats – the largest representation of Palestinians in Israel since the founding of the state.

In the April elections, political infighting overshadowed the political union, and the Joint List split in two, against the wishes of thousands of Palestinian voters. Having incurred a substantial political cost for the split, the Arab parties recently announced that they will run together under the banner of the Joint List once again.

The Joint List failed us, but Smotrich is worse

Among those who boycotted the April elections are Palestinian citizens who refused to cast their ballot based on ideological reasons. These “classic” boycotters are keeping at it, explaining to us once again that the entire Zionist state is built on discrimination, that it’s a colonial project, and that we must not grace it with our cooperation.

I went into the official Facebook page of the boycott movement and discovered that the last message was posted on April 17, just after the last elections. It was a long post, thanking all the movement’s activists.

“As far as we’re concerned, now that the elections are over, our work here is done. We respect the [Arab] parties that were elected into the Knesset, they are not our enemy, and this is their path. We will continue struggling on the outside.”

It’s hard to tell whether the boycott movement is simply off on holiday as well, or whether they missed the memo about the new round of elections, which they had not accounted for. Some members wrote that they still believe that only an election boycott will lead to results, and that they will continue in their boycott, regardless of the Join List.

Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But the general impression is that the ideological boycott movement has waned after its prominent campaign in April. If it’s resurrected, it will have a much harder time coming for the Arab parties, what with the psychological shield that the renewed Joint List has created.

The voting rate among Palestinians in Israel was at 63 percent in 2015. In April, participation dipped to 49 percent. How are voters who “dropped out” between those two elections expected to behave this time?

“The Joint List is back, but barely. Let us get on with our summer, and talk again in September,” said Khaled, an activist who preferred to go only by his first name. Khaled was a staunch election boycotter last time, and he said that identifying by his full name is likely to elicit unwanted debates.

“Khalas, enough with this Joint List. I will vote for them, even though I don’t feel like it,” he said. “Last time I purposefully didn’t vote, and I was at peace with it because [the Joint List] deserved the punishment. I was convinced that they were all after seats and salaries, and persuaded other people to boycott because we are tired of both our leadership and of this country. The government does whatever it wants, home demolitions, the Jewish Nation-State Law, incitements, and more, and they ran on two separate lists. It felt too sickening, even though it’s the same debate before every election.”

Khaled has decided to vote in September, as long as the Arab candidates begin working like politicians. “I don’t believe that the Joint List will score more than 10 seats, but if they fail again, I don’t want that sitting on my conscience. If my vote can help, I will reluctantly go and cast it. Go figure what those fascists Smotrich and Shaked will do this time,” he added, referring to two Israeli far right politicians.

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Khaled represents the voice of conscience of many Arab citizens. They understand that the impact potential of the Joint List is slim, and have a sense of the power imbalance and the mood that’s likely to develop in the Knesset and the country. On the other hand, these voters still want a united slate to represent all marginalized groups, even if the existence of a Joint List only manages to raise spirits among Arab citizens and doesn’t actually contribute to improving the infrastructure of their villages.

“If the cost is showing up at the ballot box, we will go and see what shall come out of it,” Khaled concluded.

The Knesset is only another avenue for impact

I caught the political activist Nidaa Haj Yahya moments before traveling abroad, on her way to a once-in-a-lifetime concert with Kathem al-Saher, an Iraqi singer dubbed the “Caesar of Arabic Song” who I’ve admired already as a teenager. Kathem mostly sings love songs, and is to be credited with raising the bar for romance among many Arab women.

Last April, Nidaa wrote scathing posts against voting and called on everyone to boycott the elections. She was once an activist with Balad, the nationalist Palestinian party, but has disengaged a few years ago.

“You managed to confuse me,” I tell her. Nidaa has decided to enlist as a member of Balad again. I ask her why.

“I saw the way the negotiations over how to assemble the Joint List were going, and how the committee [tasked with building the list] is going after Balad. I don’t appreciate Hadash’s political takeover in the Arab street. I have no business with the Islamic party, and, being from Taybeh, I’m aware of Ahmad Tibi’s reputation,” explained Nidaa. Despite her lingering disappointment, she decided to support the party out of solidarity, she said.

