The political climate in Israel following September’s snap elections is by no means favorable to Palestinians. However, there is reason to be hopeful for gains in Palestinian political power as the prospect of a unity government between the center-right Kahol Lavan party and the further-right Likud party looms large. Palestinian parties are contesting for a historic amount of influence in shaping the next Israeli government, and the challenge for Palestinian political leaders will be to turn this growing relevance in Israeli politics into real power in the fight for Palestinian liberation, rather than a force for the normalization of Israel’s colonial rule over Palestine.
The leading contenders for prime minister this year – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and ex-military chief Benny Gantz of Kahol Lavan – are intent on resisting this outcome. Both ran on platforms “vowing to take harsh measures targeting Palestinians.” For the supposedly-centrist Gantz, this meant bragging about bombing Gaza back to the “Stone Age” and promising tough security policy. For Netanyahu, this meant taking his boldest step yet in the Israeli right wing’s quest to cleanse historic Palestine of any trace of Palestinian sovereignty by promising to annex one-third of the Palestinian West Bank.
Yet, even in a heated contest between right-wing, anti-Palestinian parties, the representatives of official Palestinian politics in Israel have emerged as perhaps more central to parliamentary politics than ever.
For starters, after a dangerously close call for the Palestinian parties in April’s elections — in which half of Arab representation in the Israeli Parliament, or Knesset, was nearly lost in a wave of public frustration with infighting and ineffectiveness among the Palestinian parties — Israel’s main Arab-led parties reconstituted their Joint List coalition, and powerfully exceeded expectations.
The Joint List, which first stood for election in 2015, is a powerful, Palestinian electoral force, bringing together Israel’s major non-Zionist political parties — including communists, Arab nationalists and Islamists — unified around a program of resisting the occupation and supporting equal rights for Palestinians living within Israel. Due to the coalition’s political diversity, it has struggled to put forward a united front, both during election season and in the Knesset. But the September election marks the second time that the Joint List has been able to win 13 seats in the Knesset — two more than the various Arab coalitions had previously been able to muster, and an impressive feat considering the widespread disenfranchisement of Palestinians living under Israeli control.
Whether the relative success of the Joint List was a sign of popular approval of the move to reunite, or perhaps a mass reaction to the right’s racist scaremongering about Arab electoral participation this election, the result was an impressive leap over last election. Arab voter turnout increased from an all-time low: 49 percent to more than 60 percent between the April and September elections. More than 80 percent of Arab votes went to the Joint List, marking an apparent end to the trend of protest votes going to the center-left Zionist Meretz Party; and combined representation jumped from 10 seats in April to 13 seats now, making the Joint List the third-largest faction in the Knesset. Moreover, the spike in Arab participation also pushed the violent, far-right Otzmah Yehudit party below the threshold for representation and out of the Knesset.
If this weren’t enough, the Joint List’s maneuvering during the hotly contested prime minister race has made the Palestinian parties something of a kingmaker — or maybe, a kingmaker runner-up — for the first time since Yitzhak Rabin’s successful bid for the office in 1992.
On September 22, the Joint List made history by giving its recommendation for the premiership to Gantz. While only 10 of the 13 Joint List Knesset members made the move — with the left-wing Balad Party refusing to recommend — this brought Gantz to a practical tie for support with Netanyahu, trailing by only a single vote.
In a further twist, on September 26, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told reporters that, in addition to Balad’s ideological opposition to the Gantz endorsement, it was a request by a Kahol Lavan Knesset member to not put Gantz ahead of Netanyahu that precipitated the Joint List’s incomplete endorsement of Gantz.
The implications of this most recent revelation are significant for the Joint List’s prospects. If Kahol Lavan attempt to form a Likud-less government, it would require not only the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s center-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, but also that of the Joint List — a non-starter due to the racist opposition to Arab representation in government by both Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu.
