How Israel Marginalizes Its Arab Citizens

Disaffection prompted the lowest voter turnout in years among Arab Israelis.

The Israeli Arab politician Ahmed Tibi casts his vote during Israel's parliamentary elections in in the northern Israeli town of Taiyiba on April 9. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
The Israeli Arab politician Ahmed Tibi casts his vote during Israel's parliamentary elections in in the northern Israeli town of Taiyiba on April 9. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV, Israel—As night fell on Israel’s Arab cities and towns on election day earlier this week, with the final minutes of voting slipping away, a call went up from mosque minarets and pickup trucks with loudspeakers.

Turnout among Israel’s one-fifth Arab minority was lagging, and a chunk of Arab representation was on the verge of being wiped out from Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

“Go out and fulfill your duty,” speakers blared in an eleventh-hour appeal for voters. “Go out and support the Arab parties. The parties are in danger.”

But it was too little, too late. The vote tallies later showed a dramatic drop in voter participation among Arab Israelis—a historic low of 49.1 percent, down from 63.5 percent in 2015, according to Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. Overall turnout was down five percentage points to 68 percent.

Now, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poised to form yet another narrow coalition government of right-wing nationalist and religious Jewish parties, Arab representation in the Israeli parliament has been eroded and splintered. Arab citizens, meanwhile, face a crisis of confidence in their legislators and growing marginalization in Israeli politics.

“Arab politicians have already started the process of soul-searching,’’ said Lucy Aharish, an Arab Israeli television journalist, in an interview Thursday with Israel Radio.

“Arab voters not only voted no-confidence in the [Israeli electoral] system, they voted no-confidence in their representatives.”

It’s a far cry from the euphoria many Arab Israelis felt four years ago. Despite Netanyahu’s victory in 2015 and his race-baiting message to right wingers that Arabs were “streaming” to the polls, the Joint List alliance, a first-time merger of Arab parties with disparate ideologies, emerged as the third-largest faction in the parliament. It made Arabs feel like a political force capable of being a player in parliamentary politics.

The number of members of parliament from Arab-dominated parties will now drop from 13 in the outgoing parliament to 10—divided between the Hadash-Taal party and the Balad-Ram party. The total number of Arab deputies from all parties will fall from 17 to 12.

The truncated delegation of Arab legislators will sit in the opposition, alongside left-wing Zionist parties, which also suffered painful losses in the election. During the election, the centrist Blue and White party ignored outreach to Arab voters and focused on the Israeli center-right.

The Arab-dominated parties (Hadash-Taal includes one Jewish-Israeli lawmaker) have always been outsiders in Israeli politics: None has ever been invited to join a governing coalition. There was a short-lived period of cooperation between Arab parties and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during the early 1990s, when the government signed peace deals with the Palestinians. Still, many Arab Israelis would like to see their parties exercise political leverage.

“These results are a political earthquake. The achievement of four years ago, the establishment of the Joint List, has suddenly collapsed,’’ said Musa Hassdiyeh, an Arab advertising executive. “The egos of Arab legislators and political leaders were too large, and they couldn’t protect [the Joint List].”

Frustration with political leaders only partly explains the low turnout. Experts also cite frustration with Netanyahu’s nation-state law, a controversial piece of quasi-constitutional legislation passed in 2018 that emphasized Israel’s Jewish character over democracy and equality for the Arab minority.

The election campaign enhanced the feeling of insult among the Arab public. At one point, Netanyahu declared, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … it is the nation-state of the Jewish people only.”

Netanyahu and his allies spent much of the campaign warning Israeli voters that his challenger Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party would build a coalition dependent on Arab political parties. “It’s Bibi or Tibi,” Likud politicians said, referring to parliament member Ahmed Tibi, a former aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who is now with the Hadash-Taal Party.

Instead of hitting back against Netanyahu, Gantz seemed to turn his back on Arab lawmakers, vowing that he would cooperate only with “Jewish and Zionist” parties in a building a new coalition.

The final slight came on the morning of Election Day. Election observers from Netanyahu’s Likud party posted to several Arab towns arrived with hidden cameras bulging from their shirts. Videos of tense confrontations went viral on Arab social media. After the voting was finished, executives from a public relations firm working with Likud bragged that the stunt had helped lower the Arab turnout.

“This is Orwellian. This is like going back to the era of military government,” said Elie Rekhess, a professor of Israel studies at Northwestern University, referring to the first 18 years of Israel’s existence, when Arab cities lived under martial rule. “Delegitimization has never been stronger than in this election campaign: ‘Bibi or Tibi’ means you are not in the game. And not a single party said they would want them in the coalition.”

The dismal outcome will sharpen the dilemmas of Israel’s Arab community on several fronts.

It could strengthen advocates of a boycott of Israel’s political system. While opinion surveys suggest that boycott supporters account for only 10 percent of the public, there was an effective pro-boycott campaign mounted over social media during the course of the election.

“Some claim now that Arab Knesset members represent only a minority of the Arab community,’’ said Mohammad Darawshe, a political expert at the Givat Haviva Center for a Shared Society. “Very quickly, we will start hearing more people allowing themselves to be more critical of the Arab leadership—of their mere agreement to sit in the Knesset. This is a very dangerous step. It would end up in a political suicide.”

Opponents of a boycott will have to decide whether to join with voices among Jewish Zionist parties calling for greater cooperation with Arab-dominated parties as a step toward the a reincarnation of the Israeli left. Some 28 percent of the Arab vote went to Zionist parties. Tamar Zandberg, the leader of the left-wing Meretz party, credited Arab voters with ensuring her party passed the parliamentary threshold.

Arab leaders will need to strike a balance between lobbying for solutions to poverty, underdevelopment, and crime within their own communities and advocating for Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (In the final days before the vote, Netanyahu promised to annex parts of the West Bank with Jewish settlements.)

Despite all of the polarizing rhetoric from Netanyahu and his political allies, the outgoing government allocated about $4.25 billion over five years for development, education, and infrastructure projects in neglected Arab towns and cities. Even as the prime minister has marginalized Arabs politically, Netanyahu recognizes that underemployment and physical isolation of Arab Israelis will become a long-term drag on Israel’s economy.

Arik Rudnitsky, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said it was notable that the platforms of Arab parties made scant reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lawmakers recognize there’s a growing Arab middle class of pharmacists, doctors, and programmers who are increasingly looking to integrate into the Israeli mainstream.

“There are voices calling for more integration and emphasizing their Israeli identity,” said Rudnitksy, also a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “The Palestinian ticket doesn’t work any more.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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