'A Sad Moment in Our History': Arab Voters Expected to Shun Israeli Election in Record Numbers

The low turnout in the April election has been attributed to the collapse of a four-party political alliance. But an expert says that even if the parties reunite, they are unlikely to regain their political power

Children playing in front of a graffitied United Arab List-Balad election poster in the Arab village of Reineh, northern Israel, April 8, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Anyone who expected that Israel’s upcoming “do-over” election in September would resurrect the Joint List and allow it to win back the confidence (and votes) of the country’s Arab public seems likely to be disappointed.

At least as things stand now, the proportion of Israeli Arabs expected to participate in the September 17 election looks as if it could fall below the historically low 49 percent that voted on April 9.

Yousef Makladeh, director of the StatNet polling organization, says a survey his firm conducted earlier this month shows that only 47.5 percent of the Arab public see themselves voting this time around — although he is quick to say this number is likely to change.

The low level of participation in April has been widely attributed to the collapse of the Joint List — an alliance of four separate Arab parties (one of them, the secular-communist Hadash, also has Jewish supporters) — in the months preceding the election. This was due to the inability of its member parties to agree on a formula for the distribution of Knesset seats.

Israeli Arab voter turnout over the past 20 years
Haaretz

In the end, the Joint List’s constituent parties ran as two alliances: Hadash with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, while the Islamic party United Arab List ran with the nationalist Balad. Whereas in its first electoral test, in 2015, the Joint List received 13 Knesset seats — with 63 percent of the Arab public voting — this past April Hadash-Ta’al won six seats and United Arab List-Balad squeaked into the Knesset with just four seats.

Even before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his failure to form a governing coalition and the Knesset voted to disband in May, there was consensus among Arab political figures that breaking up the Joint List had been a grave mistake. By June 20, its four member parties announced an in-principle decision to reunite and their intention to allow an outside “reconciliation committee” to devise an equitable formula for the order in which candidates would appear on the party slate.

Although the committee presented its recommendations by June 30, the constituent parties could not agree on adopting them. And despite several announcements that a deal was imminent, there is still no Joint List.

Agreement was reached that Hadash head Ayman Odeh would resume serving as Joint List chairman and on the order of the first 10 places on the electoral slate, but there was no consensus on distribution of the slots below that.

“Today, they are arguing about places 11, 12 and 13,” and how they will be divvied up, observes Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives and himself an advocate of the idea of an Arab-Jewish political party. “But if you ask me, if the election was today, the Joint List wouldn’t even get 10 seats.”

Power in numbers: What would happen if Israel's Arabs 'voted in droves'?
Haaretz

Expressing a similar view, Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Arab-Jewish relations program, says the Arab voting rate could plummet as low as 45 percent.

The Joint List has the potential to garner 15 Knesset seats, he believes. “It could be a realistic goal. But for that to happen, first there needs to be a Joint List. And the public has to have trust in that alliance.

“Right now, not only is that trust not there but the public has gotten the impression that it’s not anywhere near, and that the List’s Knesset members are too busy with internal competition,” Rudnitzky says.

Although Election Day is more than two months away, Rudnitzky adds, August 1 is the deadline for parties to finalize and submit their lists to the Central Elections Committee. What’s more, August is “a dead month,” when much of the population is on vacation and the Muslim population will celebrate the five-day Eid al-Adha holiday (August 11-15).

Rudnitzky: “If by the end of July people head off for vacation and the situation is that there’s no Joint List, the 47.5 percent [participation rate] of Yousef Makladeh will seem very optimistic.”

The irony is that all indications suggest the Arab public is more hungry than ever to participate in national politics. Comprehensive polling done by the Abraham Fund Initiatives in January, for example, showed that 80 percent of the Arab public “agree with the idea of Arab parties supporting the government from outside in return for development budgets for Arab society.”

According to Abu Rass, the Joint List’s leaders “aren’t paying attention to the demands of the Arab citizens, who are saying: We want to influence, we want to be there, we want to play the game.”

Asad Ghanem, a professor of political science at the University of Haifa and longtime political activist in the Arab community, says he has lost patience with the Joint List.

Following the announcement that it was reuniting, he and a group of 30 like-minded citizens calling themselves the Popular Unity Party demanded that the Joint List open up its electoral list to all members of Israeli Arab society, rather than just to members of its constituent parties.

They “ignored this demand,” says Ghanem, “and for me this was a sign that they were a closed club” whose main interest was in preserving their own individual Knesset seats.

“This is a sad moment in our history, but a big opportunity to restructure Arab politics and start something new,” says Ghanem, who says the Popular Unity Party intends to run its own electoral slate in September, following a founding convention scheduled for July 20. He adds that he does not intend to be a candidate.