Israel Election Results: How Arab Voters Helped Deprive Netanyahu of Victory

Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan may owe two of its Knesset seats to Arab voters from Druze and Bedouin communities, say Arab society experts based on preliminary election results

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh voting in Haifa on Election Day, September 17, 2019.
rami shllush

If Kahol Lavan ultimately emerges as the largest political party in Israel following Tuesday’s election, it will have Arab voters to thank for that.

With more than 90 percent of the vote counted, the centrist party appears set to win 32 seats in the next Knesset — one more than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Arab voters seem to have provided the party with at least one, if not two, seats, according to experts.

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In the previous election held on April 9, Arab voters effectively saved the left-wing Zionist party Meretz from extinction, pushing it over the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Of the Jewish parties that ran in the April election, Meretz was the most popular among Arab voters. According to preliminary results made available by the Central Elections Committee, Kahol Lavan won more Arab votes than Meretz in Tuesday’s election.

“Most people today are talking about how many seats the Joint List of Arab parties won,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. “But in fact, a major development that has been overlooked is how much support Kahol Lavan got from Arab voters. They seem to have pushed it into the No.1 spot.”

Based on his initial calculations, Abu Rass said, Kahol Lavan appears to have won anywhere from 60,000 to 70,000 Arab votes. “We’re mainly talking about voters in the Druze and Bedouin communities — but not only,” he said.

Members of the community voting in the Bedouin city of Rahat, September 17, 2019.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Arik Rudnitzky, an expert on Arab society in Israel at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, said he does not believe the number is that high, although concurs that it is still significant. According to his calculations, Kahol Lavan probably owes one of its 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to Arab voters.

“In the last election campaign, [Kahol Lavan leader Benny] Gantz was a rookie and paid virtually no attention to Arab society,” he said. “This time, he made a real effort to reach out to Arab voters, and he was very open with them. He said maybe they couldn’t agree on political issues, but that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of areas where they could work together to improve the situation of Arab citizens. And this seems to have really paid off for Kahol Lavan.”

According to Rudnitzky, the turnout among Arab voters on Tuesday was just over 59 percent — compared with 49 percent in April. The four Arab parties in the Joint List ran under two separate tickets in April, together garnering 71 percent of the Arab vote. On Tuesday, the revived Joint List captured a much larger share of the Arab vote: 81 percent.

“Taking into account the fact that Arab voters were more inclined to vote for the Joint List this time around, Kahol Lavan’s relative success among Arab voters is all the more remarkable,” said Rudnitzky.

Abu Rass said he met with Gantz several times during the recent campaign, helping the Kahol Lavan leader with his outreach efforts to Arab voters. “He did a wonderful thing in his campaign — letting Arab voters know they could do business with him — and Arab voters paid him back,” he said.

According to preliminary figures published by the Central Elections Committee, Kahol Lavan won 76 percent of the vote in Daliat al-Carmel, 55 percent in Isfiya, 50 percent in Hurfeish and 37 percent in Beit Jann — all relatively large Druze towns.

A woman voting in Kfar Manda, an Arab town in northern Israel, September 17, 2019.
Ariel Schalit,AP

Late Tuesday night, Gantz called Joint List head Ayman Odeh to congratulate him on his alliance’s election showing (it is tipped to win 13 seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset). “This is the first time a leader of Gantz’s stature had made such a gesture to the head of an Arab party, and it sends a very positive message,” noted Abu Rass.

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Odeh said a follow-up conversation with Gantz was planned for later today. “The direction is very clear,” he said. “We want to replace the Netanyahu government, but at the same time we are not in anyone’s pocket.”

Odeh said that higher Arab turnout was the most critical factor on Tuesday. “That’s what brought about the big change,” he said.

Arab voters, he said, “prevented the establishment of an extremist right-wing government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Disappointed when the Joint List split up, many Arab voters stayed home on Election Day in April. The revival of the Joint List is believed to have been a major factor behind increased voter turnout in the Arab community this week. So was the vehemently anti-Arab campaign waged by Netanyahu in recent weeks, as part of an effort to rally his right-wing base.

“Incitement has a price,” Odeh told reporters.

Activists encouraging Arab members of the community to vote in Ramle, August 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

Another explanation for the estimated 20 percent increase in the number of Arabs who cast their ballot on Tuesday, compared with five months earlier, was an organized campaign to get out the vote. Comprising 11 civil society organizations active in Arab society, Coalition 17/9 was created last month and played a major role in the effort. It had nearly 600 volunteers spread out across the country on Election Day.

Firas Khawalad, one of the organization’s leaders, described it as a “huge success.”

“We expected turnout to increase, but we didn’t think we’d reach nearly 60 percent,” he said.

When exit polls were published on Tuesday night indicating that the Joint List could be the third largest party in the next Knesset, Khawalad said he “felt chills” go down his spine.

Among Arab voters, turnout tends to be lowest in the Bedouin community, as many Bedouin live in unrecognized villages and need to commute large distances to get to the nearest polling station. An organization called Zazim had planned to transport thousands of Bedouin to polling stations on Election Day, but on Sunday the Central Elections Committee ruled this a violation of election regulations.

Following the ruling, a group of concerned citizens mobilized independently to help bus the Bedouin to the polling booths. The effort paid off: Voter turnout among the Bedouin rose from 37 percent in April to just over 52 percent on Tuesday. In Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin city, turnout reached 60 percent. “That is unusually high,” noted Rudnitzky.