Though one week has passed since Israel’s legislative elections, Ayman Odeh – the leader of the Joint List, an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties – has not yet had a quiet moment.
Even before the final votes were counted, Odeh was busy visiting his geographical constituency, the first stop being the impoverished, unrecognised Bedouin villages in the southern Negev region. He had vowed during his campaign that he would visit these villages after the election.
“We are the only party that talks about national and social rights for both Arabs and Jews,” Odeh told Al Jazeera. Although the Joint List estimates that the number of Jewish votes was only a few thousand, he nevertheless sees the alliance as representing a new era in Israeli politics – as a force that fights for the interests of all marginalised groups.
“In Israel, the right-wing call themselves the ‘nationalist camp’, and the left call themselves the ‘Zionist camp’,” Odeh said. “We want to be the base of the democratic camp, and we hope that more and more democratic people – Jews and Arabs – will join us.”
The Joint List won 13 of 120 seats in the recent elections, becoming the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. This success was due in large part to its success in mobilising almost two-thirds of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to cast ballots – a rise of around 10 percentage points from the previous election.
Four out of five Palestinian voters were estimated to have supported the Joint List, according to polling data from the Israeli research institute, Statnet.
According to Noam Shaizaf, a journalist from the Israeli online magazine 972, the Joint List’s electoral success should not be underestimated.
“Not only was the list able to acquire two more Knesset seats [from 11 seats divided between four parties in 2013], but if you take into account the fact the entire participation went up five percent in the general public, they had to compensate way more [to perform well],” Shaizaf told Al Jazeera.
He added that the significant rise in Palestinian voters may have been the reason that Yachad, a far-right party, failed to garner the 3.25 percent of votes needed to win seats in the Knesset.
Still, Shaizaf believes that the mobilisation of the Arab voters largely rested on the optimistic assumption that a change in government was possible. But with the unexpected victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, the Joint List will face significant challenges in living up to the expectations of its constituency.
Shaizaf predicts that the success of the Joint List will largely depend on its ability to form alliances with like-minded Jewish parties on the left and centre. Odeh is well aware of the challenges the Joint List faces, putting to the test its ability to stay united.
The Joint List is an alliance of four parties with very different ideologies, ranging from socialist to Islamist. Nevertheless, Odeh insists that these differences in ideology are secondary to the problems they all face as members of Israel’s Arab minority.
In previous elections, no one counted us as anything, but now things have changed.
Not everyone shares his optimism. Amany Khalifa, 29, who boycotted the election, told Al Jazeera she does not believe the party will be able to change anything.
“It’s all just a game giving the illusion that things can change, but they can’t and I don’t believe justice can be achieved by playing the game,” she said. “If it’s a Joint List, why doesn’t it unite with all Palestinians?” she asked, referring to the more than four million Palestinians in the occupied territories who are not allowed to vote in Israeli elections.
“I’m not asking for equal rights [with Jewish Israelis] – we are all under the same Israeli rule,” Khalifa added. “Why should I have different rights than Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza?”
Khalifa, who works in Jerusalem but is from Um el-Fahem in Galilee, added that all of her extended family members voted for the Joint List.
“They hope that it can change local issues of education, unemployment and discrimination, and I don’t blame them for wanting a better situation in the Palestinian cities in Israel,” she said. “But I care about stopping house demolitions, land confiscations and settlement expansions in the West Bank and not least the siege in Gaza, where I don’t see the Joint List having any power.”
Given that Netanyahu is expected to form a government more right-wing than the previous one, Palestinians in Israel fear a renewed push for controversial bills such as the Prawer Plan, which seeks to expel tens of thousands of Bedouins from unrecognised villages in the Negev and the “Jewish nation-state” bill, which would enshrine Jewishness as the dominant characteristic of the Israeli state, above its democratic values.
Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah – The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, worries that
despite the Joint List’s strong performance at the polls, it will be powerless to stop policies limiting the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“On one hand, the success of the Joint List is an act of empowerment of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. On the other hand, they will continue to be in opposition – and given a new likely composition of the government, I don’t see the Joint List being able to bar or limit it in continuing its racist policies,” Jabareen said.
“The Joint List shouldn’t be satisfied with just sitting in Knesset and gaining 13 members,” Jabareen added. “Much now depends on the Palestinian leadership in Israel – what political plan it will take, its political activities, its ability to mobilise peaceful public struggle locally and bring awareness in the world of the status of the Palestinians in Israel.”