Analysis

Netanyahu's Incitement Against Arabs in 2015 Proved a Big Success in Israel's 2019 Election

Crisis of low voter turnout in the Arab sector has many fathers: Netanyahu's systematic incitement, Gantz and Lapid who did nothing to stop his racist campaign and the nation-state law. But Arab representatives are not without blame

An Israeli-Arab woman casting her ballot as Israelis began voting in a parliamentary election, at a polling station in Haifa, Israel April 9, 2019.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

The 2015 election is remembered mainly for Benjamin Netanyahu’s racist call to his supporters to go and vote, because “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves.” The 2019 election will apparently be remembered for how Israel’s Arab citizens did exactly the opposite.

The previous Knesset incited against Arab voters, alienated them and drove them to despair. And at least according to preliminary data and the exit polls, the result was an all-time low in Arab turnout, which improved only slightly following a dramatic last-minute effort.

This failure, which undermines the entire democratic system, has many fathers. First and foremost, of course, is the systematic incitement spearheaded by Netanyahu, who incessantly accused his rivals in the Kahol Lavan party of intending to form a “blocking majority” with the Arab parties to prevent him from heading the next government – as if letting 20 percent of Israelis participate in the government were a crime.

As time passed, he upped the ante by claiming that “Israeli Arabs have 22 nation-states surrounding us, they don’t need another one.” And in a flurry of interviews before the polls opened, he lied without blinking by asserting that the Arab parties support terror.

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Finally, in an especially outrageous Election Day maneuver that recalls the way blacks were once prevented from exercising their right to vote in the United States, the ruling party sent activists with some 1,300 cameras and recording devices to polling stations in Arab communities. These activists were sent to spy on fellow citizens in a place where privacy is supposed to be sacred.

All this came on top of the nation-state law, whose passage last year deeply undermined the feelings of belonging that parts of the Arab community – whose relationship with all Israeli government has always been complicated – still retained.

In a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University shortly before the election, 20 percent of respondents said the most important issue facing Arab members of the next Knesset would be the battle to repeal or amend the nation-state law (27 percent chose reducing violence and crime in Arab society, while 22 percent picked legalizing illegal construction). And 28 percent said that the Arab parties should condition their support for any governing coalition on amending or repealing this law.

But the blame doesn’t rest only on Netanyahu. The leaders of Kahol Lavan didn’t do a thing to reject Netanyahu’s racist campaign against citizens of the state. They yielded to his narrative and fled in panic from any embrace of potential Arab voters. Any conciliatory statements were weak, vague and marginal. And two of the center-left’s leaders, Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay, have committed this same sin in the past.

Finally, of course, it’s impossible to absolve the Arab community’s own representatives. The problem is not necessarily due to the way they discharge their duties; contrary to conventional wisdom, studies show that not all Arab voters have a negative view of their MKs. In the Tel Aviv University poll, 57 percent of respondents rated their job performance favorably, compared to 42 percent who rated them poorly.

Rather, the biggest problem was the implosion of the Arab parties’ Joint List. Its establishment created a strong sense of hope that raised Arab turnout in 2015 to a high of 63.5 percent. And its dismantlement seriously undermined the community’s trust as well as its desire to vote. Many Arabs spoke of a desire to punish their representatives for splitting apart.

The most worrying piece of data, which emerged before the election and essentially foretold what would happen, was the main reason given by Arabs who said ahead of the election that they didn’t plan to vote. Fully 50.5 percent of respondents said, “I have no interest in politics.” That’s clear evidence that exclusion and despair have won.

If it turns out that the Arab community’s absence from the polls hurts the center-left bloc’s results, the leaders of that bloc have no one to complain to but themselves. With their own hands, they adopted Netanyahu’s incitement and drove their natural partners away.