Much too little, and very late: Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, went to the town of Tamra in the Galilee on 26 February to hold election hustings. He rented a wedding hall designed to hold a thousand people. Thirty people turned up: there were more security guards and protesters outside, than there were curious members of the public inside the hall.
According to Israeli think tanks, at the last elections in September 2019, more than 95% of Tamra voted for the Joint List, in this town of some 33,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Joint List is an alliance formed in 2015 of parties that oppose the Zionist and securitist consensus of all the other parties running in the Israeli elections. The third largest party in parliament, the Joint List has been a political pariah in the feverish, bitter, and failing negotiations around forming an Israeli government over the past year. No Jewish Israeli politician wants to be seen to be including the Arabs, as they are reductively labeled, in any form of national governance, even if this exclusion entails political paralysis.
So untouchable are the Arabs, that Netanyahu uses the “threat” of their contamination of government as a way of smearing his opponents: The posters show a picture of Benny Gantz of Kakhol Lavan (Blue and White, the new centrist party), sitting at a desk with Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, with the caption: “Without Ahmad Tibi, Gantz doesn’t have a government”. It must take a particularly trained eye to spot the threat in Ahmad Tibi: alongside his parliamentary work since 1999, he is an obstetrician who is known for his populist witticisms.
A wedding with no party
Netanyahu must surely be desperate if he went to the Galilee wedding hall himself to court the Arab constituency. And the photos from the Tamra event made him look even more desperate, which Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, exploited to his benefit, with humour. In a Twitter post he compared Netanyahu’s empty event in Tamra to his own sold-out preformance in Tel Aviv.
I had been to that same festivities hall five years earlier, three elections ago, when the dovish Meretz and their Palestinian candidate Isawi Freij, no. 3 on their 2015 candidates list, had booked it for their election hustings and filled it to burst. Freij’s energetic canvassing had brought in some 35,000 votes for Meretz, enough to gain one parliamentary seat. This year, Freij didn’t bother. The Labour-Gesher-Meretz alliance bumped him down to 11th place on the candidates list, which means he might again not make it into parliament, where he had served from 2013 to 2019. This relegation is widely seen as Meretz’ reneging on advocating for Palestinian and other Arab rights.
Even Netanyahu’s faithful lackey Ayub Kara, another Arab who stands for election, was shafted to 42nd place, when in the last elections Likud got 35 seats. Of all the Israeli parties, only hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Liberman, placed an Arab candidate in a winnable spot: Hamad Ammar. If the approximately 20% of the citizenry that identify as Palestinian or other Arab have to rely on Ammar to speak for their interests, then good luck to them: in all my research I never found him to express himself on any political issue of substance. But there is the Joint List. It campaigns in Israel, stands for the Israeli parliament, but whereas the Israeli political culture continues to shift to the right, this party goes against the flow.
The groom of Umm al-Fahem
In a modest living room in a private home in Umm al-Fahem, a Palestinian town in the middle part of Israel, close to the West Bank, some thirty women come on 27 February to hear Youssef Jabarin explain the Joint List’s plans. The women look upon him with maternal pride while he lists the specific steps taken to improve the Israeli postal service, which loses 40% of the mail in Palestinian and other Arab locales. And to claim compensation in the state schools budget, which was shown to allocate thousands of shekels less per year for an Arab student than it does for a Jewish Israeli student of similar socioeconomic standing. And to reverse the expropriation of lands in Kufr Manda, and to finally approve an urban master plan for Umm al-Fahem, which also had its agricultural lands expropriated in the 1950s.
The coffee tables are laden with fruit, coffee and biscuits provided by the hosts, Rivka and Sara, who are activists in the Communist Party, which is Jabarin’s faction of the Joint List. Children wander in after school to pass the biscuit trays around, while pocketing some cakes themselves. The older women who are sitting on the more comfortable armchairs at the back shout out their objections and comments – “What about the buses to the clinic! You forgot that it takes us two hours and 70 shekels to go get a blood test” – which Jabarin politely acknowledges.
There is no rattling of sabres against Israel nor emotional outpouring for Palestine. If this candidate poses a threat to Israel’s government, it comes in the form of detailed and logical discussion of all the elements that reduce Palestinians to second class citizens. Their struggle over loss of lands since the Nakba, waged in the details of urban planning, is at the heart of the Palestinian cause. All the streets in Umm al-Fahem are plastered with posters for the Joint List, with Jabarin’s face smiling seriously. There are also posters warning against armed crime, and posters denouncing plans to strip Umm al-Fahem residents of their citizenship, and hand them over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, euphemistically called “transfer”. Young men hanging out in the local shopping mall’s carpark, under election posters and next to signs with Islamic admonitions to pray and dress modestly, have tattoos of weapons on their forearms. Here are the badlands of low voter turnout, but international events have dealt them an unexpected “trump card”.
