The last few years in Israel have been witness to a longstanding argument over raising the country's election threshold. One of the reasons for opposing the change was the possibility that it would lead the Arab parties to unite so as to pass the new threshold, thereby increasing their strength. This prediction turned out to be accurate. The threshold was raised, the Arab parties united, gained 13 seats and became the third largest party in the Knesset.
Now the United Arab List has to consolidate its plan of action, and it turns out not to be an easy task because the party's various components have varied and even contradictory worldviews. On the one hand, the Balad party has a secular and even anti-religious agenda with Christians such as Basel Ghattas and founder Azmi Bishara, Druze such as Sa'id Naffa' and Muslims such as Wasel Taha. Balad also put women, notably Hanin Zouabi, in leadership positions.
On the other hand, the United Arab Party also contains the Islamic Movement with Sheikh Talab Abu 'Arar, Mas'oud Ghanaim and 'Abd al-Hakim Haj Yahya, and this movement represents the fundamental Islamist view that does not accept members of other religions and most certainly does not put women in high positions.
The problems came to a head in April when the party received an invitation from the Arab League to meet in order to discuss the relationship between the Israeli Arab sector and the rest of the Arab world. This topic is of great importance for the United List, because Israeli Arabs see themselves, correctly, as part of the Arab world, its culture, heritage and aspirations. Israeli Arabs have been trying for years to build bridges with the Arab world - from which they were cut off in 1948 by Israel's War of Independence - but the Arab world gave them the cold shoulder, considering them traitors for not fighting the Zionists day and night.
Some even called Israeli Arabs by derogatory names, such as "whipped cream Arabs" because of their lives in a democratic and peaceful country where they enjoy civil rights and turn their backs on their Palestinian and other Arab brothers.
From the seventies on, a trend towards the Palestinization of Israeli Arabs began to be discernible and today, many of them call themselves "Palestinians bearing Israeli citizenship". This is the source of the interesting dialectic with regard to their connections with the Arab world: on the one hand they are part and parcel of the "Palestinian nation," itself an honorary member of the Arab League, but on the other hand, they are citizens of Israel, a state that most of the Arab League members consider an enemy - and they do not want to relinquish their citizenship.
When the party received the League's invitation, party head Ayman Odeh was interviewed for the London Arabic paper Asharq Al-Awsat and said "I and my colleagues are proud to be Arabs and will never give that up, but we prefer to concentrate on internal issues at this time, so as to be able to withstand racist discrimination and the occupation. In the near future, we will find the way to meet our Arab League brothers. The United Arab List in Israel has decided not to accept the invitation to visit the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.
"I will not hide the fact that there is a debate and difference of opinion among the Arab parties in our homeland with regard to several issues that have to do with the situation in Syria and Yemen and we have not succeeded in resolving those differences. Since we don't wish to turn our visit into a divisive issue, we have decided – after a meeting of the four parties [on the United Arab List, ed.] – to put off our visit."
He continued: "I would like to make it clear to everyone that the Arab ethos is very important to us, and we have been looking for it, especially during the decades immediately following the Palestinian Naqba of 1948. We have followed what is happening in our Arab world attentively, and participate in its aspirations, because we see ourselves as an inseparable part of that world. We hope that this connection will get stronger, but will also take our special situation into account. We are happy to see that our Arab brothers have begun to evince an interest in us and in connecting with us…"
Another party source said to Asharq Al-Awsat: "Some of our leaders fear the criticism of the Arab street in Israel, which in the past has accused its representatives of concentrating on external matters at the expense of urgent local matters that are important to Israeli Arabs." His intention is to concentrate on conventional topics that interest Israeli Arabs, such as opposing the destruction of illegal buildings. The Arab leadership plans a demonstration in Tel Aviv on this issue, with Jewish support, mostly from the soul weary residents of Tel Aviv.
