“The Only Left That Is Left”

After its gains in the latest elections, the Joint List has a chance to become Israel’s true opposition: one rooted in Arab–Jewish partnership.

Joshua Leifer
March 5, 2020
Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, and Mansour Abbas stand together as Odeh addresses a crowd at the Joint List headquarters in Shefaram, Israel, March 2nd, 2020. Photo: Oren Ziv

ON MONDAY NIGHT, at the Joint List election headquarters in Israel’s northern city of Shefaram, Ayman Odeh took the stage. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the other Joint List members of the Knesset (MKs), Odeh, chairman of the Joint List—the Arab-led coalition of socialist, Islamist, and Palestinian nationalist parties that represents the third-largest bloc in the Knesset—projected defiant optimism. The exit polls, broadcast on screens behind him, were predicting that 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats would go to the Joint List. This projection would soon prove accurate. The Joint List will indeed have at least 15 seats—an unprecedented show of strength, with potentially dramatic implications for Israel’s political future. Not only did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling, right-wing Likud party fail—for the third time in a year—to win enough seats to form a governing coalition with the other right-wing parties; its main rival, Benny Gantz’s center-right Blue and White bloc, also failed to win enough seats to form a government without support from the Joint List. 

“This is the Arab population’s highest level of voter participation since 1999 and our most significant parliamentary achievement ever,” Odeh told the crowd, speaking first in Arabic, then in Hebrew. “This time, we received more Jewish votes than ever, and we have a dream that we will become the true alternative on the political map.” The results of this week’s election—a dismal showing for the Labor Zionist parties and a surge of Jewish support for the Joint List—suggest that Odeh’s vision could chart the Israeli left’s most promising path forward.

The past year of successive Israeli elections has been marked by nonstop attacks on the Joint List’s legitimacy, levied by both Likud and Blue and White. Netanyahu turned the possibility that Gantz would form a coalition with the Joint List into a central line of attack, reduced in its most racist simplicity to the slogan “Bibi or Tibi”—with Ahmad Tibi, a leading Joint List MK, portrayed by Netanyahu as a dangerous terrorist supporter who would jeopardize Israeli security if Gantz included him in his government. Gantz made no effort to defend the Joint List, and in the most recent round of elections, he and other Blue and White MKs joined in the attacks. In February, Yair Lapid—the leader of Yesh Atid, one of Blue and White’s largest constituent parties—pledged to ensure a “Jewish majority” coalition, without the Joint List. And though by all calculations a Gantz-led government without Likud would require support from the Joint List, Gantz repeatedly vowed, “the Joint List cannot be part of any government I lead.”

When Odeh spoke before Joint List supporters on Monday, he conveyed the feeling that the Joint List had triumphed over such exclusion, demonization, and racist incitement, as well as the hope that the coalition might play a more active and integral role in Israeli politics. These sentiments are shared by other Joint List members. After failing to unify for the first round of elections in April, the Joint List’s achievement in the most recent round—due to both increased voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel and higher-than-ever levels of Jewish support—has boosted Joint List members’ morale and expanded their ambitions for the coalition. Voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel increased from around 49% during the elections last April to 65% this week, buoyed by the desire to oust Netanyahu and anger at the Trump “peace plan,” which proposed stripping 300,000 Arabs living in northern Israel of their Israeli citizenship. Jewish support for the Joint List increased from fewer than 10,000 votes in last September’s election to more than 20,000 in this week’s. “The strong turnout among Palestinian citizens denied Netanyahu his majority,” Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of the Arab–Jewish socialist coalition Hadash, told me. “It is quite clear that Blue and White lost because it did not present a true alternative to Netanyahu’s course of action,” she added. “The Joint List is now the only left that is left in Israel.”

“Despite the delegitimization, despite the political persecution, there is a clear voice here that understands that without a common struggle, based on justice, we cannot win,” said Joint List MK Heba Yazbak. A member of the secular nationalist Balad party, Yazbak understands political persecution better than most. When Israel’s Supreme Court narrowly ruled that Yazbak could run for the Knesset after right-wing parties had petitioned to have her banned for her Facebook posts celebrating the release of several Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, Gantz harshly criticized the decision and accused Yazbak of “supporting terrorism.” Asked about what the Joint List’s electoral success would mean for the coalition going forward, Yazbak said, “We will act as a strong opposition and a powerful force against the blatant, inciting government and right-wing policies.”

The continued collapse of the Labor Zionist parties has left little doubt that Odeh and the Joint List represent the real ideological opposition to the Israeli right. The merger of Labor, Meretz, and Gesher (a small centrist party) garnered slightly more than 250,000 votes and won only seven seats on Monday. Few see a future for the Labor Zionist parties, which formed a parliamentary majority on their own in the late 1960s, and held 56 seats as recently as 1992, under the premiership of Yitzhak Rabin. “I think, with great pain and sadness, that both Meretz and Labor have completed their historical role,” former Meretz chair Zahava Galon said last December. But across the Israeli left, there is no consensus on what kind of political configuration should come next.

