Israel's once-squabbling Arab parties aim to bolster their influence in parliament to defend the rights of their minority with an unprecedented alliance forged ahead of snap elections.
The parties hope their show of unity will encourage a higher turnout among the 1.3 million Arab-Israelis who make up 20 percent of the population.
“Israeli law does not guarantee our rights,” said Ayman Odeh, the leader of the unified Arab list.
“By forming a single list, we hope to (win more seats and) weigh in more heavily on political decisions taken in this country.”
The united slate, announced in January, includes representatives from across the political spectrum, from Communists to Islamists.
Arab Israelis — the descendents of about 160,000 Palestinians who stayed in Israel after its creation in 1948 — are optimistic about its chances of success.
“Before, I would boycott the Arab parties because they’d fall into the trap of division over internal squabbles,” said Rabiee, 38, who did not want to give his full name.
“This time I will give my vote to the united list,” said the resident of Nazareth, Israel’s biggest Arab city.
The Arab list, which polls show could win 12 seats in the March 17 election, one more than their combined total now, includes Muslim, Christian, Druze and even Jewish Communist candidates.
It comprises the Balad party, the Islamic Movement, the Arab Movement for Change, and Hadash, an Arab-Jewish socialist party.
While it is unlikely to be part of any coalition government, “the very fact that the ticket was put together, even if under duress, offers hope for a renewed positive momentum in Jewish-Arab relations,” Israel Shrenzel, of Tel Aviv University’s department of Arabic and Islamic studies, wrote in a commentary published on the Haaretz daily’s website.
“If the Joint List continues to remains intact after the election as well — an important condition for promoting genuine change — and if the spirit of Hadash will dominate the slate, we can hope that large sections of the Jewish public and its representatives will extend a hand and be ready to battle attitudes of exclusion and discrimination.”
– Anti-Arab hate –
A law penned by hardline Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last year raised the percentage of votes needed for representation in the 120-member parliament from 2.0 to 3.25 percent.
The formation of the united list was a move to ensure no parties were thrown out of the Knesset because of the new threshold law, and to counter the extreme right of Israeli politics, Odeh said.
“Incitement and anti-Arab hatred increased significantly during the Gaza conflict,” he told AFP, referring to Israel’s military campaign last July and August against Hamas militants who fired rockets over the border.
Alleged racism even by cabinet ministers has incensed the Arab list candidates.
Lieberman has supported the idea of land swaps that would see Arab towns incorporated into an eventual Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish West Bank settlements — which are illegal under international law — becoming part of Israel.
Odeh, who is from the Hadash party, says this aims purely to separate Arabs from Jews, and “kick us out of the country”.
Many Arab Israelis are happy living inside the Jewish state, but complain they are second-class citizens.
– How to garner votes? –
Another factor in the decision to unite the parties was a 2014 bill, supported by rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that sought to fully enshrine in law Israel’s status as the national Jewish homeland — a move minorities said could erode their rights, and which rights groups slammed as undemocratic.
Netanyahu’s Likud party and centre-left coalition the Zionist Union are predicted to win 22 and 24, seats, respectively, on March 17.
Netanyahu would have little trouble forming a rightwing coalition with other hardline parties that could hand him a third consecutive term in office.
Many Arab Israelis have boycotted general elections in the past, but the list hopes that could change.
Polls show there could be a 66-percent Arab Israeli turnout, 10 percent higher than in the last vote in 2012.
“By making the decision to join forces, we are responding to the call from the Arab street,” said Ahmed Tibi, a lawmaker from the Arab Movement for Change.