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Arab Parties: Nervous but not united
by Assaf Adiv
N the coming Israeli election, scheduled for March 28, 2006, the parties will have to garner 2% of the ballots in order to enter the Knesset. That will amount to about 80,000 votes, enough for three mandates. (A party enters with at least three mandates or none.) The new threshold (up from 1.5% in 2003) will be difficult for the Arab parties: Hadash, Balad and Ra’am (the United Arab List), as well as The Arab Nationalist Party headed by Muhammad Kana’an. None of them may manage to cross it. This worry did not suffice, however, to spur them to surmount petty squabbles. Although their political differences are insignificant, a feeble attempt at unity died in the bud. Now the deadline is past, leaving four separate Arab lists.
Each party has its nuance. The United Arab List stresses the Islamic aspect; Balad emphasizes pan-Arab nationalism; Hadash still presents itself as Arab and Jewish. On the major political questions, however, all agree. They call for an end to Israeli occupation, they support the two-state solution and they demand equality for the Arabs living in Israel. The problem is not with their stated aims but rather with their impotence in bringing about any concrete gain for their marginalized constituencies.
Many on the Arab street are fed up with the pettiness exhibited during the failed attempt at unity. The wheeling and dealing would have shamed horse traders. A senior editor for the weekly Kul al-Arab expressed the sentiments of many: “The behavior of the Arab parties has aroused the ire of the public, and this will play into the hands of the Zionist parties… The elections now are tougher than ever – and not just because the threshold is higher. They are tougher because of the retreat that has taken place since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada [in October 2000 – A.A.], and because the political leadership has systematically ignored the basic problems of day-to-day survival faced by the Arab public. The atmosphere on the Arab street is hardly encouraging. Despair and indifference are the reigning moods. They result from subjective factors – and not just from incitements by forces in the Israeli regime. It should come as no surprise, then, if we undergo in our own arena the kind of upset that has recently taken place in the Occupied Territories.” (Wadie Awaudeh, Kul al-Arab, February 10, 2006.)
Hadash on the brink of schism
The Communist Party in Israel (Maki) and its umbrella organization, Hadash, enter the campaign in a state of inner crisis. This became apparent during the Hadash convention on January 14 in Shefar’am, when the candidates were chosen. Understanding the current crisis in Hadash/Maki is crucial to grasping the situation of the Arabs in Israel.
For three decades, Maki played a central role in the lives of the Arab working class. It educated the workers in modern political concepts. It neutralized old ethnic and clan affiliations. It led the first major Arab protest, which took place on March 30, 1976 – the anniversary is observed as Land Day. Shortly after this, Maki established Hadash, remaining its chief component. With the spirit of Land Day in its sails, Hadash won half the Arab vote in the 1977 elections, taking five Knesset seats. It also led a new generation to leadership in dozens of municipalities.
One of Hadash's firm principles was to maintain an internationalist character by including Jews and Arabs. Despite the fact that no Jewish candidate ever drew enough votes from the Jewish sector to justify his or her seat, Hadash stuck to the rule of Jews and Arabs together – until the campaign of 2003.
In that year, principles collapsed. Fearing that Hadash would fall short of the threshold, its head, Mohammad Barakeh, initiated a campaign to bring to the third slot a well-known outsider who would attract enough ballots to earn his chair. This was veteran Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, who was scrambling for a list to lodge in. At each election, Tibi brings in just the votes of his clan, which are enough to give him one mandate. That’s not sufficient to cross the threshold independently, but it makes him attractive to lists whose entry would otherwise be in doubt.
Barakeh's initiative threatened the communist component, headed by Maki’s General Secretary, Issam Mahoul (then second on the list). Its candidate for the third slot was Dov Chenin, the Jewish member in its leading group. The substitution of Tibi was rightly seen as a challenge to Maki. For the first time ever, Hadash overturned a decision of its communist component, sending Chenin to the fourth spot. Hadash wound up with three mandates.
In January 2006, at the Shefar’am convention, the clash between the two wings brought another defeat for Makhoul. As a Knesset member and Maki’s General Secretary, Makhoul expected to be re-elected to the second slot. He was challenged by Dr. Hanna Suweid, who is not in Maki. Suweid won, thanks to behind-the-scenes backing by Barakeh. The defeat of Mahoul signaled the end of Maki’s unchallenged dominion in the umbrella party it had founded.
What came out of the convention, in the end, was a kind of truce between the forces that threaten to divide Hadash. As compensation to the defeated Maki, Barakeh’s followers let Dov Chenin have the third slot. (Tibi was excluded from the list; he joined the Islamist Ra'am.)
Nevertheless, the failure of Maki’s General Secretary to win second place is extremely significant. His defeat by the Barakeh faction reflects the change in class-structure that Maki has undergone since the collapse of the Soviet Union. From a party that once waged unremitting warfare against the regime, it now forms a section of the government’s safety net. Maki has been taken over by a new middle-class stratum, consisting of independent professionals, merchants and contractors. This class sprouted in the Arab sector during the 80’s and 90’s, and today it dominates the centers of power in all the Arab parties, in the local councils, in the media and in the organizations of civil society.
Unlike the Arab working class, which has gone through a painful economic decline, the new middle class enjoys a high living standard. The Barakeh branch is attuned to its needs and opinions, unlike the stodgy old communism of Mahoul’s wing.
Barakeh's camp claims that communism is passé. Accordingly, it proposes to dismantle Maki and turn Hadash into an Arab national party along the lines of Balad, making it more attractive to the current, twofold trend in the Arab public: to become more nationalist and/or to become more religious.
We cannot know how the elections will go for the Arab parties. It is clear that failure will lead to disappearance, leaving the Arab population leaderless. Even if some cross the threshold by the skin of their teeth, this will just postpone the crisis. Where Hadash is concerned, if it loses its entrée to the corridors of power and is left with no goodies to distribute, the infighting will develop into a war of all against all.
Balad: Politics of the Clan
Balad is headed by Azmi Bishara and has three Knesset seats. It launched its election campaign with enormous banners, bearing the slogan: “If you vote for the Zionists, who are you? Vote for the Arab parties!” Balad asks the Arab voter to stick first of all to her identity. The notion contains a basic flaw: it gives no reason to support the Arab parties apart from the mere fact of their being Arab. Here we find, once again, the politics of the clan. That is not surprising. In the last three years, Balad has had no concrete gain to point at.
The main part of the Arab population consists of laborers locked in a daily struggle for bread. Each year 25,000 celebrate their 18th birthday. Of these, a few thousand manage to get higher education and ascend the ladder of social class. The vast majority will enter the grind of unemployment and poverty. This multitude is not to be found on the Balad agenda.
In addition, by playing the card of “Arab identity,” Balad thickens the wall between the Arab public and Israeli society. When it calls on the voter to isolate the national issue from a concrete political program, it kicks an “own goal,” harming the sector it is supposed to defend. Instead of proposing a progressive and democratic path that will serve Arab needs, as well as (potentially) the needs of many in the Jewish sector, it cuts the Arab population off and perpetuates its marginalization. Moreover, Balad brands the entire Jewish public as Zionist. That may reflect the present reality, but a party that deals in immutable facts forecloses any chance to change things.
Given the economic crisis, and given Israel’s determination to keep the Jewish demographic edge, the challenge facing the Arabs is not how to preserve their isolation, but rather how to build new bridges to the places where decisions are made, both in Israel and the world. The current leaders have failed in this. Needed are men and women who will keep their eyes on workers’ rights.