Israeli Elections | Neither Wipeout nor Success: Five Takeaways on How Arab Parties Fared

While voter turnout in the Arab community in the Israeli election increased, Arab parties only won a combined 10 seats in the next Knesset – way down on their March 2020 triumph. But there were still winners and losers

Jonathan Shamir
Jonathan Shamir
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מנסור עבאס קלפי 2022
United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas voting in the 2022 Israeli election last week.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Jonathan Shamir
Jonathan Shamir

Following five hotly contested elections in the space of three-and-a-half years, Israel’s Arab citizens woke up last Wednesday to the most religious, right-wing government in the country’s history, and unprecedented division among their own representatives.

The bitter recriminations between the three Arab slates are a far cry from the heady days of March 2020 when the Joint List – an alliance between the four main Arab parties – managed to mobilize and inspire their community to win a record 15 Knesset seats.

Last week’s election results reveal a polarized community: on one side, there is the new course charted by Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, which decided to splinter from the Joint List in the March 2021 election and eventually led the first independent Arab party into an Israeli governing coalition. Meanwhile, the nationalist Balad party received its highest vote tally and share in its history.

In different ways, all three slates lost: the United Arab List ran on a platform of “influence,” but will struggle to maintain its momentum in the wilderness of opposition; Hadash and Ta’al – the last remnants of the Joint List – had a relatively poor showing, winning just five seats; and despite outperforming the polls ahead of Election Day, Balad did not win enough votes to enter the Israeli parliament.

The soul-searching may have only just begun, but some trends are already clear. Here are five of the main takeaways from how Arab citizens voted in the November 1 election.

Balad leader Sami Abu Shehadeh, waving during Election Day in Umm al-Fahm last week.Credit: Rami Shllush

Gevalt worked – but less than for the Jews

With Arab parties running on three separate tickets, there were genuine fears that the community could lack any party representation in the next Knesset. This prompted a major grassroots push to get out the vote.

In March 2021, the voter turnout in Arab society crashed to a nadir of 44.6 percent – a dramatic fall from the 64.8 percent of March 2020.

This time around, the gloomiest predictions of voter turnout crashing below 40 percent did not materialize. Yet while the doomsday campaign managed to push the Arab turnout to 53.2 percent, it was still significantly lower than that of their Jewish peers. Voter turnout nationally rose from 67.4 percent in 2021 to 70.6 percent, raising the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset and thus spelling doom for Balad.

Netanyahu’s gevalt campaign over the Jewish character of the state ensured that Balad’s 138,000 votes ultimately went to waste.

The end of Hadash’s supremacy?

Hadash is the oldest Arab-majority party, being established in 1977, but it actually has roots that predate the State of Israel.

Despite its relentless rallying against Abbas during its last stint in opposition, the veteran left-wing party relinquished its crown as the most popular party in the Arab community to the United Arab List.

Hadash-Ta'al leaders Ahmad Tibi, left, and Ayman Odeh.Credit: Itay Ron

While the United Arab List and the Hadash-Ta’al alliance each secured five seats, Abbas commanded 32 percent of the Arab vote in comparison to Hadash-Ta’al’s 29.4 percent. Balad, meanwhile, received 22.5 percent of the vote.

This is not the first time Hadash hasn’t been the largest Arab party, but the blow is especially crushing now given that it ran on a joint ticket with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al.

Their campaign slogan of “Influencing with dignity” explicitly positioned itself in the middle ground – neither “surrendering its principles” like the United Arab List was accused of, nor outright rejecting cooperation with any government like Balad. The message, however, didn’t seem to resonate enough with Arab voters.

Balad finds a new home

On Hadash’s historic home turf of Haifa, its joint ticket maintained its status as the largest Arab party with 5.71 percent of the city’s vote. It also managed to secure the most votes in Acre, the hometown of popular Hadash lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman.

Hadash-Ta’al, however, hemorrhaged votes to Balad in other mixed cities.

While Hadash-Ta’al has strong voter bases in northern Israel, and the United Arab List dominates in conservative strongholds in the Negev and the Little Triangle area in central Israel (roughly bounded by the towns of Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh and Tira), Balad doesn’t have defined geographical voter bases. However, the results show it may have broke new ground.

Hailing from Lod in central Israel and living in Jaffa, Balad Chairman Sami Abu Shehadeh is a familiar face in the two communities – which helped him secure the highest share of his vote in both cities.

Ahead of the election, a senior figure in Hadash-Ta’al’s campaign said that Balad was stressing the intercommunal clashes of May 2021 in its messaging.

In Lod – one of the epicenters of the interethnic violence – Balad managed to win more than three-quarters of the Arab community’s vote. This was triple the number of ballots cast for Hadash-Ta’al and the United Arab List combined.

This was mirrored by their Jewish neighbors in Lod, where the far-right Religious Zionism doubled its vote share. Itamar Ben-Gvir’s extremists even ate into the Likud vote in this mixed city.

A vote of confidence in Abbas’ experiment

After the collapse of the short-lived “government of change” in June, polls showed that Abbas’ party had fallen below the electoral threshold. But the Islamist leader doubled down with a long-term vision of integration and influence.

Mansour Abbas speaking with members of his United Arab List party on Election Night.Credit: Gil Eliahu

His readiness to put aside his national beliefs in pursuit of civic goals remains far from enjoying a majority among Arab citizens – with Hadash-Ta’al and Balad still boasting a higher vote share than Zionist parties and Abbas combined in Arab communities. However, he has clearly received a mandate from his voter base to try again.

In the Negev city of Rahat, the United Arab List won over 64 percent of the vote and even drove a spike in turnout. It also maintained a comfortable margin of victory in all of the surrounding Bedouin townships and its other southern stronghold.

Move away from Zionist parties

The historical sway of Zionist parties in the Arab community has been ebbing for decades, and the trend only accelerated this time around: The percentage of Arab citizens voting for Arab parties rose by 4 percentage points, up to 84 percent.

An Arab voter in a polling place in the Bedouin city of Rahat, southern Israel, last week.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

This is reflected by small, consistent increases for the three slates in most Arab localities. In the largest cities, for example, the vote share for Arab parties went up: in Rahat from 85 to 91 percent; in Nazareth from 89 to 93 percent; and in Umm al-Fahm from 94 to 96.5 percent.

The main loser of this trend was Meretz, the left-wing, Zionist party that failed to cross the electoral threshold for the first time in its 30-year history. Touting the principle of Arab-Jewish cooperation, the party normally secures a large proportion of the vote for Zionist parties, buoyed by having Arab candidates on its slate. But its share was cut in half in most localities spanning the Little Triangle and Galilee region.

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