An electoral alliance of Palestinian parties in Israel has split ahead of parliamentary elections in March, which could weaken the representation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset.
The Arab Joint List, which won a record 15 seats in the parliamentary vote last year, finalised their split on Thursday, with the United Arab List (UAL), the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, breaking away from the alliance to run independently.
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The three other parties – Hadash, Taal and Balad – said they agreed to run together as a united front in the March 23 vote, after efforts failed to reach an agreement with the UAL headed by Mansour Abbas.
The three parties submitted their joint slate ahead of the Thursday night deadline for electoral lists to be finalised.
“We tried to keep the four parties united, but we failed,” Ahmad al-Tibi, chairman of the Taal party, told Al Jazeera.
“Nevertheless, we [the three other parties of the Joint List] will continue to work together and represent the interests of our people,” he said, referring to the alliance’s constituency of mostly Palestinian citizens of Israel.
According to the agreement, Hadash’s leader Ayman Odeh will continue to lead the Joint List, followed by Taal’s chairman al-Tibi and newly-elected Balad leader Sami Abu Shehadeh.
“The breakup will undoubtedly impact our representation in the Knesset, but we will keep up our fight against Netanyahu and work to realise our voters’ ambitions,” said al-Tibi, adding that he hoped the three-party alliance will win 10 seats in parliament.
Leaders and supporters of the Joint List have long hoped to push out Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, accusing him of racism and incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Roots of rift
The rift in the Arab Joint List first appeared in December, when the UAL’s Abbas appeared to be in favour of cooperating with Netanyahu to achieve gains for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, including better housing and protection against crime and violence.
The UAL had said in recent weeks that it would only rule out recommending Netanyahu as prime minister following the vote – a principal demand of the Joint List – on two conditions: that the Joint List proposes alternative Israeli Jewish parties to cooperate with, and that it agrees not to support socially liberal legislation.
Odeh, leader of the alliance, had voted last year in favour of a bill that outlawed so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ people.
In recent weeks, UAL’s Abbas accused the other parties of not respecting traditional values, saying that he had more common ground on social issues with some right-wing religious Jewish parties that opposed the bill. The three other parties to the Joint List are secular and left leaning.
Speaking to reporters after submitting the UAL’s list of candidates on Thursday, Abbas said that his party will seek alliances with anyone who shares its values and in accordance with the interest of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
He did not rule out recommending Netanyahu for prime minister, saying “we will leave that until after the election and decide based on what is offered to us”.
Wooing Arab voters
Unlike in previous votes, Netanyahu has been openly courting Palestinian voters, making rare visits to majority Palestinian cities in Israel as part of his electoral campaign, and apologising for previous remarks that were considered racist or as incitement by the community.
Netanyahu hopes to gain some of the Palestinian citizens’ votes, according to analysts, in order to assemble a coalition which would extend his time in office and potentially grant him immunity from prosecution on corruption charges. His chances would improve if his coalition were able to secure a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament.
The longtime prime minister faces three separate corruption cases and has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
“Netanyahu wants to escape prosecution and that’s why he is showing political flexibility,” said Israel-based political analyst, Sami Abdulhamid, in reference to Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“He thinks he can potentially get some votes from among the Palestinian community in Israel and gain seats that Islamic party wins in the Knesset,” said Abdulhamid, saying that was unlikely to happen.
Palestinian citizens of Israel – which include Muslims, Druze and Christians – make up 20 percent of the population and more than 900,000 of nearly six million eligible Israeli voters.
Because Palestinian citizens traditionally vote as a unified bloc for the Joint List, they can potentially have a significant effect on the electoral outcome if they vote in large numbers.
But some observers believe the split will discourage voting among the community and weaken its representation in the Knesset altogether.
According to Abdulhamid, the analyst, many eligible voters have gradually lost interest in the election due to infighting within the Joint List, as well as its perceived failure to address pressing issues.
“When the Joint List won 15 seats in the Knesset, voters had high expectations from them when it comes to longstanding issues including, housing, discrimination and violence and organised crime in the community.
“Instead, the parties were fighting against one another. Now with the split, Palestinian parties will lose power in the Knesset. The UAL may not even clear the threshold to enter the Knesset,” he added.
Still, Balad’s Abu Shehadeh told Al Jazeera that although the three-party alliance was starting at a “very low point”, he believes the Joint List still has a good chance of winning 10 seats.
“It might take two or three weeks for this to be reflected in any polls, but I’m sure our constituency will vote again for the Joint List,” said Abu Shehadeh.
Further reporting by Rima Mustafa in Jerusalem.