Israeli-Arabs Play Unprecedented Role in Elections

03/17/2015 01:38 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

WASHINGTON -- With hours left before Israeli elections results are tallied, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint Arab List, has made his goal to oust current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu perfectly clear. What is more ambiguous is how the head of the fractious coalition of Arab-Israeli politicians plans to make that happen.

The Joint Arab List is currently projected to hold 13 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, after the election, meaning it will be third in terms of representation behind Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union Party and Netanyahu’s Likud Party. But the group has said repeatedly that it will not join Herzog's coalition to help his party secure a majority in the parliament.

“We choose not join because we cannot be a part of a government that will continue the occupation of Palestinians and discrimination against Arabs,” Joint Arab List spokesman Yousef Jabareen told The Huffington Post on election day. While the party has adopted a strong “anyone but Bibi” stance, Jabareen said that Herzog has not shown serious commitment to establishing a Palestinian state and providing full equality for Israeli-Arabs.

“The agreement within our party is to meet after the results are published and analyze the situation. We will do our best to block a right-wing government led by Netanyahu because it has been disastrous for our people. But so much depends on the alternative suggested by Herzog,” Jabareen said.

In Israel, winning the greatest number of votes is far from an ensured victory. Because of the multi-party system, it is unlikely that one party will win a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Rather, the nation's president appoints the leader of the party that is most likely to be able to cobble together a coalition of smaller parties to form a government.

The president typically offers the leader of the party with the most votes the first shot at forming the necessary coalition. In 2009, this opportunity went to Tzipi Livni, who is now running with Herzog. She was ultimately unable to garner majority support, and Netanyahu’s Likud government took power.

Herzog allies are worried the same fate will befall his party, since Netanyahu has a far more obvious group of allied parties. Jabareen said Tuesday that the Joint Arab List would consider recommending Herzog to President Rueven Rivlin without offering to join Herzog’s coalition. Additionally, the party could provide external support to Herzog by informally allying with the Zionist Union to block Netanyahu from forming a coalition.

The Joint Arab List is an alliance of four political parties that share little more than their ethnicity, with ideologies ranging from secular communism to support for the Muslim Brotherhood. New election laws, which increased the minimum share of the vote a party has to get to be represented in the government from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, provided the initial impetus to unify, and there has been speculation that the group will disband after elections. However, Jabareen said that the Joint Arab List has come to realize that it benefits strategically by presenting a united front.

Despite repeated insistence by the group that it will not join an “occupying government,” strategic political calculations shift quickly, and Zionist Union supporters are still holding out hope that they can bring the Arab party into their government.

“I’m sure [the Joint Arab List] will have certain requests. As we’ve said all along, we support the two-state solution, three settlements blocs around Jerusalem that we are ready to swap for, and a security border along Jordan,” Zionist Union Knesset Member Erel Margalit told HuffPost. Margalit added that his party’s efforts to close the economic equality gap would benefit Arab-Israelis, who along with Orthodox Jews make up a disproportionate percentage of the country’s poor.

Winning the support of the Joint Arab List is just one of many obstacles Herzog would face if offered the chance to build a coalition. The Meretz party, a reliable Herzog ally, risks coming in below the new electoral threshold vote of 3.25%. Another likely ally, the secular Yesh Atid party, shares a mutual aversion to sitting in the same government as the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. While the right-wing religious parties are a more obvious ally for Netanyahu, Herzog’s economic platform is appealing to the nation's Orthodox. However, if the Orthodox parties join Herzog, he risks losing support from the Arab party, as well.

“The right has been very consistent about continuing settlement activity and adopting discriminatory policies against us,” said Jabareen. “I don’t see any scenario of being part of a government or a safety net for the government if right-wing parties are a part of it.”

After election results are finalized, the appointed leader of the coalition government has 45 days to meet with the heads of other parties and convince them to join ranks. Coalition predictions are somewhat fruitless, as much depends on what the coalition leader is able to promise the smaller parties.

“I know that Herzog is very good at talking to all the leaders of all parties, you know. Especially, those that we need to talk to. He’s keeping the dialogue open. We’ll see,” said Margalit.

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