Arab Israelis Are Having a Crisis of Confidence — and It May Keep Them Away From Ballot on Election Day

Residents of a number of Israeli Arab communities who spoke to Haaretz say that the Joint List hasn't been responsive to their issues, and reject Ayman Odeh's statements

Residents of Jisr al-Zarqa.
Rami Shllush

Many Arab voters had heard the remarks of Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh last week that he would be willing to enter a center-left government headed by Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz – and they were not impressed.

Despite the re-establishment of the Joint List of four Arab parties and Odeh’s claim that he is seeking to increase Arab voter turnout in the Knesset election on September 17, many expressed a lack of confidence in Arab elected officials. It is this lack of confidence that led to a significant drop in Arab voter turnout in the Knesset election in April.

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According to residents of Arab towns who spoke to Haaretz, the Arab parties that constitute the Joint List are more occupied with the Palestinian issue than with the problems that concern Israeli Arabs, and therefore it doesn’t matter much whether they are in the coalition or the opposition. “The Arab parties are trying to ride on the backs of Arab public,” Hassan Asma’i, of the northern coastal town of Jisr al-Zarqa, griped.

Last week in an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Odeh said his slate might be part of a bloc of parties that would prevent the formation of a right-wing government and also might recommend that President Reuven Rivlin tap Gantz to form a government. Over the weekend, the Joint List said it would also not rule out joining a future governing coalition, but it would depend on future political developments.

Odeh said his declared goal was to increase Arab voter turnout, which is much lower than the 68.5 percent turnout for the Israeli electorate as a whole.

“Around the world, minorities vote at higher rates than the majority,” Odeh told Yedioth. “Our immediate task is to increase the percentage of voters.” His desire, he said, was to “transform Arab politics from protest politics to impact politics.”

But in Jisr al-Zarqa and other Arab communities, people are worried about other things. Many are not persuaded by Odeh’s declaration. “Ayman Odeh is trying to attract votes in all kinds of ways. We’ve seen it all,” said Amad Amash skeptically.

Voter turnout in the town, situated between Hadera and Haifa, is 21 percent – the lowest of any Arab community. Mar’i Jubran, a local high school teacher, said: “We need someone who will see to our needs. Odeh and his party only care about the Palestinian side, but they neglect us.”

Another resident, Musa Jubran, said Arab society’s lack of confidence in Israeli politics has grown in recent years. “In previous elections, I didn’t vote and I probably won’t this time either. Everybody comes with promises. Nobody cares about the Arab community inside Israel,” he claimed. And even if voter turnout increases, Jubran says, voters will still be looking to other parties to change things. For his part, he’s planning on “trying” Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, a centrist Zionist party.

Another local resident, Ahmed Imam, said he’s voting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. “I prefer to vote for Bibi,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname, “even if only as the model of a person who sees to the needs of his people,” he said. “The Arabs are working against Arabs ....”

Some of Jisr al-Zarqa’s town council members have said they will vote for the Joint List as part as a strategic effort to beat the right wing. There are residents in town who expressed concern, however, about the consequences of a low Arab voter turnout. One man, who identified himself as Anwar, warned that “if we don’t elect Arabs, there will be no more Arabs” in the Knesset.

No stories

Election Day is a day off work for most of the population but Suheib Yunis, of the northern town of Arara where voter turnout was 39 percent, said he would be going to work that day. “I’ll get double pay,” he remarked. “Why should I sit at home for Bibi and Tibi?,” he asked, referring to Joint List Knesset member Ahmad Tibi.

Residents of Arara, in the triangle of Arab communities northeast of Hadera, said they’re busy with daily survival and don’t take an interest in the news. They’ve had it with pronouncements by politicians, including Odeh’s statement last week, which they say mean nothing in real life.

Suheib Yunis, a resident of Arara.
Rami Shllush

“People are fed up with talk and the fact that no one sees to their needs. Let them stop telling us stories,” an Arara resident named Mohammed told Haaretz. For her part, another town resident, Rima, said Odeh is not credible and that she was less likely to vote following his comments about the Joint List’s possible greater involvement in mainstream Israeli politics.“We’re disappointed in Israeli politics in general and we don’t feel like voting,” she complained.

Shadi, who teaches at the high school in Arara, said he is in favor of the Arab parties joining a government coalition, but added: “First let them prove that they can improve the situation. I voted last time for the Joint List. This time I’m not interested.”

But Arara resident Tamam Yunis said she has been encouraging people to get out and vote. “The situation in Israel has become critical. We need to vote for the Arab parties so that one of us gets into the Knesset,” she said, in apparent reference to electing Arabs to parliament. It doesn’t matter whether the Joint List is in the opposition or the coalition, she added.

The Negev Bedouin vote

In the Negev Bedouin town of Lakiya, where voter turnout in the last election was 22 percent, Odeh’s remarks were greeted with cynicism. “We’re aware enough to realize that this is part of a campaign,” a resident named Rana said, adding that a look around Lakiya is sufficient to see that there is a lack of government funding in the Arab community. “We see the same thing every morning. Garbage in the streets, there’s no money and we have no one to talk to,” he claimed.

Another resident, named Mohammed, said people in town don’t necessarily know much about politics and may take their lead in voting from the patriarch of their families.

Nasrin Alkawad said women in town usually vote the way their menfolk do. She herself votes for the party her husband votes for. Last time around, she said, she didn’t vote. “In the upcoming round, if he votes, so will I.”

Potential voters from the Alkiyan family in Hura.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A father of eight, Imad, said his family voted for the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the last election and would do so again. Odeh’s possible participation in a government coalition is irrelevant, he said. “Anything having to do with Arab politics is not good. We voted Shas. They take care of families with a large number of children.”

For his part, Nasuh Alsana of Lakiya said that if he could vote for a specific candidate on the Joint List slate, he would do so, but the fact that it’s a package deal in which voters cast their ballots for the slate as a whole will keep him away from the polls.

Residents of another Negev Bedouin town, Hura, attributed the low voter turnout there (29 percent) to unresolved problems in town, among them domestic violence and other crime. Residents said politicians’ rhetoric makes no difference in their situation.

As in Lakiya, voting patterns in Hura follow clan and family political loyalties, Hura resident Ahmed said, and statements by politicians don’t count for much. “When the Joint List was established, we all went out and voted for it. Today at home we’re thinking about Kahol Lavan. We’ll see what my father decides,” he said.

Alaa Talalka of Hura said that the first vote he ever cast was for the Joint List. But referring to the April election, in which the Joint List splintered, he said: “When the parties fell apart, I realized the matter had become a personal thing among them, and it wasn’t relevant to the people.”

Sami Abu Madi added that even if Odeh may be considering entering a future government coalition, the Joint List chairman’s statements were made over the opposition of party colleagues. “He’ll do anything to get votes.”

In the Bedouin community of Tel Sheva, where voter turnout was 30 percent, residents said their votes have traditionally gone to the Arab parties and that it would happen again next month. One of them, Salam, said the Arab parties shifted their positions, and he has no interest in following their moves. “I vote for an Arab party because that’s what I’m used to. I know there are changes all the time, but it doesn’t matter. The people are the same people.”

Another Tel Sheva resident said Odeh is trying to attract Jewish votes. “He knows that the Arab public knows the subject.”

For his part, Khaled Abu Fariha said: “We’re voting for the Arab party, always have and always will.”