The Arab League's interest in the United Arab List was aroused when the party came in third place in the Knesset elections and might therefore be able to influence issues that the League wishes to promote, such as negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state and an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. The idea of joining up with the Arab League was raised in a meeting that the list's representatives held with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on April 18th, at which he also delivered the League's invitation.
The invitation led to an argument between the parties that make up the list because the original invitation stated the meeting place as Doha, Qatar.
In the Arab world, Qatar's status is troublesome because of the role it played in the storm that has hit the entire Arab World. Starting in 2010 as the misnamed "Arab Spring", it turned into a catastrophic storm that left hundreds of thousands dead in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Iraq and created the vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to be established on the ruins of Syria and Iraq. A trip to Qatar might be seen as supportive of its actions and might anger the Saudis, Egypt and the Emirates, the countries leading the attempt to restrain Qatar and especially the terrorist media network it runs, Al Jazeera.
It is important to mention that among Israeli Arab citizens of Israel, there are not a few who strongly criticize Qatar for its part in destabilizing the internal situation in Syria, thereby causing harm to many of their relatives, Palestinian refugees, who lived in Syria - mainly in the Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus which turned into a city of ruins.
Another possibility raised was for the United List MKs to visit the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo, but this idea, understandably, did not sit well with the Islamic Movement's representatives because of the Egyptian government's campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological "parent" of the Islamic Movement in Israel. A trip to Egypt while it is under the rule of Al Sisi might be seen by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as an indication that Israel's Islamic Movement supports the current regime
An additional reason preventing the List's MKs from accepting the Arab League's invitation is the war in Yemen between the government and the Shiite militia of the Houthis, who have Iranian support in the form of weapons, arms, money and political backing. A visit to Egypt or Qatar would force the United List members to express their support for the Sunni Arab Coalition battling the Shiite power loyal to Iran. The problem facing the United List is that expressing opposition to Iran's efforts to take over Yemen might be understood as support - even oblique support - for Netanyahu's efforts to control Iran and its goal of achieving regional hegemony by developing nuclear weapons. The last thing the United Arab List needs is to seem to take a position that parallels that of Netanyahu.
The party's MKs understand the boundaries that limit their activities and know that taking a stand on controversial issues could destabilize the party and endanger its continued unity. One of its members said: "We are trying to design a strategic plan for our parliamentary activities, and are well aware of the hopes our constituency has placed in us. Sometimes we feel that these hopes are way above our actual ability and powers, because voters speak to us as if we succeeded in gaining Israel's premiership. They expect us to succeed in accomplishing things that are unattainable in the current Israeli political reality and it is imperative that our brothers in Israel and abroad temper their expectations to conform with that reality."
It is interesting to point out that no meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken place, although the United List's members have twice been invited to meet him. It seems that this issue, the relationship with the right-leaning government that is coalescing over the last few days, is another area of internal conflict among the List's members. Note that the United Arab List does not see itself as part of the Israeli left, especially since the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni's party called themselves the "Zionist Camp". How could an Arab list join forces with a bloc calling itself "Zionist"? Even Meretz is Zionist, a fact which prevented the United List from signing a surplus votes agreement with that party. Even before the elections took place, one of the United Arab List heads announced "We are not in anyone's pockets, not even the Left's."
All of this gives rise to a rather sad picture. It is becoming apparent that forming a United Arab List and running jointly in the elections - a difficult task for parties with differing political and cultural agendas - is still easier than elucidating a strategy for joint parliamentary activity within the state and vis a vis external entities.
The desire to remain united forces the members of the list to control themselves, to consider one another's opinions and to limit their activities to the ability of their colleagues to live with these activities. That means that the party's activities are limited to the common denominator of promoting the needs of the Arab sector in Israel. The specter of the parties splitting into their original formats looms in the background, but it is understood that in the next elections, Arab voters will punish whoever causes the United Arab List's disintegration. As a result, the situation that has ensued is one of near paralysis and of limited ability, at best, to take advantage of the party's size in the current Knesset.