You were one of the boycotters, and now you’re going back on this decision. Why?

“Because I decided to give this a chance. Most of the candidates on the list are new, and I respect many of them. I have this deep belief that perhaps they’ve learned their lesson this time.”

I clearly remember you saying how they wouldn’t give you the time of day. That you would write, apply pressure, follow up, and all they’d see is a seat and a paycheck. This hasn’t changed much.

“You’re right. I have no problem with them receiving remuneration for their work, as much as possible, but this time they know that we’re watching them, we, the young and opinionated who gave them another chance despite our deep sense of disappointment. We don’t just get them elected and sign off, we have to keep following up.”

Haj Yaha said that her entire family is expected to vote in the upcoming elections as well. “My father told me ‘we will vote this time to remain on our land, not more.’ This is a struggle for our survival, and the Knesset is another avenue for that.”

Illustrative photo of workers preparing ballot boxes for Israeli elections. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of workers preparing ballot boxes for Israeli elections. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

I drove up north to Kafr Kanna to meet Khadijeh, one of the members of the Islamic Movement in Israel who is associated with the northern branch of the movement, which was outlawed by the Israeli government in 2015 for its alleged ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“In 2015, I voted for the Joint List,” she said, “but with its dissolution in the last elections, I didn’t go out and vote, and neither did my daughters. Many brothers and activists in the movement don’t care about the Knesset, and they certainly don’t have respect for some of the Arab Knesset members. But the Israelis don’t want to tone things down, they want war at any cost, against Al Aqsa. The settlers constantly attack, protest, and provoke. They will not calm down until it is utter chaos, and then there will be bloodshed, and Israel will take over the compound.”

But what does this have to do with the Joint List?

“It seemingly is not related, but with everything the Saudis are doing and with Arab world leaders surrendering to Israel and oppressing their own people, they all sold the Palestinians for small change. We are left to fend for ourselves. Local Palestinian leadership is all we have now.”

“Last time, despite everything going on, they didn’t manage to give us this little hope and run together. I don’t regret not voting. This time, they passed the first test, barely. Maybe the message went through, and they will finally understand that we don’t have too many options and we must unite – or else we all lose. Believe me, if our weak leadership joins forces and everyone tells us to boycott the elections, I would have agreed to that as well. But they are split between those who believe in voting and those who don’t, and this time I am going with the voters.”

A response to Israel’s ‘divide and conquer’

I spoke with Tarek Shehadeh in Nazareth, a tourism expert and social-political activist. He, too, boycotted the last elections, after laying his frustrations bare with the Knesset members themselves.

“I couldn’t get a convincing answer from any one of them for why they wouldn’t maintain the Joint List project,” he said. “The response I’d get, ‘you can’t see what we see from the inside,’ vexed me. I decided that they don’t deserve [my vote], because they gave in to the pressures inside their parties and to their egos. They didn’t take the stand that responsible leaders would. That’s why I didn’t vote.”

This time, Shehadeh, like the others I spoke with, is willing to spare another chance to those who decided to try and run together again. “I saw up close how the Israeli government and its branches purposefully sought to undermine our unity. The problem is not with Bibi, the problem is with our mayors and our public figures who try to destroy every project that aims toward the national unity of the Arab community,” he said in frustration.

“I witnessed first-hand how the government wants to give us bread to break and shelter, but without a voice, without a vision, we obviously cannot take part in any government or become part of the center-left,” he added.

“In the 90s, we yearned for peace and equality. The right has created a reality in which there is, de facto, no peace and no equality. So, what do we want now? What is our project as a national minority?”

Like Nidaa and I, Tarek believes that if we keep monitoring the work of the Joint List, if we contribute our knowledge and expertise from the field, and if we manage to create a conversation that goes above their internal clashes and their outdated monitoring mechanisms, slowly but surely, we may free the Joint List of the four parties that compose it and take a step toward a more influential, more daring place in politics.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.