Israel's Labor Party Using Social Media to Woo Back Its Arab Voters

Labor hopes Gabbay’s direct approach in the past year will help him to re-establish the Arab community’s trust in the party

Labor Party Chairmarn Avi Gabbay at a press conference, December 24, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Among the many people who paid condolence calls to the family of Yara Ayoub, the 16-year-old girl from the Arab town of Jish in the northern Galilee, who was murdered in November, Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay stood out.

It wasn’t his first such call: Gabbay previously paid a visit to Shfaram, after three young men from the Arab town were assaulted by a group of young Jews at a beach.

When Gabbay visited the home of Aya Maasarwe, a university student from Baka al-Garbiyeh who was murdered in Australia in January, he explained his decision to make the visits to the homes of the victims a routine matter. “We came to identify with the enormous pain of the family, and of an entire community that wants to see the political leadership as sharing this pain,” Gabbay said.

Labor hopes Gabbay’s direct approach in the past year will help him to re-establish the Arab community’s trust in the party. Estimates are that only about 20,000 Arab and Druze citizens voted for Zionist Union, Labor’s alliance with Hatnuah, in 2015 — less than a single Knesset seat. A senior party official who was speaking on condition of anonymity said that some 150,000 Arab and Druze votes could go to Labor on April 9. “It’s clear to all of us that it’s worth fighting for these votes,” he said.

This time, Labor is focusing on social media, rather than rallies and other mass events, to get out the Arab vote. Over the past several years, Labor’s party infrastructure in Arab communities faded away, together with the connection to potential voters. The Labor Party came to view its activists in Arab towns as vote contractors, according to a party official who asked to remain anonymous. The party didn’t invest in its Arab activists and only cultivated them around the elections. “In addition, Labor has not been in the governing coalition for many years and couldn’t provide funds or real aid to Arab society. This also increased the alienation,” he added.

When the party tried to renew this link in the past few months, it turned out that the potential voters preferred to keep away from party events. “We discovered there was no reason to hold rallies and mass events because the audience we wanted simply didn’t come,” said the senior party official. “We realized there was no reason to invest there, It was better for us to reach the palm of every voter using social networks, and we are investing a great deal of energy in an attempt to convince the voters this way.”

“Gabbay responds on social media after every incident that is important in the Arab community,” said the party leader’s strategic adviser Jalal Bana. “He relates to almost every murder case. He wrote about a horrible work accident, the murder of women and the growing violence in Arab society. Some of the posts appear in Hebrew too.” The party discovered that Gabbay’s posts on domestic violence or the nation-state law received large exposure and a large number of responses.

Ahsan Halailah, No. 23 on Labor’s slate, believes the number of Arabs voters for the party could grow greatly in the coming election. He said a target of 25,000 votes is not impossible. “In the 2015 election it was very hard to break through the barrier of the Joint List, and there was a lot of enthusiasm and momentum toward the Joint List. But today the situation is different. I think there is a possibility to lead to a change and to also do more for Arab society within the Labor party too.”

Others are less optimistic. They say that if the party manages to win even half the number of votes it received from Arabs in 2015, that will be a real achievement. The party has moved far away from Arab society, said the head of the party’s Arab district, former minister without portfolio Raleb Majadele.

What might work is placing Arab representatives in positions on the slate that provide a realistic opportunity of entering the Knesset, he says. The old leadership of the party realized the need for Muslim, Druze and Christian Arab candidates with a chance to enter the Knesset — otherwise there is no chance to bring the party’s voters out, said Majadele.

“Without a Muslim candidate in a spot with a good chance of entering the Knesset, the chances of a change are zero. In the present situation, in which two non-Jewish candidates are in unrealistic spots, it is not clear how they expect to increase their support.”