And so the horse trading begins.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has gotten down to the nitty-gritty business of cobbling together a government coalition. Particularly attractive stallions, thankfully, will be the religious parties, the Prime Minister’s “natural partners,” as he calls them, although, apparently unnaturally, he jettisoned them the last time around. Their being in Bibi’s good graces (for now) is happy news.
What many may not see as happy news is the remarkable fact that, after Likud and the Zionist Union (Hamachaneh Hatzioni), the third largest winner of votes was … the “Joint List” (Hareshima Hameshutefet) — the new Arab party, comprised of four previous Arab parties.
No one is concerned that the Joint List’s 13 seats will make it an attractive partner to a Likud-dominated government — or, for that matter, any government. Nor would the Joint List itself consider being part of either. Its very essence is oppositional.
The genesis of the Joint List, though, holds some irony; and its success, perhaps, something positive.
The impetus for the joining together of the four Arab parties, representing utterly disparate, contradictory, ideologies — communism, feminism, Islamism, and Palestinian nationalism — was legislation passed last year raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%, or at least four seats. None of the Arab parties saw themselves as viable in that calculus. So they decided on a sort of multiple-wives marriage of necessity. And ended up with more seats than their combined catch in 2013.
The irony? The law that brought them together was pushed through by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, scored only six seats this time around, less than half of the Joint List.
The head of the Joint List, lawyer Ayman Odeh, somehow managed to herd the cats that comprise the list. He also strikes a moderate, unflappable pose. In a campaign ad, he appears at a Jewish family’s Shabbos table, after the mainstream party candidates have burst in and made their cases. They leave when Mr. Odeh enters and, smiling, he says to the Jewish family, “We all live in the same building together and we all want the same thing: Equal rights, peace and quiet.”
And in a debate, when Mr. Lieberman told Mr. Odeh that he should better be in Ramallah or Gaza and that “You’re not wanted here,” the Arab, who was born in Haifa, calmly responded to the Russian-born foreign minister, “I am very wanted in my homeland,” and went on to emphasize what he characterized as his party’s universalist and democratic message.
To be sure, some of the cats in his herd are anything but universalist or democratic. Which is why the Joint List’s campaign slogan was the soothing but hollow “The Will of the People.”
So what possible role could the Joint List play in the Knesset? It will surely use its votes to oppose measures it sees as expansionist or anti-Arab. But beyond those things, which the liberal parties will oppose no less, are there any other causes such a confederacy of incoherence might embrace?
Practically speaking, the Joint List’s fractious felines can probably come together on the issue of Arab poverty, and Israel’s insufficient assistance to that sector of its citizenry.
Israel ranks high among developed nations in the percentage of its citizens living in poverty. Economist Paul Krugman attributes that in part to “policy choices: Israel does less to lift people out of poverty than any other advanced country.”
According to a 2013 National Insurance Institute report, the poverty rate among Israel’s Arabs — some 20% of the population — was 47.4%.
The same report estimates the poverty rate at the time among Israeli chareidim (approximately 10% of the population) at 66%. Both communities’ high poverty can be attributed, at least in part, to low earnings and government cutbacks in child allotments.
So it might not be outlandish to imagine that, however either impoverished sector may feel about each other, both will vote to bolster any legislation put before the Knesset designed to assist poor families. Stranger unplanned but de facto alliances have taken place.
For Jews who perceive Israel in nationalistic or religious colors, the emergence of an Arab party with 13 seats in the Knesset may seem like a violation of the idea of the state. Those of us, though, who see Israel as a wonderful democracy and haven for Jews but who are not flag wavers or Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrators might dare to hope that the Joint List, the abhorrent nature of some of its members notwithstanding, might end up actually helping advance the Israeli societal good.