As Israel Election Nears, Disillusioned Voters Could Wipe Out the Arab Parties

Public opinion polls indicate turnout in the March vote could recede below 60 percent of eligible Israeli Arab voters, amid growing disappointment at Arab-majority parties' infighting and lack of influence

Jack Khoury
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A voter outside a polling place in Kafr Qasem, central Israel, last year
A voter outside a polling place in Kafr Qasem, central Israel, last yearCredit: Judy Maltz
Jack Khoury

Experts and pollsters are finding it hard to project the rate of Arab voter participation in Israel’s March 23 election. Polls have thus far indicate that the Israeli Arab voter turnout may fall below 60 percent and possibly as low as 52 percent, down from nearly 65 percent in the last election and 59 percent in the previous one.

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In April 2019 only 49 percent of eligible Israeli Arabs cast ballots, a low point attributed to a split in the Joint List.

The Israeli Arab vote could prove critical to the upshot of who wins the mandate to form the next government. Most Israeli Arab voters support the Joint List and the United Arab List, which ran with the three other factions – Hadash, Balad and Ta'al – in previous election campaigns.

Other Israeli parties could win a few Knesset seats based on Arab ballots as well, the experts say.

Prof. Amal Jamal, of the political science school at Tel Aviv University says Arab voter participation depends a great deal on the Joint List and the United Arab List: if they keep their messages clear and focus on the campaigns by other parties, notably the Likud, to delegitimize them, it could encourage greater voter turnout.

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on Tuesday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“They mustn’t fall into the trap of mutual recriminations on a personal basis which could spur disgust among potential voters in Arab society, especially among younger people, many of whom want to boycott the vote,” he said. On the other hand, a real public debate, even about religion and society, could bring more people to the polls.

Following its achievement in the last election, many voters had expected it to wield greater influence and feel disappointed. Many may vote for the Joint List again anyway, for the same reasons as in the past: as an act of defiance.

Both the Joint List and the United Arab List have been holding meetings inside homes, avoiding street rallies, particularly since the parties’ recent split. “It’s not only because of the coronavirus but in order to reach more families,” a Joint List activist said.

Mohammed Halalya, a researcher of Israeli Arab society, estimates based on a poll of 2,000 people that about 57 percent of the eligible Israeli Arabs will vote, which he feels is high, certainly compared to the levels a few months ago when the Knesset dissolved. The numbers could fall if the parties fixate on their personal disputes rather than presenting the public with operative courses of action.

Joint List members pose for a family photo after launching their Hebrew-language election campaign in Tel Aviv, this week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“There’s no question that the numbers of voters declined because of the disappointment with the Joint List and its splitup,” Halalya said. “Arab voters want change, and for the burning issues, particularly violence and crime, to be dealt with. More than 81 percent of the respondents said that violence in Arab society is the main issue, as well as zoning and construction. So the way that any not only Arab parties but others relate to these issues, or present operative plans, could spur more people to vote.”

Murky or bellicose messaging could if anything depress the vote, Halalya says — and that could dramatically impact Arab representation in the Knesset. It is not unthinkable that parties on the center-left be wiped out.

Eihab Kadah, director of Arab research at the Midgam institute, agrees that indications show voter turnout picking up. People who already decided against voting for the Joint List or the United Arab List are clear who they do mean to choose; but a lot remain on the fence. Since the vote is critical to Arab representation, this is an issue that Arab parties need to work on, Kadah says.

“The data show we won’t reach the 63-percent point this time and optimistic forecasts predict 56 or 57 percent. The personal feuds and negative campaigning can hurt voter turnout, in addition of course to the significant impact of how many Israeli voters in general turn up to cast ballots,” Kadah said, adding: “It’s quite clear that the Arab voters are tired of the infighting and mudslinging. This doesn’t encourage voters, particularly among the undecided, which opposed the split in the Joint List to begin with.”

Conversations Haaretz has had with Arab voters tend to support his thesis. Lama Hajj Yihya of Taibeh had voted in the past but declined to do so in the last election, and plans to sit out the March 23 election too. “In 2015 the mood was different. We thought we could bring real change, and nothing happened,” she said. “I boycotted the last election despite the euphoria as though something big was happening. The conduct of the politicians and splits in the Joint List have only reinforced my feeling that there’s no point in participating in the election. The struggles have become personal and egotistical.”

Yithrab Hassan Suweid of Mashad feels much the same. Five years ago she voted for the Joint List. That was the last time she voted. “The lack of influence is very clear and the intrigues and personal struggles all push it in that direction,” she said. “In the last election they promised there would be change and nothing happened.”

M. from Haifa voted in the last election but won’t do it again after the latest splits. “What happened in the last election proves there’s no common strategy or collective leadership so there’s no point in voting,” she said. “Why must I hear about daily disputes over the LGBTQ issues and religion as though these were important topics now for the Arab community?”

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