Here's What Happens if Israel Annexes the West Bank and Lets Palestinians Vote

A binational state with voting rights for all its Arab and Jewish citizens would radically change the makeup of Israel’s parliament. Here's how

Palestinians cast their vote at a polling station in the West Bank during the last Palestinian election in 2006
Nir Kafri

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks a lot these days about annexing the West Bank, or at least parts of it. He has been getting bolder, speaking more and more about applying Israeli sovereignty to all of the settlements there, no matter how tiny or isolated they are. 

He has yet to lay out a plan for bringing the entire territory – with its estimated 2.5 million Palestinian residents – under Israeli rule. But there are many within his own Likud party and among his coalition partners who support the idea. (Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz also talked this week of annexing the Jordan Valley.)

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Perhaps more surprisingly, so do growing numbers of Palestinians. As they see it, if one state is created between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, Israel will have little choice but to grant them voting rights. Given their numbers, they understand that once they obtain such rights, they will gain an enormous amount of political power – which may explain why Israeli governments to date have avoided annexation.

>> Two states, one state or something completely different: The solutions Israeli-Palestinian conflict explained ■ Annexation for Dummies: Making Sense of Netanyahu and Gantz's Declarations 

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There are many pro-annexationists on the Israeli right who have no problem with the idea of granting citizenship and voting rights to West Bank Palestinians. They maintain that estimates of the Palestinian population there are grossly exaggerated and there is no reason, therefore, to fear the loss of a Jewish majority anytime soon.

They also believe that few Palestinians will exercise their right to obtain citizenship. Other, more radical, right-wing Israelis who support a binational model would deny Palestinians the right to vote in Israeli elections and give them the choice of pledging allegiance to the state or leaving.

The latest public opinion polls published by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research show that as support among Palestinians for a two-state solution to the conflict dwindles, the one-state solution is gaining traction.

The latest poll, conducted last September, found that 56 percent of Palestinians polled opposed the two-state solution, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, but nearly a third supported the establishment of one binational state for Palestinians and Israelis. Support for the one-state option was particularly high among younger Palestinians. (Support for the two-state solution among Israelis has also declined, though a plurality of Israelis still favors this option over others.)

A Palestinians woman cast her vote at a polling station in the West Bank Village of Azaria Wednesday Jan 25 2006. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said he is ready to resume peace talks with Israel, even if Hamas joins his government after Wednesday's legislative vote. Photo by Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau
Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

So how would the Knesset look if Israel were to annex the entire West Bank, and Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were given the right to vote? (Although Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, its Palestinian residents must apply for Israeli citizenship and do not have the right to vote in national elections.) The Arab-majority Joint List won 13 out of the total 120 seats in the Knesset in the most recent election, held on September 17, with about 82 percent of Israel’s Arab citizens voting for this alliance of four separate parties.

When calculating the number of seats the Joint List – or some other configuration of Arab parties – would win were West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians allowed to vote in Israeli elections, much depends on the basic assumptions made. What percentage of voting-age Palestinians, for example, would actually exercise their right to vote? Would there still be just one Arab list running or several different parties? What percentage of the new votes would go to Arab or Arab-majority parties? Would Jewish Israelis vote differently given this new electoral reality?

For the purpose of this exercise, we will explore two possible scenarios: One in which just 40 percent of eligible West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinian voters exercise their right to vote; and a second in which 60 percent do (similar to the rate among Israeli Arabs in September’s do-over election).

PCPSR Director Khalil Shikaki describes a 40 percent participation rate as “reasonable,” but says it could rise significantly if Palestinian leaders campaigned hard to get the vote out. Aziz Abu Sarah, a prominent Palestinian peace activist and social entrepreneur who splits his time between East Jerusalem and the United States, believes turnout would be relatively low in a first election of this kind because many Palestinian hard-liners would continue to oppose cooperation with the state and its Jewish institutions. He predicts, however, that this opposition would wither over time.

Abu Sarah was the first Palestinian to consider running for mayor of Jerusalem. He announced his candidacy in September 2018, just before the last municipal election, but ultimately withdrew his bid a few weeks later after facing opposition both within his own Palestinian community and various legal obstacles in Israel.

