Disillusioned and Angry, These Israeli Jews Plan to Vote for Arab Party

The Joint List is also reaching out to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community with campaign ads in Yiddish

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Joint List and Hadash Chairman Ayman Odeh waving as he arrives to submit the candidate slate for the March 2, 2020 election, on January 15.
Joint List and Hadash Chairman Ayman Odeh waving as he arrives to submit the candidate slate for the March 2, 2020 election, on January 15.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Ever since he was first able to vote, Ofek Ravid, a 28-year-old history teacher, has cast his ballot either for Labor or Meretz, the two parties affiliated with the Jewish left in Israel. In the April 2019 election, he voted for Meretz, and in the September do-over race he voted for the newly merged Labor-Gesher list. Headed by Orli Levi-Abekasis, Gesher focuses mainly on social welfare issues and is considered to be to the right of Labor politically. In both cases, says Ravid, a resident of Kibbutz Glil Yam, in central Israel, he was motivated by strategic rather than ideological considerations: He wanted to make sure these parties, each of which appeared headed for extinction, crossed the electoral threshold.

On March 2, the date of Israel’s third general election within less than a year, Ravid plans to vote for the Joint List. The electoral alliance of four predominantly Arab parties won 13 (out of a total of 120) Knesset seats in September. “Arabs are a repressed minority in Israel, and I want there to be a voice that represents them,” Ravid tells Haaretz. “At one time, I could count on Meretz to fill that role, but I can’t any longer.”

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Out of fear that one or both of these parties might not cross the threshold in the March 2 election, Labor-Gesher and Meretz announced their own electoral alliance last month. The combined slate, Ravid laments, is “not concerned with the things that really matter to me.” Finding a solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he notes, is a prime example.

“I mean just look at their ambivalent response to the so-called Trump peace plan and their responses to the ongoing clashes in Gaza,” notes Ravid. “The Joint List has a much clearer voice on these matters.”

Omri Yavin, a Tel Aviv-based screenwriter and playwright, has also been voting for Meretz and what he calls “its relatives” for as long as he can remember. By now, though, he has lost any hope that Israel’s Jewish left can take the lead in forming a social-democratic bloc of parties, a measure he believes is desperately needed in the country. “They’ve failed miserably,” says the 62-year-old, “so I think it’s time to give others a chance.”

On March 2, he, too, will vote for the Joint List. “Maybe salvation will come from them,” he says wistfully. “In Labor and Meretz, you no longer have any true leaders – just presenters. [Joint List Chairman] Ayman Odeh, on the other hand, has shown real leadership qualities, and I believe he is the only politician today with the skills to lead a social-democratic bloc dedicated to shared society and coexistence.”

Yavin has no illusions that it will happen overnight. “But at least with the Joint List, there is hope for something new,” he says.

Ravid and Yavin are among a growing number of Israeli Jews, longtime supporters of Zionist parties such as Labor and Meretz, who plan to break rank and, for the first time in their lives, vote for an Arab or mainly Arab list in the next election. In the past, Arab parties could count on Jewish voters to hand them the equivalent of a single Knesset seat. According to various internal polls that were shared with Haaretz, on March 2 the Joint List could win as many as two seats thanks to disillusioned and angry left-wing Jewish voters.

“I believe we will see a record number of Jews voting for Arab-led parties,” says Gayil Talshir, a senior lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specializes in Israeli voter behavior.

Gayil Talshir, a senior lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specializes in Israeli voter behaviorCredit: Meged Gozani

For many years, Meretz was the only Zionist party that could legitimately claim to represent both Jews and Arabs in Israel. Indeed, in April’s election, Arab candidates held two of the top five spots on the slate. Were it not for the votes of tens of thousands of Arab citizens then, Meretz would have fallen below the electoral threshold. Since Meretz won only four Knesset seats in that election, only one of the two Arab candidates – Esawi Freige – got in. A few months later, Freige was moved down, from the fourth to the sixth place on the list. Since the party won only five seats in the September election, no Arab candidate from Meretz made it into the Knesset. Just before that election, Meretz had merged with a new party founded by Ehud Barak, the former Labor Party politician widely detested in the Arab community because he was prime minister during the infamous protests of October 2000, in which 12 Arab citizens were shot dead by police.

The final straw for many Meretz supporters

If all that weren’t enough to drive away voters committed to improving the lot of the country’s Arab minority, as part of last month’s deal with Labor-Gesher, Freige was pushed down even further on the list, to the 11th spot – a long shot, according to most polls – in order to make room for Jewish candidates.

These Jewish candidates included Levi-Abekasis, a former member of Yisrael Beiteinu, the right-leaning party headed by Avigdor Lieberman. Although she abstained in the Knesset vote on the controversial so-called nation-state law — widely seen by Arab Israelis as an attempt to downgrade them to second-class citizens by prioritizing the state’s Jewish character — Levi-Abekasis was one of the lawmakers who signed the original bill. For many longtime Meretz supporters, this was the final straw.

“It has pushed many of those on the left margin of the party straight into the hands of the Joint List,” says Talshir.

