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What will Joint Arab List’s wins mean for Israeli politics?

WATCH: It was a win few predicted, but Benjamin Netanyahu remains Israel’s leader. His relationship with Washington has been tenuous and there are worries a fourth term could further the divide. Jackson Proskow reports.

Tuesday night’s election in Israel proved historic for Arab-Israelis, but the success of a united Arab political party at the polls may not translate to great influence in the Knesset.

The Joint (Arab) List won 14 seats in the Knesset, placing third behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s centre-right Likud party and the centre-left Zionist Union for total number of seats they’ll hold in government.

The alliance formed in January to put forth a united slate of candidates from the Hadash, United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al parties. Separately they were among the weakest parties in government, holding a combined total of 11 seats, in the last government.

They could play a role in how the government is formed, if they were to back away from a vow not to form a coalition with Likud or Zionist Union — itself an alliance between Hatnuah and Labour parties.

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Leader Ayman Odeh said Tuesday the Joint List will try to prevent the formation of a Netanyahu-led government, but will not join a Herzog-run coalition – to avoid having to be party to decisions on possible military campaigns or building more Jewish settlements. In the event of a Netanyahu-Herzog unity government, the Joint List expects to take on the high-profile role of leader of the opposition.

READ MORE: Will Israel have a new prime minister on Wednesday?

Had things played out differently, and the Zionist Union had won the most seats, the Joint List might have prevented Netanyahu from maintaining his grip on the office of prime minister.

Polls conducted prior to Tuesday’s election show the Zionist Union, under leader Isaac Herzog, beating Likud by four or five seats. In the end, Likud triumphed with 29 seats to the Zionist Union’s 24.

“The Arabs could have prevented Netanyahu from forming a coalition, which would have meant Herzog could have formed a government,” said retired Canadian diplomat Steve Hibbard and it could have maintained itself in power, not in coalition with the Arab group but with their support — as (late Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin did in the early 90s.”

Rabin, whom far-right Jewish extremist Yigal Amir assassinated in November 1995, negotiated the Oslo Accords between Israel and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and halted the development of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Although Arab Members of Knesset (MK) were not a part of his cabinet, they put their support behind him.

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“They’re not going to be able to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government, which is what they’d like to do,” said Hibbard, who served as a diplomat in the Middle East. “[But] with 14 seats, they’re going to have more clout than they had before.”

But the Joint List won’t have that much influence over government policy, he conceded.

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“The Herzog government would have worked to try and keep them happy and to keep them on side, so they kept supporting the government,” he said. “But, I’m not sure it would have been to the extent of Israel changing a lot of its basic policies.”

Still, they’ll have a much stronger presence in the Knesset.

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“Just by volume, being present in the Knesset, I think they’ll have more opportunity to raise their perspective and their opinion, just like… minority elected voices in Canadian Parliament can have their voices heard,” said Martin Sampson, Director of Communications for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

“Even in a Canadian majority [government] environment, the opposition parties still have an opportunity to engage in the debate and I think that what we’re going to see is that, more than ever before, these voices are going to be engaged in the debate,” he said.

The CIJA applauded the success of the Joint List, noting that this benchmark, along with Israelis voting in the highest number of female MKs yet.

Those “are two very notable things that have emerged from this election, that I think are proof points that Israeli democracy is very, very healthy,” Sampson said.

READ MORE: Israel thanks Canada for U.N. support

While it will now fall to Netanyahu to form a coalition to lead government — the Knesset has never been formed by a single party majority —it didn’t look like he was headed for this outcome just a few days ago.

There was no chance of the Joint List winning the most votes, but Arab slate did cause concern for Netanyahu.

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On election day, he went so far as to say “right-wing rule is in danger” because “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.” Prior to that, he asserted he would not support the establishment of a Palestinian state and said he would continue to allow the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

Sampson said that’s just campaign politics in the final hours.

*UPDATE: Netanyahu backtracks from opposition to Palestinian independence

“It’s a generic characteristic of all campaigns in all democracies that parties tend to hue more extreme positions during their campaigns, particularly during the last days,” he said, adding he expects the coalition that is eventually formed to find a way to function together with the Joint List’s MKs.

“Israeli democracy is a lively affair,” he said. “[And] the Arab List is a vibrant and vital part of the debate.”

Hibbard holds a different view of Netanyahu’s last minute pleas to the right, particularly what he said about Palestinian statehood — a shift in position from six years ago, when he backed a two-state solution.

“He’s never really supported the Palestinian state,” Hibbard said. “He’s said publicly what he’s told to say, but privately he’s always told his supporters this isn’t really what [he] really believe[s].”
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But once the elected politicians finally take their seats in the Knesset, Sampson said the rhetoric will likely go back to a more moderate tone.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if there is a real opportunity to engage in a serious discussion about Palestinian statehood, then the Israeli public will demand that that happens,” he said.

With files from The Associated Press