TAYBEH, Israel — A coalition of once fractious Arab parties is suddenly emerging as Israel’s newest power bloc, forcing the Jewish state to pay attention to its large Arab minority as never before.
If polls taken ahead of next week’s general election are accurate, Arab Israelis could end up heading the third-largest political faction in Israel’s next parliament, giving a voice to the often-sidelined Arab population.
It’s a remarkable of twist of fate for Israel’s 1.7 million Arabs, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country’s population and have never had much political clout.
It could also mean that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Arab Muslim, Christian, Druze and even Jewish politicians — representing ultra-religious Islamists, uber-secularists, liberals, nationalists, capitalists, socialists and communists — have succeeded in forming a united group.
Ironically, the coalition is a result of a move last year to increase the minimum number of votes a party needs to secure a place in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Some saw that change as an attempt to oust small Arab parties, but instead it prompted the fragmented and fairly powerless Arab leadership to unite under the banner of the Joint List.
It remains to be seen whether the Joint List will wield significant power. Because of its objections to the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, it is unlikely to agree to become part of a ruling government coalition. It is also unlikely to be invited to join the government.
What is clear, however, is that the Joint List’s growing political presence is bringing hope to a minority community that often feels marginalized in Israeli society.
“We represent those who are invisible in this country, and we give them a voice. We also bring a message of hope to all people, not just to the Arabs but to the Jews, too,” said Ayman Odeh, who heads the largest group in the coalition, Hadash, a communist party with both Arabs and Jews as members.
The response of Jewish political leaders to the Joint List has included outright attacks from the far right, comments dismissing the coalition as a temporary fad of this election cycle, and frustrated attempts by the far left to cash in on its anticipated success.
Over a recent cup of coffee, Odeh, a soft-spoken lawyer from Haifa, said he shared a dream similar to that of Martin Luther King Jr. and hoped to see Arabs and Jews marching together to Jerusalem, calling for equality.
Dreams aside, Arab party candidates must confront multiple social and economic challenges inside their community and must also address threats from outside. Often, Arab political leaders are labeled loudmouth troublemakers working against the Jewish state.
Last week, as part of the party’s campaigning, Odeh met with the heads of the three other factions in Taybeh, a town of 50,000 Arabs that has seen a rise in gang violence and homicide. The day of the meeting, two men were shot in the street. The leaders signed a document pledging to fight the soaring crime rate among Arabs as soon as they enter the Knesset.
All agreed the issue was a high priority and said they would use the party’s newfound power to draw attention to Israeli Arabs’ plight, demanding greater budgets to fight crime, boost education and improve physical infrastructure.
Veteran Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, head of the Ta’al party and now part of the Joint List, said that although the coalition would never join the government, it could still have significant power.
He pointed out that in 1992, the Arab parties did not join the government but threw their support behind then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, creating a “preventive bloc” in exchange for his assistance in improving public services to Arabs.
“We could do something the same this time,” Tibi said.
But some observers doubt the newfound unity will last beyond election day, and others believe the final vote tally for the Join List will be much lower than predicted.
In the past, many Arabs refrained from voting, either despairing that their status would ever change or protesting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Despite their Israeli citizenship, many Arabs identify themselves as Palestinians. In the last election, 57 percent of the eligible Arab public voted, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
“The Arab people really need this united party,” said journalist Makbula Nassar, who hosts a popular call-in show on a local Arab radio station.
She said that in the past there was a feeling that no one could bring change for the Arabs. But now, she said, those calling her show talk about “hope.” Nassar also said she is getting the sense that even those who never voted before might consider doing so this time.
“It is very important now as an Arab to vote, because for the first time we have a united Arab party,” said Fadi Hajiahja, a 38-year-old nurse. “We called on them to unite many years ago, and now they are doing it. I hope that God stands behind them and we get as many seats as we can.”
Sawsan Ijmael, 55, said much the same. “There is strength in unity,” she said, “and we will have a strong foot in the Knesset. I don’t expect the Joint List to bring about big changes, but at least the Jews will now hear our voice.”
Odeh and the Joint List were propelled into the national spotlight after a recent televised debate among eight candidates. At one point, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of an ultra-nationalist Jewish party, asked Odeh why an Arab and a Palestinian would run for election to Israel’s parliament.
“Shouldn’t you be running for office in Gaza?” Lieberman asked.
The foreign minister has made no secret of his negative views of Israel’s Arabs, describing them as a “ fifth column” and suggesting that some of the largest Arab Israeli cities be swapped with Jewish settlements under any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Odeh’s cool answer — that his party is soaring in election polls and has greater support than Lieberman’s faction — turned him into a hero of sorts among Arabs.
“Everyone is talking about how he embarrassed Lieberman,” said Mahmoud Abu Ras, a doctor, who was buying falafel in one of Taybeh’s famous hummus restaurants.
Odeh “is well educated and civilized, and he is doing a very good job of running the election campaign,” said Abu Ras, who was still unsure if he would vote. “Our leaders used to fight all the time, but now, under him, they are united.”