Jabarin is introduced to voters at a public meet-and-greet event on 27 February as “the groom of Umm al-Fahem”. What is not mentioned is that the father of the bride might be the officially banned Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, which tacitly boycotts Israeli elections, on the grounds that the whole system of governance is illegitimate. Sara whispers to me: “The people here will vote for Jabarin because he is one of our boys, even if they don’t care about politics so much. Even activists of the Islamic movement vote for him. And this time the stakes are international.” Voter turnout amongst Palestinian and other Arab citizens at the last elections stood at below 60%. The latest iteration of “transfer” plans came in Trump’s “Deal of the Century”, which specifically lists Umm Al-Fahem as one of the locations to be moved out of the jurisdiction of Israel. This special attention, and the Joint List’s clear opposition to the deal – the only political party in Israel to state so – is expected to boost voter turnout: an unintended gift from the White House to the party that might be able to block Netanyahu’s government formation.
Proud of Tamra
While I was following another one of the Joint List’s candidates, Aida Touma-Suleiman, on the election trail in Tamra, my car broke down. I entered a pastry shop to ask for help. The young man at the counter, Karim, did not hesitate and summoned his friend Muhannad, who had walked in for his evening chat, and who happened to be a car mechanic. They made phonecall after phonecall to find the part and the service to replace my burnt-out alternator.
After a while, they asked what my business was in Tamra. Muhannad readily contributed to my research: “Any Arab who wants to stand proud has to vote for the Joint List. Everyone I know will vote for them. I want our representatives to go there, to the Knesset I mean, and say No, your racism will not pass. I don’t complain about my life. I earn a good living, but I have to live with racism all the time and this is unbearable.” Karim, who also declared himself a Joint List voter, waved for my attention: “Focus a minute. Do you want a potato börek or a cheese one?” They brought me tea and food.
"The Israeli politicians are really racist and they are making the people more racist"
Muhannad continued: “I’m not racist. I work for a Jewish man, and I respect and appreciate him. Not because he’s Jewish or whatever, he could be of any religion or nationality. I appreciate him as a human being. He’s fair to everyone and he’s generous to me. I don’t know many other Jews but I don’t think they’re very different. No, I don’t know who my boss will vote for. Probably Likud. At best, Kakhol Lavan.” At this point, Muhannad lost a bit of his chirpiness. “We don’t discuss politics. I mean, we fix cars and we get on with that. But the Israeli politicians are really racist and they are making the people more racist. Someone like the Joint List has to stand up, wherever they can, and say, No you won’t bomb Gaza, No you won’t lock down the West Bank, You will stop this racist discrimination.”
A veteran car mechanic, Yusif, rolled up in his truck and jumped out with a replacement alternator, beaming a smile through his greying stubble. He looked at me with boyish enthusiasm as he yanked at the old bolts, declaring: “Under the hood, this car is a Toyota, even though on the outside it pretends it’s a Daihatsu!” He mumbled back into the motor: “Oh yes, of course I’m voting for the Joint List. Everyone should. Why? Because we are Arabs and Arabs want equal rights.”
These men have engaged all their lives with Israeli institutions, which practice systematic discrimination in all socioeconomic policies and in symbolic practices. They know their cars, they know their pastries, and they know their political cause to be broader than their individual self-interest. They include in their cause the protection of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and equality in Israel. And their way of pushing for that vision is to snub Netanyahu’s visit, and place their bet with the Joint List.
They refused to take a single shekel from me, neither for the hospitality nor for fixing the car. In my gratitude, I was ready to buy celebratory knaffeh and sweets. In any commercial car service in Israel or Palestine, replacing the alternator at 9pm, 200 kilometres from home, would have cost 500 shekels (110 £). I had to travel all the way to Tamra to learn a lesson in kindness to strangers. As I was waiting with the motor running for the battery to recharge, Karim brought me a bottle of water for the trip home. Muhannad added, matter-of-factly, “Tamra is known for its generosity. Oh and why don’t you tune into Radio Shams (an independent Arabic-language broadcaster in Israel). Now that’s a good radio station.”
The generosity that Karim, Muhannad and Yusif showed me in Tamra was encouraged by pride in their town’s reputation. And they want the Joint List to represent their pride too. They are keeping an ear tuned to the news of that representation.