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Largely unknown Jewish-Arab party makes long-shot bid for Israeli parliament

An Arab woman who's been toiling on the fringes of Israeli politics for nearly two decades has broken out of obscurity in this year's election with a non-conformist message that's resonating with protest voters.

The message of the Daam party is as unconventional as its leader, Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka.

She preaches for the nationalization of key industries — a rare idea in this capitalist land. She calls for coexistence with Israel's Jewish majority as fervently as she demands Palestinian statehood. She's a Palestinian woman who heads a Jewish-dominated party even though she hails from a conservative Muslim family.

Although she's a long shot for a seat in parliament, the 39-year-old Aghbaria-Zahalka has capitalized on exposure she gained during last year's massive social protests across Israel. She has gone from talking to near-empty rooms to drawing standing-room-only crowds at parlor meetings and bars, where she urges listeners to cast their ballots for Daam in Tuesday's election.

"People are searching today for an alternative," Aghbaria-Zahalka told a packed, hip bar on a recent evening in Jerusalem.

Observers often contrast her with parliament's sole female Arab legislator, Hanin Zoabi, whose passionate defense of the Palestinian cause has made her widely despised among Israeli Jews. Her decision to join a 2010 pro-Palestinian flotilla toward Gaza in which activists clashed with Israeli soldiers, further enraged Israelis. Zoabi recently told an Israeli newspaper that she had no Jewish friends.

Aghbaria-Zahalka, on the other hand, said she seeks consensus, not confrontation, with Israel's Jews.

For years, the Jewish-Arab socialist party was unknown to all but a few Israeli academics, artists, unemployed women and workers represented by Daam's labor union. The Daam party was even little known to Israel's Arab citizens who tend to vote for three other parties in equal numbers.

In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, lamenting the high cost of living, poured into the streets in protest, and social issues rose on Israel's political agenda.

Daam loyalists sensed the mood had shifted in their direction.

They pitched protest tents and preached their manifesto, and Aghbaria-Zahalka's speeches started circulating on social networks, giving them unprecedented exposure.

"We understood that the time came for Daam," Aghbaria-Zahalka said after addressing a crowd of mostly young Israeli Jews.

Speaking in rapid-fire Hebrew, she drew applause for alternately criticizing patriarchal societies, the Palestinian militant Islamic group Hamas and racism in Jewish-Israeli society.

Ahmed Faw, a 22-year-old Arab political science student at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, became a Daam supporter after seeing Aghbaria-Zahalka deliver a speech on the Internet.

"When I vote Daam, my conscience is clear," Faw said. "I've done my job."

Aghbaria-Zahalka is one of six children from a conservative working class Muslim family in Jaffa, an area of Tel Aviv. Though her family was not devout, she donned the headscarf of devout Muslim women at 14 — only to take it off after philosophy studies destroyed her belief in religion providing answers.

She channeled her former religious fervor into political activism after answering an ad for an Arabic-Hebrew translator for a communist publication. Her parents, afraid that Israeli authorities would peg their activist daughter a troublemaker, once banned her from leaving the house for two months, she said. Eventually, she rebelled and joined Daam when it was established in 1996.

Barely known in Israel's Jewish community, Aghbaria-Zahalka is a contentious figure among some of Israel's Arab minority, which makes up one-fifth of the country's 8 million people.

She was seen as out of touch with mainstream, conservative Arabs for her blunt insistence on absolute equality between men and women, and for not embracing Palestinian nationalism more energetically. Her emphasis on workers' rights makes her seem out of touch.

"It's a challenge — for Jews to vote for an Arab, for Arabs to vote for a woman," said Aghbaria-Zahalka.

Daam activists consistently have voted her to lead the party for the past 10 years, seeing her as symbol of the change they seek.

Still, with 33 other parties — including three other Arab and Arab-Jewish slates — running in next week's election, polls indicate that Daam is unlikely to be represented in parliament this time, said Camil Fuchs, a statistician who does polls for Israeli media.

After hearing Aghbaria-Zahalka speak in Jerusalem, Roni Mazel, a 23-year-old Hebrew and Yiddish literature student, said she came away impressed, but undecided.

"I am still debating with myself who to vote for," she said.

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