The Biggest Challenge in Israeli Politics? Getting Out the Vote in This Bedouin City

The vast majority of Israel’s Bedouin voters fall into two categories — they either don’t vote or vote for Arab parties. But could that be about to change in September? Haaretz visits Rahat to find out

Archaeology workers standing beneath a shade on the outskirts of the Bedouin city of Rahat, southern Israel, July 18, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

In Israel’s April election, the Arab turnout hit a record low with less than 50 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots (compared with 68 percent nationally). Among Bedouin Arabs, participation dipped even below that with barely 37 percent voting.

In the country’s main Bedouin city of Rahat, an overwhelming 88 percent of those who voted opted for one of the two Arab alliances that ran. (The share was not that high among the general Arab population, being just over 70 percent.)

The vast majority of Bedouin voters seemingly fall into one of two categories: They either don’t vote, or vote for Arab parties.

But scratch a bit beneath the surface and things are not so black and white, as became clear during a recent visit to this sprawling city in southern Israel. If anything, it seems that the recent election has served only to deepen political divides here.

It is perhaps the most underreported outcome of the April election, but for the first time in nearly 30 years, Israel’s 250,000-strong Bedouin community has no representative in the Knesset. That’s because the Bedouin representative on the two Arab slates were placed too low down.

Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives. “There are growing calls within Bedouin society today for a different approach” to voting, he says.
Ilan Assayag

“As things look today, I don’t see that changing in the next round on September 17,” says Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

This loss of power has increased the sense of alienation among Bedouin, says Abu Rass, giving them further reason to stay home on Election Day two months from now. But among those committed to voting, it has also challenged the conventional wisdom that voting for parties that will serve in the opposition is a good strategy.

“There are growing calls within Bedouin society today for a different approach — an approach that focuses on engagement and working with the government, rather than sitting on the backbenches,” says Abu Rass.

Perhaps Amir Peretz, the newly elected head of Labor, sensed this change when he chose to kick off his election campaign last weekend with a visit to Rahat, a city of some 70,000 residents located 11 kilometers (7 miles) north of Be’er Sheva, and about half a dozen surrounding Bedouin villages.

“In my opinion, it was a very smart move,” says Abu Rass. “Let’s not forget that Peretz is from the Negev and has long-standing ties to the Bedouin community. I would not be surprised if many of those Bedouin now expressing disappointment with the Arab parties end up voting Labor in the September election.”

Camals grazing in the Bedouin city of Rahat.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Constant bickering

In the 2015 election, the Joint List alliance of four Arab parties won 13 seats in the Knesset (out of a total of 120). But in the last election, when the four parties ran under two separate slates — the communist Hadash party with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, and the Islamic United Arab List with the nationalist Balad — they won only 10 seats combined.

The main reason they shed three seats was that many eligible Arab voters sat out the election. Some were fed up with the constant bickering among their Arab representatives about placements and seniority; others felt they were overly focused on the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and not enough on their own constituents in Israel.

Three months ago, the United Arab List-Balad captured 47 percent of the vote and Hadash-Ta’al another 41 percent. Trailing far behind in third place was the left-wing Zionist Meretz party with 4 percent. Labor, once a major vote-getter in the Bedouin community, hardly scraped together a tiny fraction of a percent.

Like many here, Faysal al-Huzayal has voted for Arab parties, if begrudgingly, in recent elections. But that won’t happen again, Rahat’s former mayor vows. “I don’t believe in Arab parties any longer,” he says. “We’ve sat in opposition all these years and what good has it done us?”

Ideally, Huzayal says, he would support a joint Jewish-Arab party if one existed, but in lieu of that plans to vote for Labor. Why a Jewish party? Because, he says, “the Arab parties either don’t care about the Bedouin or don’t have the power to do anything to help us.”

A physician specializing in diabetes at Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Medical Center, Dr. Yunis Abu Rabia would also like to see Arabs represented in a coalition government — “though not at any price.”

Abdul al-Kareem Alatyka
Ilan Assayag

Abu Rabia notes that in the early 1990s, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the Arab parties to prevent his government from toppling. “That was a period of unprecedented achievements,” he recalls. “There was huge investment in education and infrastructure in the Arab communities, and for the first time we also received child allowances.”

Joining a right-wing government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Rabia concedes, would be difficult. “But if Benny Gantz becomes prime minister,” he says, referring to the leader of the Kahol Lavan party that won the same number of seats as Likud in the last election, “I think we could cooperate with him.”

His family had previously supported Labor, but in the last two elections Abu Rabia voted for Arab parties. “I’m very disappointed with them now,” he admits. “We had very high expectations. After all, the Joint List was the third-largest bloc in the Knesset [in 2015]. But they’ve done very little with all the power they had.”

He hasn’t decided which party he’ll be voting for in the upcoming election, but reveals that he’s a “great admirer” of Labor’s new leader, whom he considers a personal friend. (Peretz previously served as the party’s leader between November 2005 and June 2007.)

‘Extremely bitter’

A prominent authority on the Bedouin, Abu Rass attributes the community’s low voter turnout to a combination of factors. Like Israeli Arabs in general, he says, the Bedouin were deeply disappointed that the four Arab parties couldn’t find a way to set aside their differences and run as a united slate in April.

