Jerusalem – Four political parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up a fifth of the country’s population, have set aside their ideological differences and joined forces ahead of the country’s legislative elections due to take place on Tuesday.
The parties, ranging in ideology from the Islamist to the communist, have formed a bloc called the Joint List. The unlikely alliance – attempts to unite the parties have failed in the past – coalesced after the threshold for winning seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was raised to 3.25 percent of the vote.
Sponsored by Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the new threshold would likely have pushed several Palestinian-backed parties out of the Knesset. Palestinian parliamentarians warned that the law was introduced for exactly this purpose.
Polls predict that the Joint List could win between 13 and 15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, making it the third-biggest faction in parliament. If the parties polling ahead of it – the Zionist Union and Likud – form a coalition, the Joint List could potentially emerge as a lead opposition in parliament.
The united Arab parties are hoping the opportunity to win a substantial number of seats will encourage higher electoral participation among Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel in the previous legislative elections, held in January 2013, was just 57 percent – 10 percentage points lower than the national average.
But one poll expects this figure to reach 64.7 percent on March 17, which would mark the highest rate of participation among Palestinian citizens of Israel since the 1999 elections.
Ayman Odeh, a 41-year-old lawyer from Haifa, heads the Joint List. The married father of two was born and raised in the northern Israeli city. Al Jazeera spoke to him two days before the elections to discuss the significance of the new Arab list and his political vision.
Al Jazeera: You started off your career in politics as a member of the Haifa City Council at a relatively young age (23). What motivated you to enter national politics? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Ayman Odeh: After finishing law school, I was elected to the City Council of Haifa. The city – where Jews and Arabs live and struggle together – certainly influenced my thinking about the possibility of achieving equality and living together. These are ideals that I wish to promote in my activism and in my political involvement.
For years, I’ve been involved in national politics. After my election as the Secretary of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, I was deeply involved in various struggles of the Arab-Palestinian minority within Israel.
For example, I was involved in the struggle against the demolition of Arab-Bedouin towns in the Southern Negev desert – the so-called “unrecognised villages” that the Israeli government refuses to provide with water, electricity and other basic services. Also, I’ve been heading the national action committee to struggle against governmental plans to force the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel to be drafted to the Israeli army.
Al Jazeera: How did the four parties you represent manage to unite this time around? What kind of disagreements, if any, still exist?
Odeh: The Joint List was formed, not only to secure the representation of the Arab-Palestinian minority in the Knesset, but also to increase it. In recent years, racism has been a growing phenomenon in Israeli politics.
Anti-democratic legislation was passed in the Knesset, aimed mostly at undermining the rights and freedoms of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, and leading Israeli politicians are often inciting against the Arab citizens of Israel, especially during times of growing tensions, for example, during the recent war on Gaza.
The new Election Law stipulates that the threshold for entering the Knesset is 3.25% of the vote - which puts into serious question the attempt of any single party representing the Arab minority to enter the Knesset on its own.
The Joint List must be understood against this backdrop. It was formed following an attempt by the right-wing [forces] to transfer the Arab population outside of the political game.
The new Election Law stipulates that the threshold for entering the Knesset is 3.25 percent of the vote – which puts into serious question the attempt of any single party representing the Arab minority to enter the Knesset on its own.
We wish to put our weight in the political sphere, so as to exert influence, advance towards national and civil equality in Israel, and strive towards ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a just peace.
The Joint List is also building support among democratic forces within the Jewish population, presenting itself as the only option for achieving true equality, fighting racism and ending the occupation.
Al Jazeera: Should the Joint List get the projected 15 seats, what are you hoping will be your accomplishments in the immediate, medium and long-term?
Odeh: We hope to become an unavoidable political force in the next Knesset, so that we can no longer be ignored or marginalised.
We will use every parliamentary mechanism – such as attempting to be appointed to the head of certain Knesset committees – to promote our programme of peace and equality, and create concrete improvements in the lives of Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel, and indeed – in the lives of all oppressed strata in Israel. With our 15 seats in the Knesset, we will work towards social justice for all, even for those who did not vote for us.
The meaning of such a success will surely have its implications also on the internal political arena of the Arab Palestinian population in Israel, and on all local authorities and civic society organisations. Such an achievement will ignite peoples’ beliefs in their ability to stop the right wing in Israel from destroying the chances left for peace and for decent living for all citizens.
Stopping the right wing from drawing us into more wars and bloodshed and financial edicts is, and will remain, a major goal of the Joint List.
As for the longer term, we are preparing a 10-year plan for closing civic gaps between Arabs and Jews. This programme aims at undoing the decades of systematic discrimination by the various governments of Israel in the allocation of resources and budgets, in the areas of housing, education, infrastructure, public transportation, et cetera.
We will not wait for the Joint List to be the biggest party before implementing this plan. Rather, we will work with any partner we can work with in the next Knesset, to start implementing parts of it right away.
Al Jazeera: In general, Palestinians in the occupied territories have welcomed the Joint List, but there are some who call for boycotting the Israeli elections. How do you explain why it’s important to partake in this upcoming poll?
Odeh: You can boycott politics, but politics will not boycott you. The decisions that are taken in the Knesset influence the day-to-day lives of Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel, and therefore we need to have a say in them.
It is unthinkable that decisions regarding our lives, our towns and villages, our education system, our society, will be taken without our participation. And with a strong representation in the Knesset, we will be not mere spectators on the political process, but active, leading and influencing it.
We have a real opportunity to influence, and I call upon all citizens to partake in this election and vote for the list which certainly aims for peace, equality, better education and health systems for all.
Al Jazeera: Do you think Palestinians will ever be treated as equals to their Jewish compatriots inside Israel?
Odeh: Had we talked 150 years ago, in the United States for example, who would have thought that women will be allowed to vote? Who would have thought that African-Americans and European-Americans will be able to learn in the same schools and work in the same jobs?
It is true, that oppression still exists towards various groups, in many places of the world. But look how far we have gone. If these advances could have happened in such a segregated country as the US – where there was actual slavery of African-Americans, as well as ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans – than why can’t it happen here?
Al Jazeera: What are your thoughts on the reasons behind the increasing number of racist attacks against Palestinians in Israel?
Odeh: The policies that the Israeli political establishment is pursuing [are] leading us all into a dead end. They can’t provide any answers to the problems that people face: neither to the growing unemployment and poverty [Israel has the highest rate of poverty among OECD countries] nor to the failure to negotiate with the Palestinians. All that Israeli politicians can offer to the public is [a rising] cost of living and more rounds of bloodletting, every two or three years.
In this political cul-de-sac, there are those who hope that scapegoating of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel will be a way to vent political pressures. The Arab-Palestinian minority has been a strong and vocal advocate of ending the occupation and achieving peace, thus turning into an easy target in the eyes of the hawkish and rejectionist parties that currently form the Israeli government.
Al Jazeera: If asked, would you join a government headed by Herzog?
Odeh: The question of the Joint List being part of a government coalition is currently not on the table for us. According to the latest surveys, about 65-70 percent of the Arab citizens want the Joint List to be part of the government. This is evidence that our supporters do want to exert influence on the largest scales, and do support our goal to defeat the right wing. Nevertheless, the question missing in that survey was: what sort of a government would you want to be part of?
And this is also a question for other lists as well, which claim to be left-wing: Are you willing to be part of a government which will wage more devastating wars, throw more financial edicts on citizens, and go on oppressing Arab Palestinian citizens and tightening the democratic sphere?
Therefore, we have a political responsibility, and we will exert every effort to prevent another rightwing government from being formed. Such a government will be disastrous for both Jews and Arabs in Israel, and for the whole region.