'Boycotting Isn't an Option'

Arab Parties Campaign to Fight 'Dejection and Despair' Among Their Voters

Parties are hopeful for a good turnout in the election after grim forecasts

MK Ayman Odeh at a Hadash-Ta’al campaign event in the Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, April 7, 2019.
Rami Shllush

Despite previous polls to the contrary, Israel's Arab parties are now hopeful for a good turnout in Tuesday's national election. While previous surveys predicted that less than half of the community will vote, the latest polls carried out by the parties are more optimistic.

Even if these predictions are correct, however, there is no assurance that the bloc comprising the Hadash-Ta’al and United Arab List-Balad parties (which ran together in the last election as the Joint List) will preserve its electoral strength in the next Knesset.

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The new, positive polls have attracted a great deal of attention on social media. “I have met a lot of people, including young ones, who said a week ago that they won’t be voting, but they’ve changed their mind,” says one veteran activist from the Balad party.

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“The main reason is they’re worried that the party won't pass the 3.25-percent electoral threshold. They say explicitly that they’re angry and frustrated, but they’re afraid of losing their representation so they will go out and vote [after all],” he adds.

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Raja Zaatry, who is in charge of communications for the Hadash-Ta'al alliance, agrees: “Our main enemy is dejection and despair, but the discourse has been changing on social media too: A lot of young people write that sitting at home boycotting the election isn’t an option, at least not one that answers the attack by Benjamin Netanyahu and the right wing. We will do everything we can in the next couple of days so Arabs do head to the voting booths 'in droves'.”

[The latter is a reference to a video posted on Facebook by Netanyahu on Election Day in 2015, warning that Israeli Arabs were turning out “in droves,” in an effort to get his supporters to go out and vote.]

Both parties have been targeting voters through social media and other means, such as a video by rapper Tamer Nafar, urging young Arabs not to boycott the election. Nafar advises them to use the ballot box to fight the “fascists” who want to "transfer" them out of Israel. Other Arab artists, including actor Mohammed Bakri, have called on members of the community to exploit their democratic right. He has produced a video clip, directly addressing would-be boycotters: “Vote for the Arab parties,” Bakri urges. “The Russians vote for the extreme right, the ultra-Orthodox vote for the extreme right, and the unfortunates who Netanyahu brainwashes, telling them the Arabs are flocking to the polling stations 'in droves,’ vote Likud. I beg you, vote for the Arab parties. We can topple Bibi.”

The United Arab List-Balad party is focusing its campaign particularly on the Negev, in the south, where there is a major concentration of potential voters. One activist told Haaretz that the party is organizing transportation to the voting stations. “There are unrecognized settlements 40 kilometers away from them, and it is particularly important to help these people to get out and vote,” he says.

The activist adds that polls, even the latest ones, cannot reflect the willingness to vote or the preferences of the Negev's Arab and Bedouin communities, so effective organization on Election Day is crucial.

Mansour Abbas, chairman of United Arab List-Balad, says that because his party is well aware of the potential for a low voting turnout, it is fielding 6,000 activists throughout Israeli Arab towns in the north and in the Negev. He is not worried about his party passing the electoral threshold, but does fear that a reluctance to vote will weaken his community's representation in the Knesset.

“We have the possibility to foment change, which must begin first and foremost with participating in the election,” says Abbas.

Hadash-Ta’al and United Arab List-Balad are also urging local governments and clan leaders to personally encourage voting in their areas.

In an interesting development, Jewish activists are also urging friends in the Arab community to vote. Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund, reports that there are Jewish activists volunteering to help drive Arabs to the voting stations.

“This is a new trend,” says Rass, adding that it apparently stems from the feeling that this time, a change in government is possible.

At the final Hadash-Ta'al campaign event in the city of Umm al-Fahm, on Sunday, Knesset members Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi urged the community to vote.

“Sitting at home is surrendering to racists and to misery. Minorities around the world need to be more proactive than the majority, and the Arab community should be too,” Tibi said.

Still, there are those who are less sanguine about Tuesday's vote.

“You don’t see the fire in people’s eyes,” says Ahmad Aljaber, a Ta'al activist. “Unfortunately, it’s become hard even to bring people to the campaign conventions, so the question is what will happen on Election Day.”