Since most Bedouin live in the Negev, he adds, they are geographically removed from the main Arab power centers in northern Israel and the central “triangle” region and, therefore, tend to be less engaged in national politics. According to Abu Rass, this also explains why the Arab parties do not invest much time and effort in cultivating Bedouin voters.

Suleiman al-Atayka standing next to the ruins of his demolished home and aluminum factory in Rahat, southern Israel.
Judy Maltz

Of the various Arab communities in Israel, he says, the Bedouin have been the main victims of the government’s harsh crackdown on illegal construction. In the past two years alone, he notes, a record number of 5,000 homes were demolished in the Negev communities. “This has left many Bedouin feeling they have no one to talk to in government and extremely bitter,” he says. “People who feel that disconnected don’t usually want to vote.”

Compounding these difficulties is the fact that many Bedouin still live in so-called unrecognized villages where no polling places are available. “In some of these villages, voter turnout is less than 10 percent,” says Abu Rass, “because the nearest polling station is sometimes 50 kilometers away.”

Rahat has expanded dramatically in recent years and now includes a state-of-the-art industrial zone (where SodaStream recently moved) and an entire new neighborhood of modern apartment buildings.

It is on the outskirts of this neighborhood that Suleiman al-Atayka used to live with his extended clan in makeshift housing and where his aluminum factory once stood. They were all demolished in recent months because the required building permits had never been obtained.

As he guides visitors through the ruins, Atayka appears visibly distressed. This is his first trip back since the bulldozers arrived, he explains. “I would never want anyone to go through something like this,” the local councilman says. “My children still haven’t recovered.”

He voted for the United Arab List-Balad ticket in the last election, but hopes they will realign with the other two Arab parties in the upcoming election. “I’m certain that voter turnout would be much higher if they did,” Atayka says, in what is a common refrain in conversations here. (Although the four parties announced their intention to reunite soon after the April election results were announced, they have yet to finalize a deal and only have until August 1 to strike one.)

Although he supports a party that is on the far left of the political spectrum, rather surprisingly, Atayka is not opposed to joining a ruling coalition headed by the right-wing Likud. Desperate to avert a do-over election, Netanyahu had reportedly offered the Arab parties a deal whereby he would end all home demolitions if they agreed not to topple his coalition. “I was upset that they didn’t take him up on the offer,” Atayka says.

Hadash party activist Hussein Alobra
Ilan Assayag

The devil you know

More than 25 percent of Israeli Arabs voted for Meretz in April, effectively rescuing the party as it barely crossed the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Abu Rass does not believe it will fare as well among Arabs — and certainly not among the Bedouin — in the upcoming election for one simple reason: The party’s newly elected leader, Nitzan Horowitz, is openly gay.

“I’m sorry to say, but it’s something that’s very difficult for many Arabs, particularly the more traditional Bedouin, to swallow,” explains Abu Rass.

Suliman Alobra, a Rahat lawyer, has been a Meretz party activist for the past 12 years. He says most people in the city are not aware of Horowitz’s sexual orientation, but “it’s uncomfortable” when the issue comes up.

“When people from the [Arab] parties ask us if it’s true, it’s hard to for us to say yes — but we can’t deny it either,” he says. Alobra, who describes himself as “an optimist by nature,” says that despite the new challenges, he hopes to be able to translate the hundreds of votes Meretz won here in April to “thousands” in September.

Even among those who sit out the elections here, there are two separate camps: Those who simply don’t care; and those who are out to make a political statement. Abdul al-Kareem Alatyka, who owns an aluminum factory in town, belongs to the latter group.

He is a key activist in a nationwide Arab movement known as Struggle, which supports boycotting all Israeli elections on ideological grounds. “The nation-state law basically said that I don’t belong here because I’m not Jewish,” explains the father of 10, referring to the 2018 legislation that enshrines Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. “Israelis love to boast around the world that there are even Arab parties in the Knesset — as though this were proof that Israel is a democracy. I don’t feel we should play along with that. I want nothing to do with the state,” says Kareem Alatyka.

Ismihan Abu Swiss in Rahat. Given the choice between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz as PM, she’d opt for the Kahol Lavan leader.
Judy Maltz

Is he not concerned that by not voting he may be strengthening Israel’s right? “When the center-left was in power, they didn’t recognize any of the unrecognized Bedouin villages or our rights to land,” he says. “At least with the right-wing government, we know what we’re getting.”

Disappointed by the low turnout here in April, Hadash party activist Hussein Alobra is already busy lobbying friends and neighbors to get out the vote in September.

“What I tell them is that by not voting they are actually handing their vote over to a far-right party,” he says. “They simply don’t understand that, in certain situations, one vote can make the difference between getting in a Knesset member or pushing one out.”

Would he support Hadash joining a governing coalition? “Why not?” replies the father of 10 and local insurance agent. “As long as they’re willing to accept our conditions — which are equal rights for all citizens, workers rights, women’s rights, an end to the occupation and peace.”

Ismihan Abu Swiss, a municipal employee, voted for Hadash-Ta’al in the last election (though she’s more a fan of Tibi’s party). Asked whether she would prefer to see Netanyahu or Gantz as prime minister, the mother of five responds: “Neither him nor him.”

But after mulling the matter for a few seconds, she asks to correct herself. “Given the choice, I’d try Gantz,” she says. “The other guy is old and we know his politics. Maybe Gantz will come and change things. Who knows? Maybe he has different views than Netanyahu.”