For the sake of this exercise, we will assume there are 1,650,000 eligible Palestinian voters in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (based on 2018 population estimates provided by Shikaki). We will also assume that all those Israelis who voted in the September 17 election will vote again and vote exactly as they did then. Several weeks ago, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union announced a merger. We will assume for the sake of this exercise that all those Israelis who voted for either of these two slates in the September election will vote for the new Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket.  

Current Knesset makeup.

It would be “reasonable,” Shikaki says, to assume that 95 percent of the new voters from the West Bank and East Jerusalem would vote for Arab-majority or Arab lists (much higher than the rate among Israel’s Arab citizens in the last election). For the sake of simplicity and fairness, we will assume that the remaining 5 percent of the Palestinian vote is divided equally among the Jewish parties.

We will also assume that more votes will go to waste in the higher turnout scenario, because it is likelier in that case that more Arab parties will be running and that some will not cross the electoral threshold (gaining at least 3.25 percent of total votes cast).

Finally, we will assume there are no surplus vote agreements between the various parties, and that the percentage of votes disqualified is the same as in September.

First scenario: 40% Palestinian turnout

If 40 percent of eligible Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem were to vote, Kahol Lavan would remain the largest party, with Likud next in line, followed by the Joint List or some other bloc of Arab parties. However, the breakdown of seats among them would change dramatically.

What if Israel gave Palestinians the vote: Two scenarios.

Today, Kahol Lavan has 33 seats, Likud 32 and the Joint List 13. With West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians added to the voter pool, Kahol Lavan would slip to 29 seats and Likud to 28, while the Joint List (or some other bloc of Arab parties) would more than double its representation in the Knesset to 27 seats. With one exception, the other parties would each lose one seat: Since Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union have merged, it would lose two. 

In terms of blocs, Likud and its natural right-wing and religious partners would drop from 55 seats to 48 seats and would not be able to form a government, even with the help of another seven seats from Yisrael Beiteinu – the party headed by Avigdor Lieberman that sat on the fence in the last two elections. Neither would Kahol Lavan have the ability to form a government, unless it was willing to team up with the Arab parties.

The center-left bloc (not including Arab parties) would drop from 44 seats to 38. But together with 27 Arab seats, Kahol Lavan could easily form a majority of 65 seats without any help from Lieberman. That was not possible after the last election: Even if Kahol Lavan had been willing to bring the Joint List into its center-left coalition, it would still have fallen short of a majority.

Second scenario: 60% Palestinian turnout

If 60 percent of eligible Palestinian voters from the West Bank and East Jerusalem were to vote, the outcome changes dramatically: In this case, the Arab list or bloc of parties would be the largest in the Knesset with 32 seats – more than a quarter of the total. Next in line would be Kahol Lavan with 27 seats and Likud with 26 seats. In this scenario, Shas and the merged Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket would lose two of the seats they have today, while the other parties would all lose one seat.

The right-wing/religious bloc, in this case, would drop to 45 seats (10 fewer than it has now), and the center-left bloc to 36 seats (eight fewer than at present).

Obviously, once the basic assumptions are changed, the breakdown of votes can vary considerably. Michael Milshtein is head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. He says he would not automatically assume, for example, that the vast majority of Palestinians would vote for Arab parties.

“If the Zionist parties have the good sense to place Arab candidates in top spots on their rosters – ideally, Muslim Arabs – that could be a game-changer,” Milshtein says. “Many Arab citizens of Israel don’t feel they have anyone to vote for, and this could make a huge difference for them.”

If Palestinians are permitted to vote, Shikaki believes it could finally pave the way for the creation of a proper Jewish-Arab party. “This is not a fantasy at all,” he says. “I would say it is a distinct possibility, and this joint Arab-Jewish list could end up receiving the highest percentage of Arab votes.”

Whether the Palestinian leadership encourages people to go out and vote will also prove critical in the eventual turnout, says Abu Sarah. “It would be stupid if it didn’t,” he says.

The creation of Arab parties that cut across the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders), he adds, is another factor that could boost turnout dramatically. “In that case, you’d have people involved from Israel who already know how to run campaigns and how to convince people to vote,” he says.

Abu Sarah, for one, is a big fan of the annexation plan. “I’m all for it,” he says, “and I know there are many young Palestinians who think just like me.”