Mada’s annual conference is an important fixture for Palestinian academia in Israel, where well-respected academics and public figures give lectures alongside the best new researchers and PhD candidates. This year’s conference was entitled “The Palestinian Political Sphere – Leadership Transitions and the Role of Parties: Organization vs. Representation”, and was comprised of three days of lectures, presentations, and panel discussions. Contributors and participants sought to address the question of why a new emphasis on the politics of representation has come to supersede efforts to effectively organise and mobilise Palestinians in Israel on a popular level.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, in-person attendance to the conference was restricted to the contributing speakers and Mada staff. Conference proceedings were broadcast live online, with viewers able to contribute and ask questions via social media.

Dr Mohanad Mustafa, Mada’s general director, opened the conference with a welcoming address. In it, he framed the topic of the conference in the light of recent political transformations, stressing the sensitivity of the Palestinian political sphere inside Israel. He characterised it as easily affected by changes in wider Palestinian politics, and by the actions of the Israeli government. Historically, it has also been deeply influenced by regional changes, from the golden age of Nasserite Arab nationalism to the turn today of some Arab states to seek normalisation with Israel.

Day 1: Shifts in Political Leadership and Discourse

The conference’s first session was moderated by Dr Ali Haidar, a human rights activist and academic. It was comprised of two presentations: the first was entitled “A Paradigmatic Analysis of the Palestinian Leadership in Israel: Transformation and Gauging the Extent of its Representation”, and was given by Professor Amal Jamal, a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University. Dr Jamal explained that the Palestinian leadership in Israel which has developed over the last few decades is a representative kind of leadership, and its legitimacy derives from this fact. It broadly represents those of all ideological stripes and their differing aspirations. The leadership are also set apart by the diverse social, economic and cultural backgrounds of those who comprise it.

The second presentation of this session was given by Dr Mansur Nsasra, a lecturer in International Relations at Ben Gurion University. It was entitled “Transformations in the Palestinian Political Landscape in Israel After the Oslo Accords”. In it, Nsasra indicated that the Accords contributed to renewed focus on the Palestinian struggle for equality by Palestinian leaders inside Israel, and a decline in the emphasis that they placed on local matters and concerns. More attention came to be paid to matters of rights and political representation as citizens of Israel. This retreat from more localised concerns coincided with a strengthening of ties of Palestinians in Israel to a wider Palestinian national identity.

These two presentations were followed by a talk from Dr Heba Yazbek, a member of the Knesset for the Balad party in the Joint List. Yazbek claimed that after the formation of the Joint List, the political center of gravity shifted towards parliamentary work at the expense of popular movements and grassroots political action. This is partially due to the fact that Palestinian voters heavily invested their political aspirations in the Joint List, which prompts the question of how much influence the List realistically has over policy. Its existence has certainly raised people’s expectations; the List is a body that possesses the ability to carry forward popular concerns into the parliamentary sphere. Yazbek stated that popular expectations of what the Joint List can achieve are somewhat exaggerated. Despite its important role in promoting a new kind of political discourse, and in championing political and economic rights for Palestinians, the Joint List are ultimately an opposition party with limited influence.

Day 2: “Economic Approaches and the Role of Parties”

This session was presided over by Dr Ramez Eid, lecturer and researcher in political anthropology and human rights. The first presentation of the session was given by Dr Sami Miaari, lecturer at Tel Aviv University, Oxford University, and director of the Arab Economic Forum. his presentation was entitled “Economic Changes and Their Influence on the Palestinian Political Field in Israel”. In it, he discussed how social and economic changes amongst Palestinians can affect voting patterns in Israeli general elections. Miaari argues that voting behaviours can change in relation to standard of living, income levels, and poverty rates. When income levels rise and the standard of living improves for the Palestinian community, Arab political parties enjoy a higher vote share to the detriment of Zionist parties. These changes do not impact the level of electoral boycott, however.

