When the party lists for Knesset elections were finalized last Thursday, they contained one surprising result. The three predominantly Arab parties that had run together as the Joint List in three of the previous four elections—Hadash, Ta’al, and Balad—were no longer united, with Hadash and Ta’al choosing to run together and Balad splintering off to run on its own. This echoed the move that Ra’am, the Arab Islamist party headed by Mansour Abbas, made before the fourth election in breaking away from the Joint List and running independently, and means that Israel’s fifth election in three and a half years will have three separate Arab factions running for Knesset. This, more than any other development, has the potential to alter the balance of power between the blocs led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and may also point to the direction in which Israeli Arab politics is moving.

The four leaders of the Joint List in 2019 by Zaher333, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am, and Balad have been unsettled across the entirety of the quintuple election cycle. The four formed the Joint List in 2015, which became the third-largest party in the Knesset, but differences between the constituent factions led them to run as two separate alliances in the first election in April 2019, with Hadash-Ta’al garnering six seats and 4.5% of the votes and Ra’am-Balad getting 3.3%—squeaking by the Knesset threshold of 3.25%—and four seats. This move diluted the power and size of the Arab parties’ representation in the Knesset, and before the second election they combined once again as the Joint List. This worked to their benefit, netting them 13 seats on the back of 10.6% of the vote and restoring the Joint List as the Knesset’s third largest party. Israeli Arab voters were clearly in favor of the unified list, as turnout in Arab municipalities increased to 59% for the second election in September 2019 from 49% in April 2019. The Joint List—minus Balad—also recommended Benny Gantz as prime minister in a first for independent Arab parties, which had always declined to recommend any Zionist candidate.

Sticking with what had worked, the four parties once again ran as the Joint List in the third election in March 2020. Turnout in Arab municipalities went even higher to 64%, and the Joint List received 12.7% of the vote and 15 seats. Once again, the Joint List recommended Gantz for prime minister, with even Balad joining this time, but on the condition that Gantz form a center-left coalition and not form a unity government with Netanyahu. Despite this stipulation and Gantz accepting the mandate to form a government based on the Joint List’s support, Gantz ended up doing precisely what the Joint List feared, agreeing to a unity government in which Netanyahu would serve as prime minister first and then rotate the office to him. That agreement ultimately did not hold and the unity government fell apart, leading to the fourth election in March 2021.

A March 2020 Likud ad featuring Benny Gantz and Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List. The text reads “Without Ahmad Tibi, Gantz has no government.”

Prior to this round, Ra’am broke off from the Joint List due to its elevation of participating in a coalition as its top priority. Unlike his erstwhile partners, who were moving toward the idea of joining a coalition or supporting a minority government from the outside if it was led by someone from the center or left, Abbas was open to joining any coalition—including one led by Netanyahu or another right-wing figure—if it meant greater attention to the budgetary priorities of Israeli Arab voters. While Abbas’ decision ultimately paid off for Ra’am, as it received 3.8% of the vote and four Knesset seats and joined the coalition formed by Lapid and Naftali Bennett that dethroned Netanyahu, it had a detrimental effect on Arab parties as a whole. Turnout in Arab municipalities plummeted to 45% and the slimmer Joint List fell to six seats with only 4.8% of the vote.

All of this is the necessary background for analyzing what may happen next. The clear lesson from the previous four elections is that Israeli Arab turnout is up when the four separate parties run together, which is unsurprising as it yields the highest number of seats for representatives from Arab parties in the Knesset and Israeli Arab voters view their voice as maximized. The upcoming fifth election will see the Arab parties more fragmented than at any point during this cycle, running as three separate lists for the first time, which may depress turnout in Arab municipalities even further. There is also an open question about the impact on Arab voters of Abbas’ decision to bring Ra’am into the Bennett-Lapid coalition, since while Abbas was able to increase funding to Arab towns as part of the budget and secure other priorities for the sector he represents, many Arab voters also view the experiment as having failed. Crime in Arab municipalities remains high, there is discontent over perceived threats to al-Aqsa and continued erosion of the status quo on the Temple Mount despite Ra’am’s support for the government, and the money allocated to the Arab sector is taking time to wind its way through the system, making it hard to appreciate whether Ra’am has been able to bring real change.

For Lapid in particular, this presents the biggest threat he faces in his ability to form a new coalition. There is a non-trivial chance that Balad, which is highly unlikely to cross the threshold, will not only cost Lapid’s bloc the tens of thousands of its votes that will get wasted, but will cost Lapid Hadash-Ta’al’s votes as well if they are unable to pass the threshold without Balad’s voters. In the last election, approximately 143,300 votes were required to make it into the Knesset, and the Joint List comprised of Hadash, Ta’al, and Balad received 212,583. 70,000 votes for Balad in this election could sink both ships together, and there is polling suggesting that six weeks out, some Arab voters who are not generally in Balad’s camp are moving toward them because they perceive Hadash and Ta’al as responsible for the latest Joint List split. Ra’am too is at risk, particularly if enough of their previous voters do not believe that the party delivered for them by joining the coalition and are unhappy that the decision to do so broke up the Joint List at the peak of its strength. Lapid’s only plausible path is to have the Arab parties prevent Netanyahu from getting to 61 seats and also support him, either as part of his coalition or from the outside. If Ra’am or Hadash-Ta’al do not make the Knesset threshold, that means a nearly automatic restoration of Netanyahu to Balfour Street.

Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi at the Joint List’s consultations with President Reuven Rivlin in the wake of the March 2021 elections by Mark Neyman / Government Press Office, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

The flip side of this is that there is probably a higher possibility of Hadash-Ta’al reaching 3.25% while Balad falls well short. While there are multiple rumors about what caused the most recent Joint List split, one is that Hadash and Ta’al wanted to continue recommending a candidate for prime minister, and were possibly even open to following Ra’am’s path and negotiating to join a coalition, while Balad was firmly opposed. If Balad’s independent run makes it possible for Lapid to include Hadash-Ta’al—a move that was impossible with any party that included Balad—then this may in fact give him a more plausible path to remaining prime minister at the head of a permanent government. If Balad does not cross the threshold, but Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am clear it with a comfortable buffer, it will also suggest that success for Arab parties going forward will lie with being more active players in Israeli governance rather than with being protest vehicles against Zionist hegemony. This may not be enough to help Lapid form a government in two months, but it will ultimately help his side of the political aisle in the long term.

Six weeks is a long time, and polls will shift while the various Israeli Arab parties make their cases to voters. More so than in any of the previous four elections, however, Israeli Arab turnout and the fates of these parties will determine the fate of Israel’s political system. How they fare holds the key to whether Israelis will soon be heading back to the polls for a sixth go-around, or whether a more stable government can be formed by either side.