Balad leader accuses Lapid of orchestrating split with Joint List

The head of the Arab nationalist Balad party on Friday accused Prime Minister Yair Lapid of orchestrating the split between his party and the other two members of the Joint List as the move threatened to upend the political status quo ahead of the upcoming elections.

The accusations from Balad chairman Sami Abou Shahadeh came as analysts tried to figure out if the move would be more beneficial to opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu or Lapid.

Netanyahu will reportedly not seek the disqualification of Balad as he has in the past.

A senior official in the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties told the Ynet news site on Friday that the Likud chairman now prefers for Balad to be allowed to run so that it can further splinter the Arab electorate and waste the votes of those who still choose to back Balad if it fails to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the national vote as expected.

In several previous races, Likud petitioned the Central Elections Committee to have Balad members and the party as a whole disqualified, arguing that the faction and its representatives incite terrorism. In each of those cases though, the High Court of Justice ruled against the Likud and other right-wing allies who filed the petitions.

This time around, Netanyahu will work behind the scenes to ensure that no one from his right-wing, religious bloc files a petition to disqualify Balad, the senior official told Ynet.

It is unclear though whether such a petition will not be filed by someone in Lapid’s anti-Netanyahu bloc, which may prefer that Balad not be able to run in order to minimize the chance of wasted votes for parties who refuse to sit in a Likud-led government.

Ynet reported that the Lapid-led center-left bloc is still weighing the implications of the Thursday night decision by Balad to split away from the majority-Arab Joint List, which will run in November as Hadash-Ta’al.

Balad leader accuses Lapid of orchestrating split with Joint List

Hadash-Ta’al members speak to the media after submitting their list for the upcoming election at the Knesset on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On the one hand, the splintering of Arab representatives has been proven to bring down turnout, which is already expected to plummet to record lows for the long-under-represented minority. However, if Balad, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am all manage to cross the threshold, they would deal a major blow to Netanyahu’s chances to form a narrow, right-wing government, a senior member of the Lapid bloc told Ynet.

In a Friday interview with Channel 12, Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh dismissed the notion that the break-up was handing the election to Netanyahu and insisted that Arab turnout would be higher than expected because the minority is committed to preventing far-right Religious Zionism leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir from becoming ministers.

He recalled that the last time that Hadash and Ta’al ran together — in April 2019 — they managed to win six seats. Odeh pointed to unspecified polls that placed the pro-Netanyahu bloc at 55 seats and argued that such results will make his party a decisive player in the formation of the next government.

Odeh clarified that Hadash-Ta’al is not part of either bloc and indicated that it would not join a coalition either. However, he did not rule out recommending a candidate for prime minister as he has done in the past. He clarified though that those who want Hadash-Ta’al’s support will have to meet certain political criteria, including a commitment to ending Israel’s rule over the Palestinians.

Speaking to the network shortly thereafter, Balad chairman Abou Shahadeh claimed it was Odeh and Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi who decided to break their agreement with his party at the last minute and submit their own list to the Central Elections Committee on Thursday night, forcing Balad to run independently.

Shahadeh claimed that the move was orchestrated by Lapid. “I have no other explanation,” he said, without providing any evidence.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arab Joint List chair Ayman Odeh at a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, a controversial bill that seeks to legalize wildcat West Bank outposts, in the Knesset on December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While he acknowledged that his party is not currently expected to cross the electoral threshold, he insisted that Balad would outperform current expectations because the Arab public wants a party that offers an alternative to what Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al present.

Shahadeh said a majority of the Arab public wants Israel to be a “state of all its citizens,” rather than a Jewish state, which is what Balad represents as well.

For his part though, Arab pollster Yousef Makladeh argued Friday that the latest breakup will help Hadash-Ta’al because 70% of the 210,000 Joint List voters want to see their representatives recommend a candidate for prime minister.

In an apparent attempt to engage with new populations in the upcoming election, Balad added to its party list filed on Thursday Jewish actor Einat Weitzman. Weizman, who starred in the hit TV series Hafuch and has been outspoken against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, is placed at the 6th spot though, while Balad is polling well below the four-seat threshold.

While Netanyahu has not commented on Balad’s split from the Joint List, several far-right lawmakers did weigh in on Friday, claiming that Lapid would utilize the breakup to legitimize partnering with the relatively more moderate Hadash-Ta’al. Because while Hadash-Ta’al has shown willingness to cooperate with other parties, Balad is adamant against such conduct and refuses to recommend any Zionist candidate to be prime minister.

While it presents itself as a more moderate alternative to Balad, Hadash-Ta’al will now also have to differentiate itself from the Islamist Ra’am party, which has already proven its willingness to play an active role in running the country after it joined the ruling coalition last year.

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Ra’am party members arrive to register their party for the upcoming elections at the Knesset, September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The November election will be the first time since 2013 that there will be three separate Arab parties running. Then, Ra’am and Ta’al ran together on a united slate and won four seats while Balad and Hadash ran separately and earned three and four seats respectively.

Ahead of the 2015 election, all four parties agreed to run on a joint slate for the first time after right-wing lawmakers voted to raise the electoral threshold in an attempt to oust the Arab parties from the Knesset. The Joint List overwhelmingly exceeded expectations, winning 13 seats and becoming the third biggest party in the Knesset.

In April 2019, the party split again, with Ra’am-Balad winning just four seats on their own and Hadash-Ta’al winning six seats — drops that indicated that the Arab public supports a united political front.

In 2019’s second election and in the subsequent election in 2020, the four parties agreed to reunite as the Joint List and had strong performances, winning 13 and 15 seats respectively, thanks to record-high Arab turnout.

In the 2021 election though, Ra’am decided to break away from the Joint List, arguing that a more practical approach was necessary and that the Arab public needed representatives who prioritized domestic affairs for Arab Israeli over the Palestinian issue. The Islamist party managed to win four seats and with the further splintering of the Joint List into Hadash-Ta’al and Balad is hoping to build on that total come November.

But with turnout in the disillusioned Arab sector predicted to drop to record lows, all three parties may be at risk of failing to cross the electoral threshold.

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