Israel Election: Arab Alliance Eyes Record Gains in Seats and Female Lawmakers

With Netanyahu and Gantz tied, polls show that Joint List's campaign focus on raising voter turnout seems to have paid off — but some activists and observers say the slate is not exploiting gifts Likud is offering it

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Joint list members Sundus Saleh (R) and Iman Khatib (L) in a campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 2019.
Joint list members Sundus Saleh (R) and Iman Khatib (L) in a campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 2019. Credit: David Bachar
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The last opinion polls in Israel’s third election in one year, published over the weekend on various TV channels, gave the Joint List reasons to be optimistic. In contrast to other parties worried about losing out in the third round, the alliance of predominantly Arab parties seemed to be increasing in strength. The head of the party’s Knesset faction, Ahmad Tibi, said they were approaching the target of 15 to 16 seats — two more than their current thirteen, and a record number for an Arab political outfit.

Israel's ready for corona - but not for women in powerCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 65

The party’s campaign has faced criticism for its lack of a clear message, but it has focused heavily on raising voter turnout among women and young people, and investing more in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. Results on Monday will show whether this strategy has borne fruit.

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Two women occupy the 14th and 15th spots: Sundus Saleh and Iman Khatib, from the Ta’al and Ra’am factions respectively. The party sees women’s representation as a major way to boost voter levels, and organized women’s groups throughout the campaigns, with Saleh and Khatib-Yasin, as well the other two women higher up on the list, Aida Touma-Sliman from Hadash, in the 5th place, and Heba Yazbak from Balad, in the 8th slot, in attendance.

For activists on the ground, women don’t need a lot of persuasion to go and vote — but there are practical shortcomings. “The question was always one of organization and logistics, as well as giving them the message that every vote was important and that they mustn’t remain indifferent”, Fatma Abu Kweider, a Ra’am activist who works with women in the Negev and who lives in the unrecognized village of al-Zarnuk, says. “That’s what we’re doing in this campaign. We went to these villages and organized women’s meetings. We explained how we’d go and vote in order to have some influence, and how we’d organize transportation to polling stations.”

Sultana Abu Riash, who lives in the Bedouin city of Rahat, adds that the fact that Khatib-Yasin is a religious woman wearing a hijab encourages many conservative Arab women to go and vote. “We sense this every day, with favorable responses among women in general, and in the Negev in particular, ahead of the election” she says.

Another constituency targeted by the party is young voters. The effort includes an online campaign, as well as fielding young volunteers. A survey by the Accord Center that examined voting patterns among Israeli Arabs, using a sample of 1,200 voters, revealed that turnout could reach 65-67 percent. Mohammad Khalaila, a lecturer at Oranim College who does research on the Arab community, says that the survey showed a dramatic shift among young Arab voters, with an emphasis on people who didn’t vote in the last two elections. He says that 58 percent of people between the ages of 18 to 24, and 52 percent of people aged 25 to 34 who did not vote in the last two elections, are planning on voting on March 2. “The message conveyed by Joint List leaders to the younger generation was that despite the exclusion and incitement, the Arab community cannot be ignored. This has empowered young people and impelled them to go and vote” he explains.

Members of the Joint List ahead of submitting the party roster to the Central Election Committee on January 15, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Joint List is also planning some intense activity on election day itself, including going from house to house to convince last-minute voters. The party has drafted a target number of voters for every Arab town or village.

But for some, these efforts are insufficient to counter the apathy on the street. “There is a sense that the campaign has improved in recent days, but I don’t think it picked up in the right manner” says sociologist Dr Nihad Ali. “There is indifference, mainly among young people on campuses, who don’t quite understand why it’s important to vote.”

Strategic consultant Alaa Aghbariya voices harsher concerns, saying that the Joint List did not have a clear strategy. “Party members appeared serious on the ground, distributing flyers and criss-crossing Arab communities, each one in their own area. This is what was missing in previous elections, but the campaign didn’t deliver a sharp message. If the Joint List garners more votes, it will be due to ground work, not the campaign.” He says that fears of another Netanyahu government cannot be the only trigger for going to vote. “You can’t imitate Likud in fear-mongering: The Arab voter is different, he’s not afraid.”

Communications expert Samer Ali, who used to advise the party’s Knesset members, says that the party is not exploiting gifts the Likud is offering it. “The Likud campaign that appealed to Arab voters really helped the Joint List. The paternalistic and imperious attitude shown by former security service chief Avi Dichter will drive many to come out and vote as a protest against that kind of hostile manipulation and disdain. If the Joint List exploits this campaign to its benefit, it will improve its gains.” He says that the party’s campaign this time around did not innovate enough. “They appeal to the Arab voter as someone of value and influence, and this has succeeded in raising morale, but this still doesn’t ensure getting 150,000 more people in the voting booth.”

Activists also warn about steps the right might take in order to intimidate and drive off voters on election day. “Anything is possible when it comes to Netanyahu and Likud, so we have to prepare for any scenario” says Kassem Bakri, a journalist and Joint List activist. “There were the proposed cameras at polling stations, Netanyahu warning about Arabs streaming to vote... maybe now the coronavirus will be used to keep voters away.”

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