We came, we voted, we conquered: How Palestinian-Israelis beat Netanyahu's election game and became kingmakers

We came, we voted, we conquered: How Palestinian-Israelis beat Netanyahu's election game and became kingmakers
In-depth: Thanks to political unity and huge turnout, the Arab Joint List achieved stunning results in Israel's latest election, denying right-wing PM Netanyahu a majority, writes Ben Lynfield from Jerusalem
6 min read
06 March, 2020
Iman Khatib-Yassin (L) became first-ever hijabi Member of Knesset after Joint List's strong showing [AFP/GETTY]
Israel's election on Monday may one day be looked back upon as a case of poetic justice, after high Arab voter turnout and the stunning success of the predominantly Arab Joint List deprived anti-Arab prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a clear, decisive victory.

At press time Netanyahu was scrambling to cobble together a majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, which would enable him to form a government. But the polling left his right-wing bloc with only 58 seats, three shy of a majority, while the Joint List scored a record fifteen seats for the Arab minority, the Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up about a fifth of Israel's population.

"We have created a new political situation in Israel in which our seats prevented Netanyahu from having a government," said Jamal Zahalka, chairman of the nationalist Balad party in the Joint List.

The list is an alliance of secularists, moderate Islamists and communists that won thirteen seats in the previous round of elections in September, which like an earlier round in April ended inconclusively.

Neither Netanyahu's Likud party nor challenger Benjamin Gantz's center-right Blue and White party attained a majority coalition. Now, it is even possible the latest polling could result in a similar deadlock, necessitating a fourth round of elections.

Read more: Excluded from real representation, Arab citizens will vote in Israel's election to protect Palestinian identity

A strong showing

More than half a million voters backed the Joint List this time, pulling in an astounding ninety percent of the Arab vote and even about 20,000 Jewish voters as the once mighty Labor party headed by Yitzhak Rabin until his 1995 assassination all but vanished.

The fifteen seats will translate into power on Knesset committees, Zahalka said.

"We can be stronger now in defending the rights of our people. We will have more seats in the committees and can translate this into budgets and stopping racist and antidemocratic legislation."

The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel are the descendants of Palestinians who remained during the 1948 nakba, or catastrophe of displacement when 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled or fled as Jewish nationalists established Israel. They have traditionally faced discrimination and under successive Netanyahu governments were targets of incitement and accusations of being fifth columnists.

Generally, they identify strongly with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza while aspiring to equality with Jews inside Israel. At times, many boycotted the elections as being pointless but the Joint List has now changed that.

"We proved that unity makes you stronger," Zahalka said. "It's an important message to all Palestinian groups that unity makes you stronger."
Israel should be a state for all its citizens, like America and we should be like the American Jews
The dream of Arab-Jewish equality

In Kafr Qasim, an Arab town in an area known as the triangle in central Israel, urban planner Kamal Badir, 60, said after casting his vote for the Joint List at the Ghazali middle school "We are part of this country and want rights like the Jews." 

Badir says he wants equality in state budgets and the repeal of discriminatory legislation passed under Netanyahu like the Nation State law, that advantages Jews over others and the Kamenetz law, which makes it easier for the state to demolish Arab homes built without permits, which are difficult to obtain due to discriminatory planning practices.

"Israel should be a state for all its citizens, like America and we should be like the American Jews," Badir said.

However, he said his vote had not been a reaction to a provision in US President Donald Trump's 'Deal of the Century' plan that initially angered and bewildered Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The plan could have enabled the more than 300,000 Arab residents of the triangle to be stripped of their Israeli citizenship and instead come under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. It was disavowed by Israeli officials.

"We know this is imaginary and unrealistic. People know it's not serious," Badir said.
We already have political power. No side can ignore us and that is why Netanyahu is inciting against us. It makes him crazy that we are stronger.
The new Arab kingmakers?

Rather, the main impetus to vote seems to have been that the public realized from the September polling that higher turnout would indeed yield more seats and power.

Turnout rose to about 65 percent this time. In the first round of elections, in April, two Arab lists competed with one another and the public punished this disunity with a turnout of only 49 percent, which garnered only ten seats.

In the second round, in September, the list reunited and scored thirteen seats with a turnout of 59 percent.

Next time the list intends to win eighteen seats, according to Joint List MP Yousef Jabareen, who termed the election results a "historic achievement."

Sheikh Safwat Farig, the Kafr Qasim based deputy head of the Islamic Movement, which gained four of the list's seats, said: "Now everyone knows that if Netanyahu or Gantz want to speak with the Arabs, the address is the Joint List."

But Farig stressed that there is a limit to what the Joint List can achieve if Netanyahu remains in power.

"If Netanyahu won't be prime minister I am more optimistic," he said. "He did everything to pass racist laws and discriminate."

Still, he said the list's electoral success will still impact the public. "It gives a tail wind to citizens to wage public struggles in the streets and everywhere. We will know how to bring gains to our people which doesn't get the rights it deserves."

As for Netanyahu, he is doing his utmost to delegitimise, disenfranchise, and discredit the Joint List, telling reporters on Wednesday that it comprises "terrorism supporters."

Netanyahu argued that he had clearly won the election since he had a substantial majority of "Zionist" voters. "The Arabs are not part of this equation and this is the people's will," he said.

Joint List head Ayman Odeh told Israeli state television on Wednesday that the list might back Gantz for the premiership if he changes positions he took during the campaign such as backing the annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank.

"If there is a change truly in the direction of peace and equality we will examine this party," he said, referring to Blue and White.

Whatever the case, Israeli politics may have changed substantially on Monday, according to Zahalka.

"We already have political power. No side can ignore us and that is why Netanyahu is inciting against us. It makes him crazy that we are stronger."

Ben Lynfield is a journalist currently based in Jerusalem.

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