Though the decision to dissolve the Knesset and embark on a fifth election campaign in under four years poses many challenges for various blocs, Arab parties in particular face the threat of low voter turnout, especially when it comes to the potentially game-changing Bedouin vote.
While 42 percent of the general Arab population voted in the last election, the turnout among Arabs in the southern Negev desert ranged between 30 and 40 percent, and the figure among some unrecognized villages there reached less than 20 percent. According to political sources, these populations encompass 146,000 eligible voters. Increasing turnout would bolster Arab representation in the Knesset, while a further drop could prevent the United Arab List (Ra’am) party, whose voter base lies in the Negev, from passing the electoral threshold.
Low turnout is not a new issue. In the preceding four elections, Arab voters’ participation was lower than Jews': The two Arab parties, the United Arab List and the Joint List, garnered a total of 10 (out of 120) Knesset seats, even though Arabs comprise 20 percent of Israel's population.
Both parties believe an eight to 10 percent increase in turnout could impact Arab representation in the next Knesset, and while they have not yet formulated a campaign strategy, the Negev is shaping up to become a challenging area.
The September 2019 election, when the two parties ran together, showed that a big improvement here is possible. The turnout among Negev Bedouin then was 52 percent, with the Joint List sweeping 15 Knesset seats. This allowed three Bedouin representatives, Taleb Abu Arar, Juma Azbarga and Saeed Alkharoumi, to join the Knesset.
Still, the Arab parties question whether they’ll succeed in repeating that achievement given, for instance, riots in protest of the Jewish National Fund’s afforestation work in the Negev and other such incidents over the past year. Unfulfilled promises to recognize villages also damaged residents’ confidence in the Arab parties.
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Beyond that, Alkharumi's sudden death from a heart attack last August could also negatively affect participation in the election. Alkharumi, who was considered reflective of a Bedouin consensus, succeeded in uniting local political leaders, and UAL sources admit that his death has significantly reduced the party’s clout. The UAL is moving to nominate a new Negev representative, the main contenders for which include Rahat mayor Fayez Abu Sahiban and Walid al-Huwashla, the Islamic Movement’s central committee chairman and the manager of the UAL’s Knesset faction. The representative, who will be ultimately be determined in the upcoming primaries, is expected to be placed among the party's top four Knesset members, according to UAL sources.
Recent weeks have seen efforts to bump up voter turnout, including cooperation among former and current local leaders and an initiative to persuade regional businessmen to integrate into an existing party rather than establish a new one. “We’ve been trying for months to make a move, not just a political one, and we now have a tailwind thanks to the impending election,” said businessman Ibrahim Nsasra, who is one of the project’s leaders. “We want representation because the Negev deserves sufficient presence in the Knesset. We don’t just want to hand out votes. We have no intention of being in anyone’s pocket. We’ll negotiate with anyone willing to listen to our demands,” he added.
The Hadash faction of the Joint List is interested in cooperating with Nsasra given their past failed attempts to recruit voters in the Negev, as compared with the relative success of UAL. To do this, they will most likely have to include him on their list of Knesset candidates, though senior party officials say the party will find it difficult to place a non-party member in a slot with a good chance of getting in – so the party may support Nsasra’s efforts to set up a new party that would then join the Joint List. Party secretary Mansour Dahamshe confirmed this, but added that no actions have yet been taken. In large part this is because adding another faction to the Joint List could further push candidates from other factions, such as Balad and Ta’al, from a realistic chance of entering the Knesset. That prospect could tear the party apart if those existing factions oppose the move.
Activists in unrecognized Negev villages have started to form a political group, however, that may run in the next election. One of the activists, Hussein Arfaiyeh, said, “The Negev is very complicated, and the family-clan element plays a role in getting votes. We decided to appeal as a group to whoever is willing to listen to our demands," he said. "We are open to talking with Yesh Atid and leftward. We won’t restrict ourselves only to Arab parties – not to UAL and not to the Joint List."
Thabet Abu Rass, the co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives NGO, says an election campaign in the Negev could prove challenging for both parties. “There is a lot of potential in the Negev in terms of increasing voter turnout, but it’s tied to many elements,” he says. “The Negev is still based on principles of family and clan, and there are differences between recognized and unrecognized communities. Some of the planned moves could lead to surprises, both in who is represented and in turnout. But the big question is whether the parties will make the right moves.”