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Palestinian lawmakers face ‘uphill battle’ following disbandment of the Joint List

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As the Israeli campaign trail moves full speed ahead with just one month left until elections, the news cycle has largely fixated on Netanyahu’s scandals, the Kahanists rise back into the mainstream, and the Gantz-Lapid alliance giving Netanyahu a run for his money.

Once major forces of change and the star underdogs of the previous national elections, the Palestinian lawmakers of the now disbanded Joint List have been pushed to the sidelines of this election cycle, as party infighting and personal rivalries have overwhelmed the bloc — previously the third largest party in the Knesset.

Last month, the Joint List — a coalition of four major Palestinian parties in Israel formed in 2015 — split into two separate alliances.

Now, with just one month left until elections, the new blocs are facing an uphill battle not only to get voters to the polls despite low voter turnout predictions, but more vitally, to restore trust among their base in the wake of all the political infighting.

Mondoweiss spoke with Palestinian lawyer and political analyst Diana Buttu about the demise of the Joint List, and the challenges facing Palestinian politicians and voters in an increasingly right-wing political atmosphere in Israel.

Mondoweiss: Can you give us some insight into how and why everything fell apart?

Buttu: The biggest issues were the structural issues.

Diana Buttu

In Israel, the system is set up so so that you don’t vote for the specific candidate, like in the US. You vote for the list. Given that you’re voting for the list, they have a system within Israel where the person who’s occupying that leadership seat can step down and let someone lower on list take over the position. A lot of parties do this to give people lower down on the list a little experience in governing, changing face, etc.

One of the things they could never agree upon was how to do that rotation system. It was one of those key structural issues they couldn’t figure out. The more fatal issue was, who was leading the list.

In the end it became very much about personality politics over actual policy. It was about “I did this, I did that,” rather than “we as a Joint List pulled this off together.”

Yes the party platforms differ, but on the central issue of Palestinian rights and trying to play defense in a highly offensive fascist Knesset, they were all on the same page. That’s why people are so upset, because when you look at core issues facing Palestinians in Israel, all the parties are voting the same, so why couldn’t they agree on anything?

Mondoweiss: How has all the party infighting affected voter perceptions and trust in the Palestinian lawmakers?

Buttu: From personal observations, we don’t have any concrete data yet, but I say it has had negative effects, because two main things have happened.

We’ve been hearing from academics who once voted in favor of the Joint List and are now speaking very critically of the parties. On the other hand, among the people, there is this whole movement telling the politicians “unite, or we will boycott” elections. People are genuinely upset by all the infighting.

And because the voters are upset, the parties are very aware that they will have to spend a lot of time getting voters to come out and vote, instead of spending time pointing fingers at who caused the demise of the bloc.

Mondoweiss: Polls are predicting a low Palestinian turnout in the elections, do you think this will prove to be true? Will it be even more exacerbated by the failure of the Palestinian parties to unify?

Buttu: Yes and yes. Will it be lower? Definitely. During the last national elections, when the Joint List was created, there was a nine percent boost in Palestinian voter turnout. It came out of the euphoria of the formation of the Joint List.

That euphoria and bump is long gone. Now the question is, how much more is the tearing apart of the Joint List going to contribute to a decline in voter turnout? Of course we have to wait until elections to see, but we’re not in a place now where people are excited about these elections. Now that the dust has settled, people feel that the politicians are operating on different political and self-interests, rather than interests of the people.

Mondoweiss: Do you think the two separate blocs will meet the threshold of votes to get enough seats in the Knesset now that they are not acting as one list?

Buttu: It’s hard to say. The problem with the second list, is that all the figures are new. They don’t have any returning politicians. The Islamic Movement certainly knows how to bring people out to vote, but at the same time it’s hard to say that they are going to meet threshold. I think the Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh list will meet it, but I’m not sure about the second one.

Mondoweiss: Do you think the new coalition between Netanyahu and the Kahanists will motivate Palestinians to vote against them? Or will it just discourage them from voting at all?

Buttu: The Jewish Power Party and the Kahanists have a much more negative influence outside of the country than inside. Not that people here don’t view them negatively, but for Palestinians, there really is no substantive difference between Jewish Power Party and Gantz.

There are shades of differences, but they are same. You have 102 members of the Knesset who don’t believe in full Palestinian rights. The Kahanists are just shades of that. It’s not going be a motivating factor for Palestinians to vote.

In fact, I think what we’re going to see is the opposite. There’s a mentality that “even with the Joint List we weren’t able to overcome the Nation State Law,” so why try?

Mondoweiss: What do you think the members of the former Joint List need to do in order to gain back their ground ahead of the election?

Buttu: It’s too late for them to combine forces again. They are going to have to show that there is some utility to actually voting. They need to show the people that they are willing to work together for voters interests, and put their personal differences aside.  They are facing an uphill battle for sure.

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