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Israel Election: Arab Voters' High Aspirations Have Yielded to Modest Hopes

In the 2020 election, voters hoped the Joint List could shape Israel's political agenda. Now, after a split in the Arab alliance and an uptick in gun violence, voters are focused on the basics: personal security, housing and jobs

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A Joint List election campaign poster in Lod.
A Joint List election campaign poster in Lod.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The Israeli public as a whole is approaching Election Day with a sense of burnout and without expectations of major change, but the situation in the country’s Arab community is much worse. In the most recent Knesset election a year ago, the Arab population expressed solid support for the Joint List slate, whose four constituent Arab parties received 87 percent of the Arab vote. There were great expectations.

The candidates and the general atmosphere conveyed a sense that change was in the air. The unity among the Arab parties and the fact that a leading candidate – Benny Gantz – was posing a genuine challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu – provided a tailwind that translated into 15 Knesset seats for the Joint List.

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The “Defeat Netanyahu” election slogan appeared attainable, and it looked like the Arab public might be able to set a new agenda for the Israeli government and exert influence on decision-making. Naive members of the electorate said this time it would happen while the pessimists said it wouldn’t last. But within weeks everything fell apart. The dream for change quickly died and everyone began looking for excuses.

One thing became quite clear: The State of Israel is not yet ready for such a dramatic step. A scenario such as the 1992 Rabin government, which relied on support from five Knesset members from Arab parties, won’t be repeated. The Israeli public doesn’t view that as legitimate.

Protesters calling for government action on gun violence in the Arab community, Umm al-Fahm, last week.Credit: rami shllush

In the wake of last year’s election, anger and frustration weren’t long in coming. Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, which has now broken with the Joint List to run on its own in Tuesday’s election, has taken advantage of the current atmosphere and has sought change on his own. “I’m not in anyone’s pocket,” Abbas has claimed at every opportunity, insisting that he is “neither on the left or the right.”

The talk of contacts between Mansour Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu have been reinforced by positive messages that Abbas and the Prime Minister’s Office have exchanged, in addition to Netanyahu’s attendance at a session of the special Knesset committee on eliminating crime in the Arab community, which Abbas heads. In the process, the way was paved for Abbas’ break from the Joint List.

The issue of LGBTQ rights, which had barely been on the Arab public agenda, became an issue over which the parties of the Joint List have locked horns. It has mainly become the grist for debate on social media, but it’s not an issue that brings people out onto the street, unlike violence in Arab society.

Shootings and killings in Arab communities have become routine. At the same time, the implementation of the Kaminetz Law, which increases sanctions for illegal construction in Arab towns, has hit hundreds of thousands of people in the pocketbook. Many people have had to demolish what they had built, and the wave of demolitions in the south picked up steam just as the coronavirus pandemic hit.

An Arabic-language campaign billboard from Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party in Rahat.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

If 15 years ago Arab opinion leaders sat and drew up vision statements that spoke of a long-term strategic vision, today Arab citizens gauge their situation based first and foremost on their personal security – as well as their employment and health situation. All of the nationalist discourse in the community has been pushed aside. President Trump’s Middle East “deal of the century,” a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and even the nation-state law are no longer being discussed.

That laid the groundwork for the right wing, and particularly Netanyahu, to speak to the Arab public. And if Netanyahu can, anybody can.

All of the parties have looked for Arab candidates who could attract votes. The Arab community has suddenly became a major reservoir of potential voters and every party has presented its own plan to address Arab community violence and distress. Netanyahu has embraced the Arabic nickname Abu Yair and was quick to pass a cabinet decision providing 150 million shekels ($46 million) in government funding to combat the violence.

After all, you have to give the Arabs something – but everything else can wait until after the election. As the prime minister sees it, that was enough to attract more Arab voters. He wasn’t dealing with fundamental issues affecting the Arab community, but he could resolve matters with money or through another administrative decision – such as a minor suspension of the implementation of the Kaminetz Law. But none of this will change the world order or upgrade the status of Israel’s Arab citizens.

As far as the Arabs are concerned, there’s no difference between right and left. Even the expected election to the Knesset of extreme right-winger Itamar Ben-Gvir has not been a subject of serious discussion. If a year ago, the Joint List, with all of its constituent parties, was seeking to boost the influence of its voters, now it has reverted to again simply trying to get people to turn out and vote. There are those who suggest that the competition between the Joint List and Mansour’s United Arab List should encourage the Arab turnout. That may be true in a normal political atmosphere, but not now.

Arabic-language campaign billboards in Rahat from the United Arab List, left, and the Joint List.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

This election campaign has lacked thorough political debate. Things that in a normal country would be considered basic rights – such as personal security, housing and government funding for development – have become grist for political and electoral conflict. Arab citizens who at one time went to vote thinking in terms of national identity, self-determination and improved civic status will be casting their ballots this time around battered and confused and seeking the basic necessities of life.

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