Global Insider: New Electoral Rules Could Limit Pluralism for Arab Israeli Political Parties

Global Insider: New Electoral Rules Could Limit Pluralism for Arab Israeli Political Parties
Photo: Inside the Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel, Feb. 1, 2010 (photo from Pikiwiki licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license).
Last week, the Israeli parliament passed a law raising the threshold for parliamentary representation from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of votes in parliamentary elections. In an email interview, Dov Waxman, an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as well as the co-director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development at Northeastern University, explained what the change means for Arab political parties in Israel. WPR: What are the main Arab Israeli political parties and their general platforms? Dov Waxman: There are currently two main Arab parties in Israel: Balad (“nation” in Arabic and the Hebrew acronym of “National Democratic Assembly”), and Ra’am-Ta’al, a union of two parties, Ra’am (the United Arab List) and Ta’al (the Arab Movement for Renewal). Balad espouses secular Arab nationalism, whereas Ra’am-Ta’al is more Islamically oriented. Both parties are ideologically anti-Zionist. They seek full equality for Israel’s Arab citizens, oppose Israel’s definition as a Jewish state and want Israel to become a “state for all its citizens” or a binational state. They support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s full withdrawal from all occupied territories. A third party, Hadash (an acronym for “The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality”), is often regarded as an Arab party, but is historically an Arab-Jewish party. It is an amalgam of various left-wing groups, including the Israeli Communist party. It identifies itself as a non-Zionist party, defends the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens, calls for the recognition of Palestinian Arabs as a national minority within Israel and supports a two-state solution. Hadash is also very focused on social, economic and environmental issues. WPR: To what extent do these parties form a cohesive political bloc within Israel? Waxman: Collectively, Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al and Hadash have only 11 seats in the current parliament out of a total of 120. They agree on many issues of importance to Arabs in Israel and often vote together, such as opposing the recent plan, now shelved, to relocate Bedouin communities in Israel’s Negev desert. When it comes to social issues, however, there are significant differences among them, especially concerning women’s rights and gay rights. Even when they are able to act as a political bloc, these parties exercise very little influence because they do not have many parliamentary seats, and most importantly, because they are not considered legitimate coalition partners in Israeli governments. Since they are always excluded from government coalitions, their ability to actually influence national policymaking in Israel is minimal, at best. WPR: To what extent does the raising of the electoral threshold threaten Israeli Arab representation? Waxman: The new 3.25 percent threshold seriously threatens the ability of all three parties to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, unless some kind of merger takes place. In the most recent general election, held in January 2013, only Ra’am-Ta’al received more than 3.25 percent of the popular vote, and only just, with 3.65 percent of the vote. If this result were to be repeated in the next election, both Balad and Hadash would be eliminated from the Knesset. To ensure their future survival, therefore, Balad and Ra’am-Ta’al will probably unify, or at least form an electoral pact. This might even increase their share of the vote by encouraging Arab turnout; Arab voting rates—56 percent in the last election—are significantly lower than Jewish voting rates. As an Arab-Jewish party that tries to appeal to both Jews and Arabs, Hadash will find it harder to join a unified Arab party or electoral pact. Even if the three parties can set aside their differences and work together to ensure Arab representation in the Knesset, the Arab public will be presented with fewer political choices. Thus, the cost of Arab political representation could be Arab political pluralism.

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