According to a report on Israeli voters issued last month by the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli Arabs comprise 16 percent of the total electorate. If their participation in national elections would match that of Israeli Jews, the Arab-Israeli vote would be worth, grosso modo, 19 seats in the Knesset. If they had “flocked in droves” to the polling booths, as Benjamin Netanyahu falsely cried on Election Day 2015, Netanyahu would have had a much harder time setting up a coalition. If they would do so on April 9, Israeli-Arabs could have ensured Netanyahu’s defeat.
Instead, as Haaretz reported this week, the Israeli-Arab voter turnout is expected to drop dramatically next week to 50 percent. According to the latest polls, this would decrease the representation of the two Arab parties - Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad - by one or two in comparison to the Joint List that represented both in the last elections. In a worse case but entirely plausible scenario, Ra’am-Balad will fail to meet the 3.25 percent threshold, the Arabs will lose 3-4 seats more, and Netanyahu’s reelection would be virtually guaranteed.
There are, of course, various reasons, some understandable, for the low turnout of Israel’s Arab citizens, or Palestinian-Israelis, as many prefer to define themselves. About 10 percent, according to various studies, refrain from voting for ideological reasons: They view the participation in elections for the Israeli parliament as tantamount to recognition and acceptance of the Jewish state. Many Arab voters were disappointed by the achievements of the Joint List, and many more are frustrated by its dissolution. Unlike their exceptionally high turnout in local elections, Israeli Arabs do not expect the Knesset to take them into account or care for their needs.
Much of the blame, as a Haaretz editorial pointed out on Monday, lies with Jewish politicians. Netanyahu’s incessant incitement has cast Israeli Arabs to as untouchable and the Nation-State bill entrenched their estrangement and isolation. Zionist parties that might theoretically pick up precious Knesset seats from Israeli Arabs - including Benny Gantz’s Kachol-Lavan, the only contender for Netanyahu’s throne - prefer to keep their distance, mainly out of fear that Netanyahu will portray them as “collaborators.” The instinctive Arab reaction is: Don’t want us? Fine. We’ll stay home.
In their defense, the Arabs might also recount the watershed events at the start of the last decade. In the 1999 elections, which still included a separate vote for prime minister, no less than 75 percent turned out to vote, and most if not all of them voted for Ehud Barak. Nonetheless, Barak turned his back on the Arab parties, refusing to invite them to coalition talks, out of fear that it would harm his chances of setting up a government with right-wing Jewish parties. A year later, in the wake of riots precipitated by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, Israeli police killed 13 Israeli Arab demonstrators: The alienation of Israeli Arabs turned into an open rupture and their voter turnout plunged, never to return to its previous levels.
Nonetheless, and despite all of the above, the refusal of so many Israeli-Arab voters to utilize their democratic rights and to realize their electoral potential is both bewildering and disappointing. The Israeli-Arab sector, in fact, is cutting off its nose to spite its face. Rather than confound Netanyahu by turning out in droves and thus turning his race-baiting 2015 declaration into a self-fulfilling prophecy, they are doing their best to make his sweetest dreams come true.
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If they stay away from the ballot booths next Tuesday, as polls suggest, Israeli Arabs will be the silver platter on which Netanyahu is returned to power. Not only are they hurting themselves and harming their interests, they are also abandoning the large chunk of Israeli Jews who are true believers in values such as integration, equality and coexistence, which Netanyahu has done his best to undermine and erode. For such a sin of omission, with all due respect and sympathy for the unique predicament of Israel’s Arab population, history itself might not forgive them.