Four political parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel have joined together to run as single bloc in the March 17 elections. The move allows Arab politicians to continue to remain competitive in the race, after the electoral threshold was raised from 2 to 3.25 percent.
It’s the first time in the Knesset's history that parties traditionally backed by Arab constituencies have unified. The four parties will remain distinct entities, but will contest the parliamentary election as a multi-party slate. The Arab parties reached a deal deciding how they will distribute the seats won by the bloc, allocating them according to the percentage of votes their list of candidates receives.
Many view the new threshold law, passed in March 2014, as a roundabout way to disqualify Arab politicians, many of whom represent parties with very small constituencies. The new threshold requires parties or lists to receive at leat 3.25 percent votes to qualify for parliament. "It was clear that raising the threshold ... was to make it difficult for Arab parties to run," said Hassan Jabareen, general director of Adalah, a legal center for the Palestinian minority in Israel.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 20 percent of Israel's population, with about 55 percent of them taking part in national elections. Jabareen said Arab parties are now mainly focused on increasing voter turnout.
Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party pushed the change in the law. Ironically, due to a massive corruption scandal, his party may end up with fewer seats in the Knesset than the Arab bloc, according to Haaretz.
The four Arab parties — Raam (United Arab List), Ta'al (Arab Movement for Renewal), Balad (National Democratic Assembly) and Arab-Jewish party Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) — cover a range of ideologies from Islamist to secular and are usually each able to secure up to 3 percent votes when running separately, which would not meet the new threshold. "From the Arab population's point of view, there is no need for fragmentation in the Knesset," Jabareen told Al Jazeera. "After all, they vote similarly despite their political differences."
Raam lawmaker Masud Ganaim said the bloc was united in its support for Palestinian statehood and concern about Netanyahu's efforts to enshrine Jewish statehood in law. "The Arab community in Israel wants us all to join forces, so we can have more influence and challenge the Netanyahu government's racist and Judaizing policies," he told Reuters.
Opinion polls suggest the joint slate could secure 11 seats in the 120-seat parliament. That is about the same number of seats that the parties currently hold individually, but as a bloc, the Arab parties could wield more influence in parliament. Pre-election polls put Netanyahu's Likud party neck-and-neck with the center-left alliance of Labor leader Isaac Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, so whoever leads the next government may need coalition partners.
Ganaim said his four-party list may back Herzog and Livni. "It is being considered," he said. "We think the political map will shift toward the center-left, and in such a situation we will have an important role. We would tilt the balance."
However, Herzog and Livni may not be interested in the Arab support. Lisa Goldman, director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at the New America Foundation, said there is a taboo among mainstream Jewish parties against forming alliances with Arab parties, which are "by definition not Zionist."
"If the taboo didn't exist and if the center-left parties were true to their ideals and reached out to the Arab parties and said, 'Hey, join our coalition,' then yes, hypothetically, they would be in a position to pose a serious challenge to Netanyahu in forming a governing coalition," Goldman told Al Jazeera. "But I don't think they'll do that. I think that they'll be too afraid at alienating their voter base."