The municipal election campaign in Arab towns and cities only swung into full action over the past two months. This was partly due to the timing of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which fell in May and June, followed by the World Cup, the wedding season and the Eid al-Adha holiday at the end of August – which all delayed campaigning until September.
Adding to the frenzy of a rushed campaign was the emergence of younger, educated candidates running on independent slates, challenging the extended families' traditional power, and the rise of female candidates.
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In most communities, tribe and family still play a significant role – as does money – and candidates from larger extended families, particularly if they’re wealthy, always have a greater chance of winning.
Young people, including women, ran on independent tickets in many communities, with some winning enough votes to ensure a spot on local councils. But they didn’t manage to outweigh the tribal or extended-family system; many national Arab parties didn’t even run alternatives to the extended-family candidates.
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With turnout among Israeli Arabs higher in municipal elections than in national ones, the intensity was palpable on the streets. And this time around, social media also played a key role, with the use of Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages firing things up – much more so than in the previous elections in 2013. Signs, billboards and the traditional local media played less of a role, and many of these efforts were sullied by mudslinging.
Election rallies were held in many communities, often including festive marches. These turned out to be the best barometer of a candidate’s popularity, since opinion polls aren’t seen as a very credible tool in the Arab community.
But a number of Israeli Arab communities also saw disturbances in the wake of the election results. Cars were set on fire in several towns and flares were fired at people and buildings in Kafr Manda, a town in the Lower Galilee.
A brawl erupted in Iksal, just outside of Nazareth, between members of two families and it was reported in Tuba-Zangariyyeh that shots were fired in the air near a police cruiser. Three polling stations were closed as a result of brawl, one of which left 10 people injured.
Connections over merit
The predominantly Arab Joint List, which has 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, didn’t nominate a single candidate anywhere. But two of its four components – Hadash and United Arab List – did nominate candidates; their activists campaigned with the help of influential extended families.
In Jerusalem, Ramadan Dabbash was the only Palestinian running for mayor of the city, with his Jerusalem for Jerusalemites party. Dabbash ran on a platform that emphasized the importance of improving municipal services to the city's Palestinian residents.
East Jerusalem candidate Aziz Abu Sarah dropped out of the race about a month prior to elections due to pressure from both Israeli authorities and Palestinian nationalists. His party, Our Jerusalem, ran on an anti-occupation platform.
Both candidates were seeking to break through the traditional boycott of Israeli municipal elections by Palestinian Jerusalemites ever since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, after the Six-Day War, and united the city under one municipal authority. In the last elections in 2013, less than 2 percent of East Jerusalemites participated in the elections.
In Nazareth, voter turnout peaked at 80 percent, with incumbent Ali Salem winning the mayoral race with 63 percent of the vote.
The Nazareth campaign was the most lively of any Israeli-Arab community. Three months prior to Election Day, Salem was thought to be unbeatable. Then came Walid Alfifi, a candidate from one of the most prominent and well-to-do families in the city, presenting a serious challenge. The Hadash party, which has controlled Nazareth city hall for more than three decades, did not run a mayoral candidate this time around, instead throwing its support to Alfifi. The heated mayoral contest descended into heated rhetoric on social media.
Salem expressed confidence that he would win, predicting 75 percent of the vote, while Alfifi's supporters expressed optimism in the closing days of the campaign that their candidate would pull off a narrow victory.
In the run-up to Election Day, the key to winning was seen to be the turnout from two city neighborhoods: The eastern neighborhood with 11,500 voters; and the Safafra neighborhood with 9,500. The residents of the Safafra quarter trace their roots for the most part to families uprooted during the War of Independence from the Galilee village of Safafra, in the area now known in Hebrew as Tzipori. Alfifi himself is from a family from Safafra that settled in Nazareth's Safara quarter, and he was therefore expected to draw major support from voters there.
Salem, who is known for a blunt and aggressive style, is considered a friend of the Israeli establishment and was received by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of the cabinet after Salem expressed harsh criticism of Arab Knesset members – notably Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh – and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel.
In the end, it appears that hopes for a fundamental change in voting patterns, and in choosing candidates based on merit rather than family connections, are still just a dream.