Analysis

Israel Election Results: Arab Citizens Are Playing the Political Game, but Israel Isn’t Ready for Them Yet

On March 2, the Joint List beat its electoral record, changing the face of Israeli politics; but Israel’s traditional left and its shortcomings are standing in the way

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, after exit polls were released, in the party headquarters in Shfaram, northern Israel, March 2, 2020.
Gil Eliahu

The slowly incoming results of the March 2 ballot have sent a clear message to Israel’s Arab community: The dialogue over peace, equality, partnership and integration may boost voter turnout – but it will not change reality. And the reality is that Israel is a right-wing country, and increased representation of the Arab community in the Knesset will not go hand in hand with its chances of integration and influence. In fact, the opposite is true — it actually leads to more extremism among Jewish Israelis, and repression of their Arab neighbors.

The country is first and foremost Jewish, the numbers tell the Arab community, and you will benefit only from the dregs of the democratic barrel. Arab voters know this intimately. When exit polls were released on Monday night, at the Joint List’s campaign headquarters in northern city of Shfaram,  some cheered for a few seconds – but despite all their efforts to play up the party’s achievement, expressions on the faces of the members of the Joint List said it all.

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Arab parties have never won such a number of seats in an Israeli election, whether it ends up being 14 or 15. The Joint List was quite sure that 15 seats were within reach, which would mean that four women from the party would enter the Knesset, including Iman Khatib of the Islamic Movement. Israeli MKs might have to get used to sitting in the Knesset alongside a woman wearing a hijab. Given the Israeli reality, this is both a precedent and an achievement in its own right, and in every way.

In the election for the 23rd Knesset, the Joint List had all it needed to succeed: The party continued its momentum from the September 2019 election, and received a boost in the past few months from its activist stance against violence in the Arab community and the “Kaminitz Law” on illegal construction, which hiked penalties for building violations. They also benefited from efforts by most Arab mayors to encourage voter turnout, and a large door-to-door campaign to convince voters to come out.

The Joint List never dared to dream of an optimal outcome, but at the end of Election Day, its members felt both angry and frustrated. Those who failed to show up this time were not the Arabs – who woke up Tuesday morning to just another day of work as Arab citizens – but all those who presented themselves as an alternative, whether it was Kahol Lavan or Labor-Gesher-Meretz, the so-called Zionist left. These two parties need to do some soul-searching, and maybe the entire Israeli public needs to think about where the country is heading. Ultimately, Israel’s Arab citizens want to integrate and play the political game – but Israel is not yet ready for that, not in any way.