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Workers' Party: Assessing the Campaign

T

HE number of votes that a party receives is an open book, enabling it to know how much weight it really has with the public. This point is especially important for one that takes itself seriously as an alternative to the existing situation. Our party, the Organization for Democratic Action (ODA-DAAM) received 3691 votes.

Election Day revealed our strong and weak points. We must come to grips with the weak points for the sake of the next time.

When the results are broken down by locality, we see we did well wherever the workers are organized within the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN). Where WAC does not have a presence, we got isolated ballots only.

Before deciding to run, we attended a WAC meeting with the strongest core of its members. These people have been active in WAC for three years and know it well. We consulted with them about defining ODA as a workers' party. They supported the idea and even declared their willingness to appear on the list of candidates.

The entry of manual workers into the ODA list had a dialectical impact. On the one hand, it changed the consciousness of the worker, because a new possibility opened for him: to see himself as responsible for the wider public of workers, not just as an individual within the organization.

On the other hand, the entry of workers into the list had an enormous impact on the party itself, which was forced to focus its platform on the issues close to every worker's heart: job conditions, unemployment and poverty. The manual laborers as Knesset candidates weren't just a cover for a group of veteran leftists with polished positions on a wide range of political issues. Rather, they became the campaign's heroes. This fact received immediate expression when Ahmad Turki of Shaab in Galilee walked into the Knesset with the ODA delegation to deliver our list to the Elections Committee. Turki, a WAC member, had been busy moments earlier constructing a new wing for the Knesset. His entry in work clothes won the immediate attention of the press, and his picture graced the morning papers (as in the example on the right). Here already we were accomplishing the aim on which our campaign was based: to strengthen the worker's image, both in his own eyes and those of society.

The atmosphere that developed around the worker-candidates was electric, as everyone could feel at our kick-off convention in Haifa on February 11. Later they also took roles in our elections broadcast. None of this, however, could break through the barrier of despair and apathy within the Arab public.

We knew, of course, how thick that barrier was. In November 2005, five months before these elections, we wrote (in an internal document) that the gap between us and the Arab public, especially the workers, does not derive from political differences, rather from a general feeling of disappointment with political parties in general. The parties known to this public had called on them, in recent years, to support Labor candidates for the premiership; thus they had sent a message that they don't constitute an alternative. In the Palestinian arena, they supported the corrupt PA. They did not present an agenda that was relevant to their public, which sank ever deeper into poverty. (Today half the Arab families in Israel are under the poverty line). The escape from despair, for a large part of the public, was to shut themselves up in mosques, antechambers of paradise, far from political activity.

That was the atmosphere among the working public, half of whom would not vote, forming a negative pressure group on workers who wanted to support us. Even within the ranks of WAC we found positions ranging from indifference to enthusiasm. Those workers who did grasp the opportunity – that is, who saw a chance to establish a new party based on their own social class – had difficulty persuading their friends. The low turnout among Arab voters (56%, the lowest ever), and especially among workers, was the main thing blocking our way.

The other three parties kept their power in the Knesset or increased it. Hadash won 3 mandates, Balad 3 and RAAM 4. They were helped by the poor nationwide turnout (63%, also the lowest ever), which lowered the number of votes they needed to surmount the 2% threshold. More than that, they were helped by established voting patterns. The general pattern still goes according to clans. An example was the campaign advertising of Dr. Afu Agbarieh of Um al-Fahem, the fourth candidate on the Hadash list. The banners and posters read: "Vote for the man from our village!" Agbarieh got 7000 votes. The question is, Why vote for "the man from our village"? Because if he gets in, he'll look after the village's interests.

In addition, the three traditional parties appeal to the Arab middle class. Despite its absence from the centers of political and economic power in Israel, this class sees itself as benefiting from proximity to jobs, the academic world, commerce and the Israeli establishment. The party chiefs, despite their marginality, represent a vital connection for doing business, getting permits and rising on the social ladder.

Our natural constituency, which makes up about half of those who did not vote, is precisely the sector that has lost its faith in political parties. Despite the fact that our platform responds to its needs, our number is still too small. For this reason we didn't manage to reach them in a way that could build trust. A single plow can't do all the fields. We shall have to build many more plows, so that the fields will be able to receive the ideas we sow.

The Israeli Arena

Voting patterns on the Israeli side are completely different. Our potential constituents are also different. They aren't manual laborers. (They come, in general, from the middle class.) Their concern is with ending the Occupation and upholding human rights. Here too, however, we encountered despair and escapism. First, the breakdown of the Oslo Accords, then the Intifada, and finally the unilateral disengagement from Gaza have all undermined the belief that it's possible to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The most striking feature of the youth ballot was a massive protest vote for the Pensioners' Party, which received 7 mandates. Normally those mandates would have gone to Labor and Meretz, but the youth were fed up with both.

