The fate of Israel’s embattled Arab parties is in the balance as Israel’s next parliamentary elections approach. The election season officially started last week when Knesset formally dissolved itself, setting an unconfirmed date at the polls of March 17, 2015. Yet as campaigns take off, the question of Israel’s smaller parties and the survival of Arab political groups in particular is in the background. Presently there are 12 Arab members of Knesset (one from the far right group Yisrael Beiteinu, four from mixed Arab-Jewish parties, and seven far Arab-identified parties), yet next year’s early elections will be the first since Israel raised the voter threshold to require 3.25-percent of the popular vote in order for a party to secure a seat in Knesset, which will impact the number of representatives from smaller factions. None of the Arab parties has reached this threshold on its own. They will either have to merge, or forgo being a part of the government.
There are three main Arab parties in Israel that represent Palestinian citizens of the state, and there is only one mixed Jewish and Arab party. Generally they each win a seat or two in the government, and without their presence, excluding a Druze member of a right-wing party who is now in office, Israel’s Knesset would be entirely Jewish. But in the last three election cycles, none of the Arab parties have exceeded 3.25-percent of the vote that is now needed, and barely met the previous threshold, which was set at 2-percent.
Arab parties have struggled in every election historically. This is because while Palestinian citizens represent 20 percent of Israel’s population and could easily sway election results, as a sector they have the lowest voter turnout rate due to a long-standing boycott of Israeli elections. Their participation is always in question, and according to Israeli political leaders so is their loyalty to the state. They have never been part of any ruling coalition in Israel, specifically excluded by Rabin in 1992, and Lieberman in 2009 and 2013 on the grounds of being allegedly untrustworthy. While party allegiance changes rather swiftly in Israel, generally there are two main parties that compete to control the government. Each is tasked with assembling a coalition of 61 out of 120 Knesset members who then select the prime minister. Arab parties and their low number of parliamentarians have never been needed to reach the coveted 61 seats.
Then there are Palestinians with East Jerusalem IDs, around 350,000 people. They are not eligible to vote in national elections.
In order to win a seat in the upcoming election, all three Arab parties will have to merge. Right now the discussions from within are about taking the four parties (three Arab and one Jewish-Arab) and forming two ballot lists. Balad, headed by Hanin Zoabi, would merge with United Arab List, a predominantly Bedouin-backed group, and Ta’al, led by Ahmad Tibi, would merge with Hadash, the Jewish-Arab communist party. But even with the mergers, the parties may be too small to secure even one Knesset seat.
In the past three elections two of the Arab parties had already merged in order to meet the 2 percent threshold. United Arab List joined with Ta’al and in 2006 they won 3.02-percent. In 2009 the combined party won 3.38-percent, and in 2013 they won 3.65-percent. Without a full three party merger, the elections will be a gamble.
As for Balad, the lowest performer of all of the Arab parties, it has not exceeded 2.56-percent of the vote in the past three elections. It cannot win a seat on its own in the next election, though a two-party merger could give it just enough votes to win one seat.
Arab parties understand their continuation is on the line in this next election. Last week Knesset member Jamal Zahalka (Balad) tried to introduce legislation to delay elections and hold off implementing the increase to the voter threshold. Neither proposal was passed, but his attempts show the uneasiness Arab parties feel about their future role in Israeli politics. Will Israel’s next Knesset be the first since the state’s founding to not have any Palestinian representatives?