Arab Voters Rebuke Netanyahu and Gantz, Send Message That They Want in the Political Game

Like the ultra-Orthodox, Arab citizens also want to leverage their political strength for financial gain

Meirav Moran
Meirav Moran
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Ayman Odeh of the Joint List poses among supporters with election pamphlets during a campaign rally in Taibeh on February 21, 2020.
Ayman Odeh of the Joint List poses among supporters with election pamphlets during a campaign rally in Taibeh on February 21, 2020. Credit: AFP
Meirav Moran
Meirav Moran

Some 64.7% of eligible voters among the Arab public voted in Israel’s 23rd Knesset election. This is an increase of more than 5% compared to the 59.2% who voted in the election in September, and a full 15% increase from the 49.2% who voted last April. Israel has no record of a single populace increasing its voting rate so sharply over the course of less than a year.

This is the highest percentage of Arabs voting since 1999, when some 75% of the Arab community voted in an effort to make Ehud Barak prime minister. A year and a half later, when the second intifada broke out, the community learned a bitter lesson about the prime minister’s faithfulness to his Arab constituents, and their voting participation has been down sharply ever since.

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Monday’s vote produced an unprecedented achievement for the Joint List, which is comprised of primarily Arab parties, which received 15 MKs after 99.8% of votes were counted – two more than it got in the September elections. Arabs account for 21% of Israel’s citizens, so if they were to vote in keeping with their percentage of the population, they’d have a full 25 Knesset seats. Fifteen seats, a handsome accomplishment by all accounts, is still an under-representation of that community. The voting rate for Israeli citizens at large was 71%, which means the Arab sector as a whole still has something to aspire to.

An important part of the credit for the electoral success goes to the Joint List, which did good work politically, and to the leadership of Ayman Odeh. Odeh succeeded, against all odds, to unify all the different sectors of Arab society and present a united party, which worked together and focused on advancing Arab citizens’ interests within the government and the Knesset. If the Arab community’s low point in voter participation last April could be attributed to disappointment from the Joint List’s split, then the record high is now an expression of Arab citizens’ gratitude that their Knesset members are representing them well.

Odeh, along with MK Ahmad Tibi, also deserve credit for the Joint List’s unusual achievement among the Jewish public. Arik Rudnitzky of the Israel Democracy Institute says the Joint List gained voters outside Arab-majority locales. Jewish voters are thought to have given the Joint List an extra half to a full Knesset seat, an unprecedented figure. This stems from the Jewish left’s disappointment over Meretz joining up with Labor and Gesher, as well as Tibi and Odeh’s excellent work at drawing in the Jewish left by presenting the Joint List as the only party interested in equality and peace.

Resentment at anti-Arab rhetoric

However, most of the credit for Arab voters’ awakening goes to the nasty intentions of Jewish legislators. The Likud’s campaign slogan “Gantz doesn’t have a government without Tibi” attempted and even succeeded at delegitimizing a community that accounts for 21% of Israel’s citizens – pushing that 21% to prove that it has a voice.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no doubt has an important role in the Arab awakening. What began as “Arab voters are flocking to the polls in droves” in 2015 continued with the nation-state law and then Trump’s so-called deal of the century, which called for transferring the Arab Israeli citizens within the  Triangle region near the West Bank to a future Palestinian state. Not much more was needed to warn Israel’s Arab citizens that their citizenship was in danger, and that if they didn’t wake up and use their power to protect themselves, they might find themselves stateless. 

Netanyahu brought this damage upon himself, but he wasn’t the only one. Kahol Lavan also committed a strategic error when it got swept up in Netanyahu’s delegitimacy campaign, and stated that it would form a coalition resting on a “Jewish majority.” This week, a full 88% of Arab voters voted for the Joint List. The remaining 11% who voted for Jewish parties represent the lowest percentage ever of Arab support for Jewish parties, and is an indication of the deep disappointment with all the options, even Meretz, which in joining with Labor and Gesher pushed its Arab MK down into a low spot on its candidates list that wouldn’t realistically make the Knesset.

Analysts say that had Kahol Lavan extended a hand to Arab voters, there may have been an even larger voter turnout within that community. Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya of the Israel Democracy Institute says that had the Arabs sensed that they’re wanted within the Israeli political milieu, the community may have even had 70% voter turnout, which would have meant another two Knesset seats on the left. She cites opinion polls in which 80% of Arab respondents said they would like to be partners in the government, as well as the impressive support that Barak won in 1999, the last time the community at large held high hopes of being part of Israeli politics.
The high percentage of voting among the Arab public is not an indication that the community gave up on partnerships with Jews.

Ayman Odeh of the Joint List alliance, meets a supporter during an election campaign event, February 21, 2020. Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

Rather, it’s an indication that it finally understood its political strength and the need to exercise it. Conversely, Netanyahu’s “Gantz doesn’t have a government without Tibi” campaign showed the community how strong it is – people are afraid of them, meaning they have the power to influence. In addition, the endless debate of whether Gantz would form a minority government with the Joint List’s support from the outside also reinforced that feeling of strength.

Israel’s Arab citizens are finally starting to feel like they’re influential and effective within the Knesset. The 2015 government decision to allocate 10 billion shekels ($2.9 billion) on closing the gaps in the Arab community was a clear result of the Joint List’s founding. The Joint List has only gained strength since then, and it has been active on social and economic issues, such as its campaign to do away with the Kaminitz Law on illegal construction within Arab communities. Even without being in the coalition or the cabinet, the Arab community’s increased strength in the Knesset is starting to bear fruit.

Economics over ideology

“Arab society underwent a massive change in awareness,” says Ayman Saif, a former head of the Authority for Economic Development of the Minority Sectors. “This is a community with a middle class, an improving quality of life, and financial aspirations. This is a community that wants to be involved and influential. It’s not for nothing that 80% of Arabs say they want to be part of the government,” he says.

The Arab sector’s political awakening is thought to be only beginning, and that its political involvement will only increase as the community becomes wealthier. After the September elections, the Joint List presented Kahol Lavan with a list of conditions for supporting a minority government. The large majority of its demands were financial and social: doing away with the Kaminitz Law, fighting crime, a 32-billion-shekel five-year economic development plan, doing away with the nation-state law, founding an Arab university, founding an Arab hospital, founding an Arab city, addressing the problems facing unrecognized Bedouin towns in the Negev, building industrial zones in Arab communities, integrating Arab citizens into the high-tech industry and increasing employment within the Arab sector.

Only at the end of the list was there a demand to advance a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians. Like the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs also want to leverage their political strength for financial gain. They’re not fools anymore, they want accomplishments, and they’re expected to ramp up their national political involvement in order to achieve this goal.

“After 72 years, the Arabs want a voice, too,” says Haj-Yahya. “The Arab public discovered its power, and now it’s up to the Jews to understand that. If a Jewish leader comes along who’s willing to see the Arabs as equals, and to accept them into his camp, he could make major political achievements.”

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