As for the radical Left, which weighs its voting very carefully, it found itself in a dilemma. Traditionally its support has gone to Hadash as an Arab-Jewish party. In the 2003 elections it also supported Balad, as a liberal party promoting "a state for all its citizens." This time, however, both had become unattractive, because they had undergone a process of nationalist "Arabization." The ugly quarrel that took place in Hadash around the subject of "the Jewish candidate," and Balad's three-year neglect of the Jews who'd supported it, gave radical Jewish leftists the impression that they weren't wanted. The Arab parties, they felt, preferred to focus on the Arab street, because that's where the massive reservoir of votes is located. A noted media person and former Jewish supporter of Balad told us: "The party I want doesn't want my vote." Among other things, he pointed out that Balad hadn't taken the trouble to provide Hebrew subtitles for its election broadcast.

There was another reason, too, for the quandary of the Jewish radical Left: the positions of the Arab parties had blurred. Formerly, they had been able to maintain an alliance with the Palestinian Authority (PA). But the collapse of Fatah and the rise of Hamas left them in the lurch. What is more, at the time of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, these parties had seesawed in their positions. In public, they condemned Israeli unilateralism, which ignored the PA as a partner. In the Knesset votes, on the other hand, they'd supported the move, ensuring that PM Ariel Sharon would defeat the rebels in his party. As a result of this ambiguity, the radical Left found itself in a twilight period; a true political solution seemed farther away than ever.

Amid the deep disappointment with the nationalist digression of Hadash and with Balad's lack of presence on the Jewish street – and because both parties had lost their relevance vis-à-vis the political question – ODA stood out as a fresh new party with a sharp message and with credentials of vigorous grass-roots work on a day-to-day basis. We estimate that the radical Left gave us 2000 votes.

An extremely important factor for this group was our decision to place a woman at the head of the list. This fact stood out especially in the light of the internecine struggles in the Arab parties, where all the realistic slots were taken by men. For the Left this was yet another reason for disappointment with them, although in the Arab sector the absence of women could have received greater emphasis. For us, the placement of a woman at the head of the list was no gimmick. In ODA, as well as in WAC, women are present at all levels of decision-making. There was no inner struggle around this point. There was no need to "guarantee" places for women. It was simply natural that Asma Agbarieh should top our list, because she is most suited to the job.

The Israeli media helped create a "buzz" around ODA. The press viewed our message in the light of the widening gaps between rich and poor in this country. All the TV channels gave us prime time. Our election broadcast also helped swing the balance toward us among refugees from Hadash and Balad.

The Arab press, we should note, behaved very differently. Instead of viewing the idea of a workers' party as something needed or at least legitimate, it first tried to ignore us. When that proved impossible, it tried to trip us up in hostile interviews. Only when the leaders of Arab public opinion understood that the Israeli media was taking a positive attitude, covering our work very explicitly, did some of the broadcasters change their view. We were invited to a panel discussion with the main Arab parties which was broadcast on Aljazeera. The researcher for the program said, "One cannot ignore the fact that you've become a player in the arena."

Amid all this, a constant, major obstacle was the knowledge that we would not cross the 2% threshold. Here we are caught in a chicken-egg dilemma. If leftists believed that ODA could get enough votes to enter the Knesset, a great many more would have voted for us, because our positions match their own. Fearing to "waste votes," they compromised and went elsewhere. Yet if we are ever to cross the threshold, we shall need the support of brave souls who are willing to invest for the long term.

Preserving our achievement

The election campaign thrust ODA into the public consciousness. We managed to establish our image as a party representing a new current of thought, left-wing and class-based. We placed the problems of poverty and unemployment high on the public agenda. We presented our positions at every forum in a way that won respect. Today, two weeks after the results, we continue to be flooded with requests to take part in panels on social and political issues.

On the Arab street we achieved several important things that we shall need to develop. After the elections, a sizeable group of workers, men and women, joined the party. We shall have to adapt the party to its new composition. A number of women stood out as leaders during the campaign. They display a strong revolutionary potential. Among the working youth too we discovered rare qualities of devotion.

Nevertheless, we are still a relatively small group of activists, compared to the forces we shall need in order to break through the wall of apathy. We can be proud of the fact that we managed to attract workers with a social consciousness who are ready to bind their lives to our program. With the help of this avant-garde, we shall need to walk the neighborhoods, going house to house, to acquaint the rest of the workers with the activities of WAC and the ideas of ODA.

Israeli governments don't generally complete their terms, and the composition of the present one doesn't promise longevity. We must make full use of the time so that we can reach the next elections with a larger group of seasoned activists, who will spread the message that has begun to make itself heard."end"

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