The next presentation in the session came from Mohamed Khalayleh, a PhD candidate and researcher at the University of Haifa. His talk was entitled “The Declining Power of Political Parties in Local Politics: Between the Constant and the Variable”. In it, Khalayleh claimed that recent election results show the limited influence of Arab political parties in the local sphere. He outlined an array of factors which had undermined public trust in local government, such as party mismanagement, institutional stagnation, problems related to Hamula (clan) loyalties, and Israeli Zionist parties actively trying to undermine it.

The third speaker was Dr Said Suleiman, a lecturer and researcher in Geography. His presentation was entitled “The Decline of the Role of Arab Parties in Political Subject Formation.” Suleiman referred to the stagnation and decline of the parties’ role in nurturing political participation, and highlighted many external and internal factors that led to this recession. These included the general global decline in ‘ideological’ politics, the failure of the Arab revolutions, technological developments and changes, limited youth involvement in party politics, the neoliberal practices of the Israeli state, the lack of competition on the Palestinian Arab political landscape in Israel following the establishment of the Joint List, and finally the over-reliance on formal parliamentary work to the detriment of other, more direct forms of political action.

Representative Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of the Knesset for Balad in the Joint List, provided commentary on this session. Touma pointed to the importance of understanding Palestinian political action and life in Israel in the light of certain phenomena. Of primary significance is the collapse of several Arab regimes, and the regional turn towards normalization with Israel; these changes have emboldened the efforts of those who wish to strong-arm the Palestinian movement or force it into submission. Hope for a resolution of the Palestinian issue has all but evaporated; this had led to the adoption of a new discourse which focuses on civil issues and dissociates itself from the national question. At the same time, the Israeli government make use of the economic levers to stimulate integration and political capitulation. Touma emphasised the importance of consolidating the Arab parties within a single entity, that being the Joint List, in order that Palestinian Arabs might gain newfound political influence in Israel.

Day 3: Feminist Approaches and Post-Politics

The conference’s final day of activities was overseen by the head of Mada’s research committee, Dr. Ayman Aghbariyeh. The session was made up of two presentations; the first was entitled “Understanding Politics and Post-Politics” and was given by Khaled Anabtawi, a researcher and PhD student at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. Anabtawi addressed the crisis that has taken hold of Palestinian political action in Israel following the shift from a dominant politics of organisation towards a political culture of representation. This crisis has manifested in a number of ways, according to Anabtawi, such as in the growing reluctance of people to be involved in mass political action, the decline in internal party political organisation, which has a knock-on effect on other political efforts. This represents a separation of the political and the popular, and a growing divide between formal politics and Palestinian daily life in Israel. Anabtawi argues that this is indicative of a shift from politics to post-politics.

The second presentation made in this final session was entitled “Female Religious and Political Leaders in the Islamic Movement: A Feminist Approach”, and came from Dr Areen Hawari, a researcher and coordinator of Mada’s doctoral student support program. In the presentation, Hawari claimed that the female leaders of religio-political movements do not operate within a traditional concept of politics, which deals with issues of representation, influencing party-political agendas, or issues connected to the political struggle against authorities. Women are almost entirely absent from formal decision-making bodies within these movements, yet at the same time they are partners and actors in the political struggle. They occupy positions with decision-making responsibilities in various religious and social institutions adjacent to the Islamic Movement, helping to distribute resources of material and symbolic power.

Heba Harish Awouda, an educational consultant, social activist, and researcher provided commentary on Dr Hawari’s paper. In her remarks, she pointed out the great need to study fundamental legal issues, and not just focus on studying disputed areas of Islamic law. She added that the poor representation of Muslim women politicians at organizational and administrative decision-making levels is not necessarily a matter of exclusion, but possibly a by-product of a high demand for female leadership in other areas where men are not able to take part.

After the conference finished, Mada released a book containing all the papers which were presented across the three days of sessions. An online stream of the conference garnered 7000 views in less than a week. Despite all the challenges posed by Covid-19, a high level of user interaction and lively commentary on social media indicated that Mada was successful at minimising disruption and maximising the reach and impact of its annual conference for 2020. Work is already beginning for the 2021 conference, which, hopefully, will be held face-to-face.

Click here to read the e-book of the 2020 conference (in Arabic).