Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Arab Citizens of Israel Hold the Key to Next Month’s Election

Low Arab turnout would pave the way for Benjamin Netanyahu and the far right.

By , a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
A Palestinian flag is seen above an electoral billboard.
A Palestinian flag is seen above an electoral billboard.
A Palestinian flag is seen above an electoral billboard by the predominantly Arab Israeli electoral alliance with a caption reading, “The father of the nation-state law says ‘a new approach.’ Whom is he fooling?” in northern Israel on March 5, 2021. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

JAFFA, Israel—Israeli voters go to the polls again in two weeks, facing a stark choice: whether to reinstate former leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners—including some virulently anti-Arab politicians—or maintain the status quo under centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

But while Israel’s Arab citizens have the power to potentially determine the outcome, many are likely to stay home on election day, according to analysts.

“Turnout will decide this battle,” Knesset member Aida Touma-Suleiman of the predominantly Arab Hadash party told an audience during a campaign appearance in Jaffa last week. “It will decide if we can make laws for our agenda.”

JAFFA, Israel—Israeli voters go to the polls again in two weeks, facing a stark choice: whether to reinstate former leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners—including some virulently anti-Arab politicians—or maintain the status quo under centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

But while Israels Arab citizens have the power to potentially determine the outcome, many are likely to stay home on election day, according to analysts.

Turnout will decide this battle, Knesset member Aida Touma-Suleiman of the predominantly Arab Hadash party told an audience during a campaign appearance in Jaffa last week. It will decide if we can make laws for our agenda.

Arab Israelis make up more than 20 percent of the population and have suffered discrimination ever since the state was established. Their turnout has fluctuated from election to election, reflecting—in turns—hope and disappointment in the Israeli electoral system.

Nineteen-year-old student Nazek Abu Rahima told Foreign Policy at a gathering in Jaffa that many of her friends will probably refrain from voting despite the threat posed by far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose racist list—a merger of the Jewish Power and Religious Zionist factions—is poised to become the third-largest bloc in parliament.

Ben-Gvir advocates expelling what he terms disloyal Arabs—including Hadash party leader Ayman Odeh, Taal party leader Ahmad Tibi, and Ofer Kassis, a Jewish Hadash politician who criticizes the armys practices toward Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Abu Rahima said her peers dont have enough political awareness about what the threat is and what the parties do. They see that there is never any change for us, so giving up the half hour to vote isnt worth it to them.

Recent polls projected that about 40 percent of Arab voters would cast ballots, a record low in a country where overall turnout often reaches 70 percent. If the actual number is that low on election day, Nov. 1, then the Arab-led parties running for parliament might not pass the threshold, said Yousef Makladeh, CEO of Statnet, an Arab polling company based in northern Israel. But Makladeh said the projections would likely change as the election gets closer.

Muhammed Khalaily, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Arab voters are mainly frustrated that Arab party leaders could not set aside their differences and form a unified list ahead of the election. In 2020, when a joint list of four groupings was agreed on, turnout reached around 70 percent.

But there are other causes as well. Like all Israelis, many Arab citizens have grown weary of elections—five in the past three years.

More specifically, many Arab citizens feel that the current government, which was established last year and for the first time included an Arab party, Raam, did not in fact change much.

In particular, it did not help reduce crime that is jolting day-to-day life in Arab communities, remedy a land and housing shortage, or help redress a rise in the cost of living. People say, ‘We were in the opposition and in the coalition, but nothing changed,’ Khalaily said.

But he added that the Arab public has become concerned recently about Ben-Gvir.

A disciple of late American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the expulsion of all Arabs and proposed Nuremberg-style laws banning the mixing of Arabs and Jews, Ben-Gvir was convicted of racist incitement in 2007. He later became a lawyer and defended far-right Israelis who had assaulted or murdered Arabs.

Indeed, Ben-Gvir seems to embrace violence against Arabs. For many years, he prominently displayed in his home a picture of Baruch Goldstein, another settler disciple of Kahane who killed 29 Palestinians during mosque prayers in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in 1994.

Shortly before the assassination of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Ben-Gvir implied on television that he and others would physically harm him for making peace deals with the Palestinians. He now denies that he wants to expel all Arabs and says he will target only disloyal people and terrorists.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, will almost surely need the support of the far right to secure a majority in parliament after the election, giving Ben-Gvir’s leverage to demand specific government posts and policies. Ben-Gvir has already said he wants to direct internal security, including the national police force.

A taste of what might soon be in store for Israelis and Palestinians came last week when Ben-Gvir rushed to Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that Jewish settlers are trying to take over. As a confrontation flared, Ben-Gvir pulled a gun and called on those nearby to shoot any Arab who throws a stone. The scene was captured on video.

But his provocative actions could backfire, especially when focused on Jerusalem, a city sacred to both Muslims and Jews. Khalaily said Arab Israelis would respond in the ballot box.

People are beginning to think the threat is not imagined, that its real, he said.

The provocations are not confined to the far right. In May, a top member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Israel Katz, warned Arab citizens that they will face another nakba if they raise the Palestinian flag or identify as Palestinians. Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, is the term Palestinians use to refer to the expulsion or fleeing of some 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during Israels creation in 1948. Likud politician Yoav Gallant issued a similar threat from the Knesset podium around the same time.

This type of rhetoric comes a year after severe violence shook mixed Arab-Jewish towns, stoking insecurity on both sides and helping rightists increasingly depict Arabs as the enemy within.

It also reinforces the concern that Ben-Gvir is mainstreaming noxious far-right ideas.

Although Israel has more attributes of a democracy than other Middle Eastern countries—including wide freedom of expression, free elections, and a judiciary that can jail prime ministers—anti-Arab racism permeates large segments of the population, according to surveys.

Some experts would argue it is built into the system. There is no explicit guarantee of equality for Arabs, and their inferior status compared to Jews was formally enshrined three years ago in legislation known as the Basic Law, passed on Netanyahus watch.

I think a lot of people in Israel will support that kind of extremism, said Galia Golan, emerita professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, referring to Ben-Gvir’s political positions.

Lapid is a decent guy, but the public in Israel has moved to the right, she added.

Still, some Jewish and Arab citizens believe it’s not too late. If turnout can be driven up to 50 percent among Arab Israelis, that could block Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir, Khalaily estimates.

One activist group, Standing Together, handed out fliers to 3,500 people attending a soccer game in the Galilee town of Sakhnin, urging Arab Israelis to vote.

Our message is if we play the game, we can win on the field and in the Knesset, said Suheil Diab, co-director of the group and former mayor of Nazareth.

But Khalaily believes that to sufficiently raise turnout, Lapid himself will have to play a role. He has to engage the Arab voter, not turn his back. He can say, ‘Dont vote for me. Vote for your representatives, and prevent these insane people from forming a government. He should go to Nazareth and say that.

Ben Lynfield is a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He has written for the National, the Independent, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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