In Jaffa, an Upturn in Israeli-Arab Voter Turnout

Residents of the Arab-Jewish city point to the creation of the new and unified Joint List alliance as one reason for going to the polling station – even for the very first time.

Alona Ferber

JAFFA – In all his 36 years, local resident Maron Jiries has never voted in an Israeli election. But on Tuesday, standing outside his polling station in Jaffa – the mixed Arab-Jewish city adjoining Tel Aviv – with his daughter pulling impatiently on his arm so they can get going, Jiries explains why, for the first time in his life, he cast his vote.  

It was the historical union in January of the Arab parties under the umbrella of the new Joint List – comprising United Arab List-Taal and Balad, the Islamic Movement and the Jewish-Arab party Hadash – that convinced Jiries to vote at the station, at the Hassan Arafeh School on Kedem Street.

One of the major stories of the 20th Knesset election has been the Arab vote, which, as a result of the confidence engendered by that merger, is expected to result in an all-time-high turnout once the ballots are tallied.

In the last election in 2013, voter turnout among Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israels population, was just 56 percent – three percentage points higher than the previous election in 2009, but quite a bit lower than the 67.7 percent turnout among all Israeli voters that year. 

Jiries didnt vote before because – How do I put this nicely? he asks – there was no change, and no point in the past. This time, he says he is convinced that others like him will also make the effort to vote.  

After the government raised the electoral threshold from 2 to 3.25 percent during the 19th Knessets term, the Arab parties banded together into one Joint List slate to ensure they would surpass that level. This first-of-its kind collaboration has rewarded the ticket, with recent polls showing the party in third place with as many as 13 to 14 potential seats in parliament. In the 19th Knesset, these parties had 11 seats all together.

The Joint List seems to have done its canvassing homework in Jaffa; the only campaign posters in the neighborhood around Jiries polling station are from the Joint List, unlike in Tel Aviv to the north, where a number of parties have plastered their propaganda on walls and bus stops.

At a cafe around the corner, and outside another Jaffa polling place, at the Achva School on Pierre Mendes Street, Joint List activists are handing out information in a last-ditch effort to convince voters.

Some 13.7 percent of Israelis had cast their ballot by 10 A.M., and traffic at the Hassan Arafeh School remained steady even later on, with a mix of local Arab and Jewish residents lining the narrow corridor in a queue to the ballot box.

By 11:30 A.M., some 10 percent of all registered Israeli Arabs had voted, according to the Joint List spokesman. During the last election, that figure was 3 percent at that time of day.

Mahmoud Abu Qutb has been on the team manning the polling station here for the past 18 years. Compared to last time, he tells Haaretz, there are definitely more people voting. 

At the Achva School polling station on Pierre Mendes Street, Khaled Atrash, who is the schools janitor for his day job, says there is a steadier stream here than last time around, too. He should know; he has worked here during three Knesset elections and two municipal elections. This year, You can feel that there is foot traffic, says Atrash, who for the moment is undecided about whom to vote for. 

A number of voters arriving at this polling station tell Haaretz they didnt bother voting in 2013, but that this time they are hopeful.

Take Mr. and Mrs. al-Toukhy, 38 and 31 respectively, who cast ballots for the Jewish left-wing Meretz party in the past, but didnt vote at all last time. Now, they are more optimistic. Now there is a Joint List, there is hope, says Mrs. Toukhy. Everyone will vote this time, I think. There will be change. 

Not everyone is so bright and positive, however. Yasmine Tartir, 22, at the station with her 66-year-old grandmother, who preferred not to give her first name, both voted for the Joint List this time around, but neither think that the new, united party will bring more Arabs out to vote.

Who knows? says Yasmine. We are just voting and going home.