In Israel's Do-over Election, Zionist Parties Are Actively Courting Arab Voters

The close race has given center-left parties like Kahol Lavan and Democratic Union a reason to make a fundamental shift in the way they relate to Israeli Arabs

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz talking on Hala TV, July 2019.
Screengrab from Hala TV

In late July, prime ministerial hopeful Benny Gantz gave a half-hour-long interview to Hala TV, the most widely watched Arabic-language television station in Israel.

What was remarkable about it wasn’t what he said. Indeed, the leader of the centrist Kahol Lavan party managed to avoid most of the tough questions he was asked, like his position on creating a bloc with the Arab parties, should he get a first crack at forming the next government, and his stand on amending the controversial nation-state law — widely seen by Arabs in Israel as an attempt to downgrade them to second-class citizens.

What made the interview newsworthy was that it was the first one the former army chief of staff has granted to the Arabic-language media in Israel since entering politics. Before the April 9 election, Gantz had virtually ruled out any option for joining forces with Arab parties. He also consistently avoided calling members of this minority “Arabs,” preferring the rather insulting term “non-Jews” instead.

By shunning and snubbing Arab voters, Gantz and the other leaders of Kahol Lavan were clearly trying to push back against the campaign by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies on the right to portray them as weak leftists.

But in his recent Arabic television interview, Gantz indicated that something fundamental had shifted in the Kahol Lavan approach to Arab voters. His party, he promised listeners, “will reach out to the Arab citizens, to the Arab Knesset members and to the Arab public in Israel.”

“You are part of the State of Israel,” he reassured them, “and we are here to serve you like everybody else.” He ended the interview, conducted in Hebrew, with a symbolic gesture: thanking his host in Arabic.

It is just one example of how Israel’s center-left Zionist parties are taking Arab voters much more seriously ahead of the do-over September 17 election. A better-known example was the public apology delivered by Ehud Barak — one of the leaders of the Democratic Union — for the death of 12 Israeli-Arab citizens during clashes with police in October 2000. It happened during his tenure as prime minister.

“There is no place for protesters to be killed by security and police forces of the State of Israel, their state,” he told Israeli public radio. “I express my regret and apology to the families [of those killed] and to the Arab community.”

Ehud Barak speaking at the launch of the Democratic Union party, July 25, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

It took nearly 20 years to elicit this apology from the former prime minister, but the timing was not coincidental.

Barak had recently merged a new party he formed with left-wing Meretz to create the Democratic Union. More than 25 percent of Israeli Arabs voted for Meretz in April, effectively rescuing the party from extinction, as it barely crossed the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Leaders of the new alliance clearly understood that if Barak did not issue this mea culpa, he could prove to be a major liability for them.

Even more dramatic was a statement released by Yair Golan, number two on the Democratic Union list and a former deputy chief of staff, while addressing an audience this past Saturday in the Arab town of Baka al-Garbiyeh. Every government should have an Arab minister, Golan said loud and clear, expressing his support for cooperation with the Joint List of four Arab-led parties.

“This has not yet been said,” he pointed out. “We must say, and we are saying it, that we view cooperation positively. We view a situation in which there is an Arab minister positively.”

Directly to the Arab voters

Arab parties have never been part of a coalition government in Israel. For part of his tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, Yitzhak Rabin relied on the Arab parties for support to prevent his government from toppling, but they were not officially part of the ruling coalition.

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz speaking at a party conference, July 31, 2019.
Nir Keidar

It is not only Kahol Lavan and the Democratic Union reaching out to Arab voters. Amir Peretz, the new head of the Labor Party, chose to open his campaign with a visit to Rahat, the large Bedouin city in southern Israel, followed by one to Tamra, an Arab town in northern Galilee. It was a first for a Labor leader.

“In many ways, what we are seeing now is unprecedented,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes a shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens.

“The center-left Zionist parties are basically going over the heads of the Arab parties to appeal directly to Arab voters in a very genuine manner,” said Abu Rass, “and that is because they have identified the growing frustration of Arab voters with the parties that are meant to represent them.”

“Instead of addressing the issues that are of concern to these voters — such as violence in their communities and home demolitions — they are quibbling over whether or not to sign a surplus vote agreement with the Democratic Union,” he added.

In the April election, nearly 30 percent of Arab voters cast their ballot for Zionist parties (mainly Meretz). According to a poll published in late July by the Abraham Initiatives, in conjunction with two other organizations active in promoting shared society (Sikkuy and the aChord Center), about a third of eligible Arab voters have not yet decided whether they will vote in the coming election. The survey was conducted before the two Arab blocs that ran in April finalized an agreement to merge back into one slate (which had been formed in 2015).

Among those who said they hadn't decided whether to vote yet, many said that the revival of the Joint List could persuade them. Another factor that might influence their decision, many said, was a promise by parties on the center-left to address issues of special concern to Arab citizens.

“Because the race is virtually neck and neck now, the center-left parties know that every single vote counts, and that includes Arab votes as well,” said Abu Rass. “That’s why I believe they are investing far more efforts this time around to court Arab voters.”