Netanyahu, likewise, looks unlikely to form a government without the support of Kahol Lavan. Yisrael Beiteinu is the only force that could push through a government of the right; but Lieberman has been quick to criticize the prime minister for his post-election politicking, and the impending threat of Netanyahu’s indictment only further raises the cost to Lieberman of endorsing him.
Gantz’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, a world in which the Joint List performed just a little worse, or refused to endorse Gantz for prime minister, would’ve almost certainly forced Kahol Lavan into supporting at least a shared return to power for Netanyahu.
Instead, Kahol Lavan isn’t backing down; and the only remaining options are either the formation of a unity government, including both Kahol Lavan and Likud, likely under Gantz’s leadership; or yet another round of elections to break the deadlock. In the former case, an Arab political coalition — as the largest non-governing party in Knesset — will for the first time in history become the leader of the opposition. In the latter, it’s difficult to say; but Likud is almost sure to lose seats, and the Joint List, if not a contender for membership in government, is poised to serve an important role breaking potential right-wing forces’ stranglehold on a center-left government. In either case, the Arab left’s newfound relevance to the parliamentary calculus doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
When the 22nd — or maybe 23rd — Knesset convenes, the relative weakness of Arab political power in Israel will remain a discriminatory, gross miscarriage of justice. The recent nation-state law is only the most recent reminder that the Israeli government is not only an occupying power on Palestinian land, but also an illegitimate apartheid state within its internationally recognized borders, upheld by a system of mass repression, dispossession and disenfranchisement of Palestinians. Not accounting for millions of diasporic Palestinians living outside of historic Palestine, more than 75 percent of Palestinians under some form of Israeli governmental control are unable to vote in Israeli elections — a population which would make up a clear majority of the Israeli electorate.
As we can already see playing out now, the Joint List will be systematically marginalized in the Knesset. Every election sees Palestinian parties on the chopping block after attempts to disqualify them from seeking office; and once in office, Palestinians spend inordinate amounts of time under parliamentary discipline, including outright suspension from the Knesset for significant portions of their term.
In addition, even among the most left-leaning members of the Zionist parties, the Joint List is unlikely to find significant initiative to carry out a much-needed fight for Palestinian human rights and self-determination. Bills calling for equal rights for Palestinians are rarely taken up by forces outside of the Arab parties. The Joint List’s demand for the right of Palestinian refugees to return as citizens to Israel continues to be viewed as downright treasonous, out of a fear of losing Zionist parties’ stranglehold over Israeli elections. And while a few smaller left-wing parties agree in name to a two-state solution, in practice, no serious legislative challenge to the expansion of settlements or the demolition of Palestinian homes and orchards has been posed by the Zionist parties in quite some time; quite the opposite: centrists have time and again signed onto some of the right’s most controversial challenges to Palestinian political and human rights.
At least for the moment, however, the Joint List’s gamble appears to be working: The coalition’s newfound strength has catapulted them into the center of the power negotiations shaping the incoming government. The question, both for the parties and their constituency, is to what lengths they will go to assure their own relevance in the actual practice of official Israeli politics.
While the power on display in their bid to unseat Netanyahu is impressive, many are concerned by the political implications of endorsing such a right-wing figure — and especially by the prospect of conditionally forming a coalition with him. To their credit, Balad, the Joint List party who refused to endorse Gantz, shows no signs of going easy on a Gantz-led government. But among the other parties, particularly Hadash — the largest constituent party, of which Joint List leader Ayman Odeh is a member — a trend towards Arab “integration” into Israeli politics could threaten the List’s ability to put forward a consistent, unyielding challenge to a Knesset which only months ago affirmed that it doesn’t really serve Palestinian Israelis.
We will have to wait and see whether this integrationist trend becomes dominant within the Joint List; and if so, how Odeh and others will resist bowing to parliamentary pressures and normalizing Israel’s racist regime, and instead use their increased relevance to wage an even stronger fight for the recognition of full equality between Jews and Palestinians living in Israel.