One of the most frequently voiced possibilities is an “Arab–Jewish partnership,” which over the past year has become a watchword for a certain segment of the Israeli left. Joint List MKs, in particular those from Hadash, often frame the Joint List as the foundational infrastructure for a more expansive form of multi-ethnic politics. “Arab–Jewish partnership is one of the basic political principles guiding me and the party I am a part of,” Touma-Sliman said. “The surge in Jewish votes for the Joint List is a significant boost for this principle,” she added, calling it the beginning of a “strong and formidable Arab–Jewish left in Israel: one that struggles against the occupation, against racism, against exploitation, and for justice for all those who are marginalized.”

But there are also those who doubt whether the Joint List, at least in its current configuration, can serve as an adequate vehicle for a deeper form of Arab–Jewish partnership. “Sadly, there is no Arab–Jewish party in Israel,” former Meretz MK Mossi Raz wrote in an op-ed last January. “Hadash and the Joint List are totally Arab-dominated, while Meretz is Jewish-dominated.” After the most recent election, this remains true. Ofer Cassif, of Hadash, is the only Jewish MK of the 15 Joint List parliamentarians, while the Labor-Meretz-Gesher merger will have no Arab MKs in the new Knesset. The divide is also linguistic: the Joint List operates almost entirely in Arabic; Meretz and Labor, almost entirely in Hebrew.

Raz has proposed the creation of a new Arab–Jewish party that would be led jointly by one Arab and one Jewish chair, guarantee 50-50 representation to Arabs and Jews on its list, and operate with total linguistic, geographic, and cultural parity. Anticipating criticism, Raz acknowledged that “it may look like, now that the Arabs have been so successful, the defeated Jews on the left are interested in joining them.” Nevertheless, he added, “after the nation-state law and the out-of-control incitement against and delegitimization of the Arab public, it’s understandable why there are now many Jews who want to demonstrate solidarity with our Arab fellow citizens.”

When asked on Wednesday, following the elections, if he still thought it was necessary to build a new Arab–Jewish party, Raz said it was, adding that the “Joint List, or at least parts of it, and Meretz would be its foundation.” To those who might argue against splitting or challenging the Joint List after such a strong electoral showing, Raz replied, “In the short term they’re right. In the long term, only a joint [Arab–Jewish] force can demonstrate how the country should operate and achieve significant results.” 

There are also those on the Zionist left who do not envision their future as part of a joint Arab–Jewish party. Assessing Blue and White’s failure to meaningfully challenge Netanyahu and the disintegration of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz merger, Liat Schlesinger—CEO of Molad, a center-left think tank—wrote, “to stop slamming our heads against the wall to reach the same result, it’s necessary to break apart Labor and Meretz and create a left-liberal party that learns the lessons of the last decade.” Those lessons, for Schlesinger, include challenging the right-wing territorial-maximalists’ approach to matters of Israeli security, fighting religious Zionists’ claim to be Zionism’s authentic representatives, and rejecting the notion that a two-state solution is no longer possible. But if the recent round of elections is any indication, the constituency for the kind of politics Schelsinger calls for is rather small. 

The apparent dysfunction of Israel’s parliamentary system—three elections in the span of less than a year—belies the ideological consensus among the Israeli Zionist parties. In the absence of any prospect of a two-state solution, the primary division between the Zionist parties is over rival conceptions of who and what the Israeli state is for—what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called “the national popular.” 

This division is made literal in the “electoral blocs” referred to in Israeli media: between the center-left bloc—comprised of centrists, statists, secularists, and social democrats—and the right-wing bloc, comprised of the increasingly religious Zionist Likud, the far-right settler parties, and the Haredi parties; between a secular Israeli nationalism that prioritizes a Jewish demographic majority and a religious nationalism that ascribes theological significance to the Land of Israel and seeks to maintain Orthodox control of state religious institutions. But both mainstream blocs agree that Palestinian citizens have no equal part to play in Israeli democracy, and that Israel’s military rule over the occupied Palestinian territories can continue indefinitely. 

The Joint List—not only by virtue of its success, but by its very existence—directly challenges this ethnonationalist conception of Israeli citizenship with a democratic one. It is the only parliamentary group that insists on full civic equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel in every respect, and its members are by far the most outspoken opponents of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and perpetual siege of Gaza. As Israel’s political system begins to adjust to the one-state reality, the Joint List’s struggle for democracy on one side of the Green Line could be the first step toward democratizing the decades-long military rule on the other. 

If, as Zahava Galon put it, the Labor Zionist parties have fulfilled their historical task by establishing the state and laying its institutional foundations, then perhaps the next great historical task falls to the Joint List, or to the Arab–Jewish political configuration that comes after it: to make Israel a real democracy.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.