Arab Parties and the Israeli Election

An Arab-Israeli woman casts her vote during Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taiyiba (photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images/Al-Monitor).


Israelis will vote next Tuesday for the fifth time in under four years. The country remains almost evenly divided over former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption. Polls show that the numbers have barely budged. And Israel’s Arab-majority political parties failed to sign surplus-vote sharing agreements before the deadline for submissions passed; thus giving an edge to the bloc of parties led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coming November 1, 2022 election.

The Arab nationalist Balad party refused a request by Hadash-Ta’al to sign a deal. Balad is not expected to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to win Knesset representation, according to public opinion polling, meaning that the tens of thousands of votes for their party will likely go to waste.

Under Israeli law, the combined leftover votes go to the party in the agreement closest to winning another seat — and are often sufficient to add that seat to its tally, making the votes potentially decisive in a tight race.

And Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu has increased his spending in Arab communities in the final weeks of the election campaign, with statistics revealing a significant gap in expenditure on Arabic-language advertisements between Likud and the Arab parties. Likud received around 5% of Arab (including Druze) votes in the last election, more than any other non-Arab party.

According to statistics published by Channel 12 on Tuesday, between July 17 and October 14 Likud spent NIS 47,500 ($13,500) on Arabic-language Facebook ads, compared to NIS 24,100 ($6,900) spent by Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party, and just NIS 3,460 by Ayman Odeh’s Hadash-Ta’al faction. Likud, Israel’s largest party, has far more funds at its disposal than the smaller Arab parties.

Meanwhile, anti-Netanyahu Israelis have discovered the key to victory: Arab turnout. In 2021, the Israel Democracy Institute found that just under 45 percent voted in Arab localities in 2021, while national turnout stood at 67.4 percent. Now polls are predicting even worse: in the range of around 40 percent, an unprecedented low for Knesset elections. Indeed, data shows that elections are held less frequently, and that voter turnout has dramatically decreased even in Arab states where elections were held.

While Israeli Arab parties fare much better when running together, the Arab Islamic Ra’am party is determined to continue its independent course. It sat in the anti-Natanyahu coalition government last year.

And on the last day the Joint List of Arab-led parties announced it would run in upcoming elections as two separate factions, in a surprise 11th-hour move that shuffled Israel’s political landscape and could significantly dilute Arab representation in the Knesset after November.

The decision to split the three party Hadash-Ta’al and Balad list came just an hour before final party lists were due to the Central Elections Committee, and only a day after the three factions had agreed to run again as the Joint List.

The Joint List was first formed in the run-up to the 2015 elections after the vote threshold was raised to four seats, more than any Arab party had managed to get on its own. The alliance created an awkward marriage between communists, nationalists and Islamists, essentially forced together in order to retain political influence, but disputes and fissures have hounded the Joint List throughout its short life.

There are approximately one million Arab citizens of Israel, a huge electoral demographic with immense potential. Far from monolithic, the Arabic-speaking citizens of Israel are made up of a diverse collection of communities with a wide range of views: the Druze in the north; the Islamist Bedouin in the south; the Arabs of the mixed cities of Haifa, Acre and Jaffa; the residents of the villages, towns and cities of “the Triangle” and the Galilee; and of course a sizable Christian Arab population. Israel’s Arabs are as divided as Israel’s Jews.

Nationwide turnout in Israel has hovered around the 70% mark for the last 20 years, and has changed little throughout the past five election cycles. Yet turnout in Arab localities is extremely volatile, reaching highs of 65% and lows of 45% in recent years.

The major Arab parties today, Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al (that were running together as The Joint List), and Ra’am (the Islamist United Arab List), together hold 10 seats in the current Knesset; six for the Joint List, and four for Ra’am. The vast majority of the Arab vote now goes to Arab parties, with only 9% going to Jewish parties in the last election.

The largest party today within the Joint List, both in support and infrastructure, is the far-left Hadash party. Hadash, an acronym of “The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality,” is a coalition of Jews and Arabs, which has traditionally supported coexistence and Jewish-Arab cooperation, though its positions have hardened over the years. The outspoken leader of both Hadash and, in recent years, the Joint List, is Ayman Odeh.

Balad, led by Sami Abu Shehadeh, is the Hebrew acronym for the National Democratic Alliance, and also an Arabic word for country or nation. It is a nationalist party and the most controversial out of the four parties, with former senior members traveling to Syria and Lebanon to show solidarity with Hezbollah.

Balad advocates for a bi-national state and the recognition of Israel’s Arab community as a national minority with autonomy in a number of fields. This differs slightly from Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al (also nationalist) which still supports a two-state solution, and demonstrates greater flexibility in its cooperation with the Jewish parties.

The fourth party is Ra’am, “The United Arab List,” which was formed from the southern wing of Israel’s Islamist movement. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, controversially pulled out of the Joint List prior to the last elections in 2021, gambling that it could garner enough support with a totally different strategy: to join a coalition and become the kingmaker, rather than remain perennially in opposition. Abbas had read the pulse of the Arab community where polls had shown big majorities in favor of joining an Israeli government coalition.

The idea of being part of a government is especially attractive to the growing number of Arab professionals. In 2000, Arab Israelis constituted just 11.2% of all new physicians; by 2020, that number had risen to nearly 50%, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Health. And Arab women, whose status in society is rising now number almost 66 percent of Arab students at colleges and universities.

But a 2021 study from researchers at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo and Tel Aviv University found that Jewish Israelis exhibited bias towards Arab Israeli doctors. A government party can do much to change that.

When the four main Arab parties united as a single list (as in 2015, September 2019 and 2020), Arab turnout has been around 60-65% (only 5-10 points behind the general turnout), and the Arab parties have subsequently done well in the election.

But when the parties have been divided, as in April 2019 and the most recent election in 2021, turnout has dropped to below 50% and the parties performed poorly. In fact, at the most recent election, the 10 seats the Arab parties won, representing 8% of the Knesset, contrasted sharply with the Arab community’s 21% of the population as a whole. Unlike the Jewish parties, Arab parties have received more votes when they run together.

So one might have thought that the Arab parties would want to reunite for this election. In fact, the opposite is true. The split Joint List and Ra’am will again run separately. So a recent poll reported in The Times of Israel suggests Arab turnout could drop to as low as 40%.

Ra’am no longer sees itself as the party of eternal opposition. Mansour Abbas has crossed that line. Abbas believes that Ra’am can again prove a kingmaker as it did in the last election. And despite being called “terror supporters” by Netanyahu,  Ra’am has not ruled out sitting with Natayahu either.

So Arab voters now fall into two camps: those voting to be in the opposition (the split Joint List), and those looking to join the next coalition (Ra’am).

There is also a claim that Ra’am leader Abbas would actually prefer to join a Netanyahu-led government, the argument being that the only way for his Arab community to get true recognition and acceptance into Israeli society is to join a government of the right and Netanyahu.

Indeed, Ra’am has more in common with the religious and socially conservative Jewish parties that are part of the Netanyahu coalition than with its more liberal partners in the outgoing coalition government. But the far right Jewish nationalist parties, small as they are, will not join a government that includes Ra’am.

If Netanyahu doesn’t get to 61, the “real” campaign will begin the morning after the election and go on for many weeks after the election. Then Ra’am will have its opportunity to be king maker, or not.


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