Even before the vote tallies are complete and Israel’s next prime minister is known, one party in Israel’s fractious political scene already was counting itself victorious: the Joint List, an alliance of four Arab parties that will be the third largest voting bloc in the parliament.
“No one can ignore us,” said Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, who vowed to prevent a right-wing government. “We are in the midst of an historic event.”
Propelled by antagonism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reacting to a voting scheme that had been thought likely to force their representatives from parliament entirely, Arab voters turned out in record numbers on Tuesday. The result was 14 seats, three more representatives in the Knesset than previously.
More importantly, because they came together as a unified bloc instead of four individual parties, they could wield more power than many of the other small parties in the Knesset.
Having the third-largest party will give Arab lawmakers more access to key committees. Odeh, who is chairman of the Communist Hadash party, said he hoped to use the new influence to reduce gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
The impact might have been even greater. Had Netanyahu and his primary opponent, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, been forced to form a unity government, Odeh would have been considered the leader of the opposition. That would have entitled him to classified security briefings from the prime minister.
Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, the remnant of the Palestinian population that fled or were chased out of their homes in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. They hold Israeli citizenship and vote in Israeli elections but trail Jewish Israelis in income, land allocation, education and access to jobs.
The prospect of more power drew a record two-thirds of Arab voters to the polls. In the previous elections only 53 percent of Arabs voted.
Social worker Kholoud Fahoum, 36, said she was galvanized to vote for the first time by the summer war in Gaza and by police violence against Arab Israelis. In January, police killed two unarmed residents of the southern city of Rahat. Fahoum said her mostly Arab patients increasingly feared approaching the police for help.
“We can be a strong body in Knesset,” she said. “Not to stop (racism) because we can’t, but to at least to say no.”
Odeh, a 40-year-old lawyer, built his campaign on an assertive yet polite call for full equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Party posters proclaimed, “This is our chance,” and “My answer to racism.” He referenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his talking points.
Odeh’s leadership style diverged with the firebrand stumping more common among fellow party members Haneen Zoabi, who tarred Arab members of Israel’s security forces as traitors, and Ahmed Tibi, who called hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman “the Jewish Islamic State.”
Odeh’s conciliatory approach also contrasted with scathing comments from hardline Jewish leaders. In the days before Israel’s election, Netanyahu veered right, rejecting the two-state solution and speaking at a rally with settler advocates Naftali Bennett and Eli Yishai.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post that “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left-wing organizations are bringing them in buses.”
In response, Odeh said, “The prime minister of all of us is afraid of the citizens. He is afraid of citizens voting. Our response is to raise the voting participation so Bibi will not be prime minister.”
On election day, Odeh seemed to enjoy himself as he campaigned through a grueling schedule across Arab towns and villages in northern Israel. In the morning, he voted in his hometown, the coastal city of Haifa, then traveled to Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus – and the modern seat of Arab politics in Israel.
Odeh sped between polling locations, stopping to drink small cups of pungent Arabic coffee, bear-hug supporters and play a short round of soccer with children on school holiday. Posters of the Joint List plastered nearly every corner in downtown Nazareth; trucks carrying activists wove through the narrow, crowded streets near the Church of the Annunciation, blaring Arabic music and urging residents to vote.
Iyad Jahshan headed out to the ballot box Tuesday with a sense that perhaps his vote would change reality for him – and for Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens.
Jahshan, a doctor, said his hospital in Nazareth was underfunded, and he suspected the cause was discrimination against Arabs.
The unified party brought together unlikely partners: the Islamic Movement, the nationalist Balad party, and Odeh’s Communist Hadash.
Carlo Roshrosh, a law student and communist activist, said it was awkward at first to join forces with Islamists. However, linking arms as one party opened up Arab communities where he would not have been welcome before.
“Before that we couldn’t go to (the southern city of) Beersheba and talk to the Islamic majority there,” Roshrosh said. “Now I can go there and speak my words. That helps me . . . to try to get them to hear other people.”
Halima Mashal, a housewife in Nazareth and an observant Muslim, said that previously she had voted for the Islamic Movement and hesitated to vote for a party including Hadash, which advocates gay rights.
“At first I said I don’t want to vote,” Mashal said. “But I thought about it and I said this is a newly born party. And we need to allow it to be a large party in Knesset and speak in the Arabs’ name.”
Political science professor Asad Ghanem of Haifa University said he hoped the unity among Arab parties would reflect on the wider Arab society, splintered on sectarian lines among Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins.
For all the excitement among party supporters, not all residents of Nazareth were enthusiastic about the Joint List. Electrical engineering student Basel Waked, 25, said he boycotted the elections. He said Arab members of the Knesset had little impact on his life beyond the rhetoric.
“My grandfather came from a village named al Mujaydil near Nazareth,” he said, referring to an Arab village Israel bombed in 1948. “How can I represent myself in a government that demolishes our villages?”
Portions of this story have been updated to reflect the final vote count in Israel.