Israel Election 2020: Turnout Is Key as 'Betrayed' Arab Voters Take Aim at Trump, Netanyahu

Left-wing Zionist parties have lost their luster in the town of Kafr Qasem as Arabs face attacks by Netanyahu, with the Joint List expected to benefit from a protest vote against the U.S. peace plan in Israel's election

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A voter outside a polling place in Kafr Qasem, central Israel, on Election Day, March 2, 2020.
A voter outside a polling place in Kafr Qasem, central Israel, on Election Day, March 2, 2020. Credit: Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Kafr Qasem

KAFR QASEM – Arab citizens of Israel tend to postpone voting on Election Day until the late afternoon and evening hours – the better to take advantage of the day off from work, they say. That might explain why barely a trickle of voters could be observed outside the main polling places in Kafr Qasem, an Arab town about 25 minutes from Tel Aviv, during the mid-morning hours.

Abdel Tamam, a prominent local artist, was one exception. By 10 A.M., not only had he already finished his breakfast and cast his ballot, but he was seated at his usual spot at a popular hole-in-the-wall downtown café, engaged in lively conversation with the other regulars.

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He makes no secret of how he cast his ballot. “Everyone must vote for the Joint List,” Abdel Tamam declares, referring to the alliance of four Arab-led parties. “They are the only ones who can protect us from the racists here who want to uproot us.”

Abdel Tamam, who gives his age as “76 plus,” is referring to an element of U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-called “deal of the century,” which has sparked outrage among Israel’s Arab citizens. And it is of special relevance to the roughly 350,000 Arabs who live in this area of Israel known as “The Triangle.”

Originally designated to fall under Jordanian jurisdiction, this cluster of towns and villages along the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders of Israel) was handed over to Israel as part of the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Trump’s new Mideast peace plan raises the possibility that Israel might hand it back so it could be incorporated into a future Palestinian state.

Hamza Freige in Kafr Qasem on Election Day, March 2, 2020.Credit: Judy Maltz

The threat of losing their citizenship through such a land swap has caused great anger among residents here. In fact, they are livid. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attacks against Israeli Arabs helped boost the community’s turnout in the September 17 election, then to judge by conversations in Kafr Qasem on Monday morning, the Trump plan could end up doing the same this time around.

That’s why none of the men sitting around this outdoor table are reading too much into the short lines outside the town’s polling places this morning. Just wait, they say.

“For many people here in Kafr Qasem, going out to vote is an act of revenge; political revenge,” says Hamza Freige, a 35-year-old physical therapist and the younger brother of former Meretz lawmaker Esawi Freige. Hamza Freige will be voting for the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate – mainly out of loyalty to his brother but also, he says, because he still believes in Jewish-Arab partnership – but understands that he represents a tiny minority in this town.

“Mark my words, 99 percent of the voters here will be voting for the Joint List – actually, make that 99.5 percent,” he says.

That could include his own cousin, Yousef Freige, whom we have just met outside a polling station at a local high school. Yousef is unusually coy when asked who he will be voting for. “It’s a secret,” he responds.

‘Absolute betrayal’

Rodayna Badir, a prominent activist in Jewish-Arab shared society initiatives, grew up here, one of 12 siblings in a prominent family. “We used to pooh-pooh our parents’ fears and their tendency to dwell on the past. But the ‘deal of the century’ has proven to us that our parents were right all along,” says the 44-year-old mother of four, who is conducting her postdoctoral research at the Hebrew University.

Rodayna Badir, who is from Kafr Qasem. The Trump Mideast Plan's land swap proposal and the Israeli left's subsequent silence "made me feel that my whole life, I’ve been living a lie," she says.Credit: Courtesy

“For us,” she continues, “this is absolute betrayal – because clearly the Jews were the ones who inserted this very problematic clause into the plan. Trump would not have known the names of the towns in the Triangle. But the biggest blow to us by far was that hardly a peep was heard from leaders of the left when this all came out. Parties like Labor and Meretz, which many of us once considered our political homes – they were silent. It made me feel that my whole life I’ve been living a lie.”

In the first in the unprecedented cycle of three elections in less than a year, last April, Meretz did better than any other party in Kafr Qasem, capturing 38.7 percent of the vote. In fact, thanks to thousands of Arab citizens around the country – but especially here in Esawi Freige’s hometown – Meretz succeeded in crawling over the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the total vote.

Just before the do-over election in September, Meretz merged with the new party founded by Ehud Barak – the former Labor Party leader widely detested in the Arab community because he was prime minister during the infamous protests of October 2000, when 12 Arab citizens were shot to death by police. To enable the electoral pact, Esawi Freige was pushed down the ticket to sixth spot.

Voters in Kafr Qasem made their feelings known at the ballot box: The Joint List won a resounding victory here, capturing 67.5 percent of the vote. The Meretz-Barak slate (known as Democratic Union) won barely a quarter of the vote, not enough to get their local boy returned to the Knesset. As part of the alliance between Labor-Gesher and Meretz for this election, Esawi Freige was bumped down ever further, to the 11th spot. (The slate is polling to win no more than nine seats on Monday.)

‘Excitement in the air’

Shawki Sarsour, a local school teacher hanging out at the café, says he won’t forgive Meretz. “I voted for them in April, but not in September,” he says. “This is not the Meretz I once knew. How could they have put Esawi into the 11th spot?” he asks. “I just don’t understand it. Is there nothing left of their ideology?”

Sarsour, like Abdel Tamam, had already cast his ballot when we spoke. “I voted for the Joint List again,” he says. “It’s the only party that represents me.”

The "parliament" in session in Kafr Qasem on Election Day, including Shawki Sarsour (center, brown jacket) and Abdel Tamam (far right).Credit: Judy Maltz

Last April, only 49 percent of eligible Arab voters cast their ballots. The Joint List had run as two separate tickets then, to the annoyance of many Arab voters, and only won a combined total of 10 seats (down three from its previous showing in March 2015).

In the do-over election, 59 percent of eligible Arab citizens voted. By then, the two separate tickets had reunited and the Joint List won 13 seats. The final polls prior to Monday’s election suggest that the Joint List could win as many as 15 seats this time around.

Whether that happens will depend on voter turnout in Arab society and the number of Jewish voters who cast their ballot for the Joint List. According to initial forecasts, it could be a record number, possibly giving the Joint List an extra seat in the 23rd Knesset.

Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives – a nonprofit that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens – predicts that voter turnout among Arabs could be as high as 67 percent. “There is a lot of excitement in the air,” he says. “The Arabs want to prove something.”

Waiting for voters to arrive at a polling station in Kafr Qasem on Election Day, March 2, 2020.Credit: Judy Maltz

He believes turnout in some of the big Arab cities like Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm, which was below average in September, will pick up Monday, as will turnout in the Bedouin sector.

Last September, 19 percent of eligible Arab voters cast their ballots for Jewish parties. Abu Rass predicts that will be lower this time, with even bigger numbers supporting the Joint List. “I would not be at all surprised if they win 15 seats,” he says.

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