The Joint List includes an eclectic mix of hard-core communists, Islamists and secular nationalists. Odeh is also the chairman of Hadash, an outgrowth of the Israeli Communist party and the only one of the four components of the Joint List with a Jewish lawmaker. Whether because of their illiberal positions on issues such as women’s and LGBT rights, or their open hostility to the state, when the other components have run on their own they never attracted a meaningful number of Jewish voters.

In recent weeks, however, not only are growing numbers of Jewish voters on the left gravitating toward the Joint List, but the Joint List is actively seeking them out. Talshir believes it is because the leaders of the alliance have been emboldened by the outcome of the last election. “It became clear that the Joint List is a force not only within the Arab community but also within society at large, because of its ability to bring an end to the Netanyahu regime,” she says. “And this may explain why they’ve begun seeking out partners who aren’t necessarily Arab.”

It wasn’t that the Joint List won enough seats in September to hand Kahol Lavan, the main opposition party, a majority. And it wasn’t that Kahol Lavan would have even agreed to include the Joint List in its coalition in that event. But thanks to increased turnout among Arab voters on September 17, the Joint List won enough Knesset seats to keep Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from obtaining a right-wing majority. Even for Netanyahu detractors who did not vote for the Joint List, it was something to be thankful for. The fact that the Joint List, in a rather surprising move, also recommended Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz for prime minister helped earn it further legitimacy in the eyes of many Jewish voters.

Meretz voters feeling alienated by recent developments in their party would seem to be a natural target for the Joint List. Indeed, Dean Issacharoff, manager of the Joint List’s Hebrew-language campaign, believes it will be quite easy to lure them. “We’re the only slate today that raises the flag of Arab-Jewish partnership and talks about the joint interests of Arabs and Jews,” he says. “We have by far the most progressive social platform and the clearest messages against the occupation and in support of peace of any party running.”

Issacharoff, who also serves as Odeh’s personal spokesman, notes that the Joint List has always engaged in some form of outreach to the Jewish community, at least to certain segments of it. “But I think that now we’re in a different place politically,” he notes. “Left-wing voters can vote according to their hearts this time – not out of strategic necessity.” In other words, now that Labor-Gesher and Meretz have merged their slates, the risk that they will fail to cross the electoral threshold (a key consideration for many of their voters in the previous two rounds) has virtually disappeared.

In pursuit of the Haredi vote

Yiddish banners for the Joint List. "Your vote against the compulsory draft"Credit: From the Joint List Facebook page

But it’s not only left-wing Jewish voters the Joint List is going after this time. This week, the party unveiled a first-of-its-kind campaign aimed at attracting voters in Jewish communities beyond the usual left-wing circles. By far the biggest attention-grabbers were the big Yiddish billboards plastered around the ultra-Orthodox communities of Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh, which highlighted a common grievance of Arab and Haredi Israelis alike: their ostracization from mainstream Israeli society for not serving in the military. “Your vote against the compulsory draft,” read the ads.

The Joint List is also planning a campaign in Petah Tikva targeting Ethiopian Israelis, another community where it has identified common ground: Arabs and Ethiopian Israelis suffer disproportionately from police brutality. The billboards, in both Hebrew and in Amharic (the language of many community members), declare: “Your vote against police violence.” The Joint List also plans to reach out to Russian-speaking voters who have grievances against Israel’s Orthodox-run religious establishment, as part of this intersectionality campaign.

Joint List flyer in Amharic, reading “Your vote against police violence.”Credit: From the Joint List Facebook page

The alliance is not deluding itself, however, into believing these outreach efforts will yield a significant number of new votes, at least not right now. Its main hope, for the moment, lies in voters like Eli Bareket, a longtime Meretz activist who says he barely recognizes his longtime political home. “For me, the way to respond to Meretz’s move to the right is to move to the left,” he explains his decision to vote for the Joint List.

Bareket became active in Ratz, a forerunner of Meretz, when he was a teen. For four years he headed the party’s Jerusalem branch. So his decision was not easy, notes the 51-year-old video editor, especially since “in terms of my values and positions, I’m still much closer to Meretz than I am to the Joint List.” What prompted the move, he says, was that Meretz leaders had stopped talking about the injustices of the Israeli occupation and the need to end it. “Unfortunately, the only party these days that speaks out against the occupation is the Joint List,” he says.

It was also a way for him to express solidarity with Israeli Arabs, “who are increasingly the victims of incitement in this country,” he says.

Itamar, who asked that his full name not be disclosed, used to vote for Labor (“regretfully,” he adds) before switching to Meretz. “I voted for Meretz out of a belief that the rights of Israel’s Arab minority should not be the concern of Arab parties alone, and I still believe that,” says the 41-year-old Tel Avivian, who works at a left-wing nonprofit organization. “But on a personal level, I feel less and less connected to Meretz these days, and the gap between where I stand and where they stand has been growing.”

Asked if he isn’t troubled by some of the more extreme positions espoused by Joint List politicians, Itamar responds: “I’m even more bothered by the fact that I don’t really know what their positions are. Anyway, since there’s absolutely no chance for them to become a ruling party in Israel, it doesn’t really bother me because there’s only so much impact they can have. And let’s face it, no party is perfect.”

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