Ayman Odeh, Joint Arab List
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, looks out of a car's sunroof with a girl during a campaign stop in the northern Israeli city of Acre, Friday, March 13, 2015. Reuters/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM -- A year ago, survival looked dubious for Israel’s Arab political parties. Lawmakers had just raised the threshold of votes needed to enter the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, from 2 to 3.25 percent, a level that the separate, divided Arab parties would have trouble reaching.

Despite a sizable Palestinian or Arabic-speaking minority of Israelis, who make up almost 20 percent of the total population with 1.7 million people, the parties that claimed to represent them typically fared poorly in elections. In the January 2013 election, Hadash scored only four seats. Ra’am and Ta’al, running together, got the same, while Balad posted a meager three. Under the new rules, all four Arab parties would be at risk of disappearing from parliament.

Turnout is typically poor among Arab voters, at 56 percent in 2013 versus a national average of around 70. A wave of disillusionment with the effectiveness of Arab-Israeli politicians resulted in one in five Arab ballots cast for Jewish parties.

But Tuesday’s election may bring a surprise. It may turn the Arab parties, which have come together in the so-called Joint List, into an unlikely kingmaker, and possibly even a member of the governing majority, something that has never happened in Israeli history.

Following the sudden call for early elections last December by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Arab parties were shocked by the realization that they could be gone in three months into forming an unprecedented coalition. The latest polls have the Arab Joint List at a surprising 13 seats (out of 120 in the Knesset), two more than the sum of its parties in the previous election. If the polls are accurate, the List would come out of this ballot as the third political force in Israel, behind only Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and its main adversary, the center-left Zionist Union. The latter is an alliance between the Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Hatnua, fronted by ex-Foreign and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni -- and it’s running even or better with Likud. According to the latest polls, the center-left may even have an edge, with 25 seats.

“We felt the pressure to pass the threshold, but we also understood that there was a higher demand from the Arab street to stay united in front of the challenges that our communities face here,” said Yousef Jabareen, a Joint List spokesman and candidate.

In Israel, the election system is based on voters choosing parties rather than individual candidates, and slates run nationwide rather than in districts. This encourages extreme fragmentation -- up to 10 parties are expected to win seats -- and a coalition is needed to reach a majority of 61 seats, with the leader of the largest party getting the president's mandate to form a government. With what looks like a high number of seats to offer, the Joint Arab List and its leader, Ayman Odeh, might find themselves in a strong position to determine the next government of Israel.

The Joint List has already signaled to potential future partners that it’s willing to talk business, but it has set several conditions.

“We will do our best to prevent Netanyahu, Bennett and Lieberman [Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman lead two right-wing parties in the current coalition] from staying in power. Nevertheless, so far, we haven’t received any guarantee from Herzog that he will restart the negotiations for two states on the ’67 borders or any proposal for a peace plan,” said Jabareen.

Jabareen said much will remain to be decided after the vote, when negotiations for a coalition will start -- but Odeh, a lawyer from Haifa who chairs Hadash, an Arab-Jewish mixed former Communist party, has made it clear over the last weeks that his support for Herzog or any other partner will come at a price.

The Arab parties, divided by ideology -- they range from hard left to Islamist -- agree that the peace process with the Palestinians should lead to a two-state solution according to the borders preceding the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, with a sovereign Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. But that position, while still supported in theory by a majority of the Israeli electorate, is increasingly less popular.

Arab parties have never been part of any Israeli governing majority, except for when they backed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the period that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians in the early 1990s. It’s far from certain that, even with a strong showing, they would do so now.

“This time we believe that (turnout) will rise and so there is a chance the Joint List will get 14 or 15 seats," said Mtanes Shihadeh, a researcher at the Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa. "But the maximum that can happen afterwards, I think, is a support from the outside to the Herzog-Livni-led coalition, based of course on political demands.”

That would be a logical choice if Arab parties want most of all to prevent another center-right coalition, which would lead to a fourth term for Netanyahu, who is deeply unpopular among Arab Israelis. But another, quite possible outcome is a national unity government between Herzog and Netanyahu; left-right grand coalitions have happened before in Israeli politics. Even that would leave the Joint Arab List, if the polls are correct, as the likely third-biggest party and even as the official opposition, and with a great say in national politics.

As the leading opposition group, it would have increased political leverage for its key demands: Negotiations to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, ending the embargo against Gaza, and more equality for the non-Jewish population of Israel.

Yet the unity list remains riven by ideological contrasts. Hadash, the acronym of “Democratic Front for Peace and Equality,” focuses on social demands; Balad, which stands for “National Democratic Assembly,” has a secular, pan-Arabist ideology; Ta’al, or “Arab Movement for Renewal,” has a more Islamic bent; and the United Arab List or Ra’am, is especially popular among the Bedouin, the poorest of Israeli Arabs.

The potential for contrasts appears clearly when looking at the statements of Haneen Zoabi, an often controversial politician who has been the target of heavy criticism from Jews, even more so since she publicly refused to call “terrorists” the Palestinians who kidnapped and killed three Jewish teenagers in June 2014.

“In Israel there are 50 racist laws, which give advantages to the Jews regarding planning, land, housing, budgets, education, identity, in every sphere of our life,” said Zoabi. “We have to make Israel more accountable to its refusal to any serious and just agreement with the Palestinians, and to the fact of being an apartheid state.”

The Central Elections Committee disqualified her from the ballot, but the decision was later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. Zoabi was cleared to occupy slot No. 5 on the Joint List slate, which all but guarantees her a seat in the Knesset.

If the Joint List succeeds in becoming the third-largest party in the Knesset, will it speak in a moderate voice, find a unified voice on day-to-day Israeli domestic issues, or remain focused on the Palestinian issue, its sole common ground so far? A novel form of political coalition in Israel may depend on it.