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Why Bibi Fears Arab Voters

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
The Israeli-Arab politician Ayman Odeh (front, third from right) at a campaign rally for the Joint List alliance of Arab parties ahead of Israel’s September election, Kafr Yasif, Israel, August 23, 2019

The giant yellow billboard near the Arab town of Nahef in northern Israel declares in Arabic, “This time, we are the decision-makers.” It is a reminder to the nearly 2 million Arab citizens of Israel that in this election, which will be held on September 17, they could decide Israel’s future as a democratic state. Their votes, should they choose to wield them, have the power to end the reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Long relegated to the margins of Israeli politics, Arab voters are playing a central part in this do-over election, triggered when the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted to dissolve itself after Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition following an election in April. Arab voters suddenly find themselves under a spotlight from every direction. On the right, they are being weaponized to scare Israelis into going to the polls and keeping “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is popularly known, in power. On the left, Arab voters are being actively courted by Israeli politicians who finally understand that they need their support to unseat Netanyahu.

There are, of course, obstacles on all fronts. This is, after all, Israel. Arab-majority parties have never served in any Israeli government, and have historically refused to join any governing coalition. Jewish parties, in turn observing a reciprocal taboo, have ruled out forming a governing coalition with them. These hardened positions now appear to be melting. 

Arab citizens represent a fifth of Israel’s population. They speak Hebrew and participate in nearly every facet of Israeli life, working as doctors in hospitals, teachers in schools. They have run in every election and been elected to every Knesset since the first elections in 1949. Yet, for decades, they have been treated by Israeli politicians as a fifth column that cannot be trusted. 

That stigma has intensified dramatically under the decade-long rule of Netanyahu, whose dire warnings of “Arab voters turning out in droves” on election day in 2015 now looks like child’s play. In April’s Knesset elections, his Likud party worked hard to discourage Arab voting. Netanyahu’s campaign slogan, once again, is “Bibi or Tibi,” referring to Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmad Tibi.

Netanyahu has good reason to fear Arab political participation. “This is the single most important issue if people want to even think about bringing political change in Israel,” said Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel. “Netanyahu is the first of all Israelis to understand that the key to his replacement is a partnership between the center-left and Arab voters.” 

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At first sight, the reasons for this resurgent interest in Arab voters are not obvious. The April elections saw the lowest turnout of Arab voters in Israel’s history—a rate of 49 percent, down from 64 percent in 2015. While the Likud’s voter intimidation contributed to the low Arab turnout, it wasn’t the primary factor. The main cause was Arab voters’ frustration with their own elected leaders, said Thabet Abu Rass, Arab-Israeli co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, an organization promoting equality in Israel, named for the forefather of both Muslims and Jews. 

In particular, Arab voters’ disaffection owed much to the breakup of the Joint List, which was established in 2015 to unite the four main Arab parties. Their unification was a response to legislation by right-wing lawmakers, which raised the electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset. Ironically, that attempt to decrease Arab representation had the opposite effect. The historic unification of once splintered Arab parties—ranging from Islamist to secular, communist to nationalist—energized the Arab public. The emergence of the Joint List led to a record high of Arab representation in 2015, giving Arab citizens the third largest party in the Knesset, with thirteen seats. 

Arab voters thought their leaders had risen above their differences, and would finally be able to influence policy, but things didn’t go as planned. Arab Knesset members not only failed to capitalize on that opportunity, but failed to maintain their unity. In a battle of egos and infighting, the Joint List dissolved ahead of the 2019 election. And while the alliance reunited in July with the hope of raising Arab turnout in September, many are still bitterly disappointed in their leaders.

According to a recent poll by Abu Rass’s organization, 34 percent of Arab citizens who chose not to vote in April did so out of apathy, convinced that their votes would have little impact on their lives. Many felt their leaders had ignored their most pressing issues. Half of those polled said their most important concern was crime and violence within the Arab community, an issue Arab politicians have largely avoided. Just seven percent of Arab voters boycotted the election for ideological reasons. 

“When I go through the political discourse of the Arab leadership, I find that it’s based on a victimhood mentality,” says Abed Abu Shhade, an Arab-Israeli activist from Jaffa who was recently elected to Tel Aviv’s city council. “I can testify to how difficult it is to be inside the room, and how much easier it is to attack an institution from the outside,” said Shhade. Like many Arab voters, he wants lawmakers to focus less on ideology and more on the problems plaguing the Arab community, such as the high murder rate and the prevalence of organized crime and gender-based violence, also known as “honor” killings. “If we don’t have a serious shift in our political discourse, we won’t survive,” Shhade fears.

Whether or not the Joint List recovers its lost ground, though, is no longer the only way Arab voters can flex their political muscle. Instead, it is the new focus on Arab voters by center-left, historically Jewish parties that is expected to bring more Arab-Israelis to the polls this month. For the first time in decades, many see an unprecedented opportunity for Arab-Jewish partnership in Israeli politics—and a way to throw open what had been a closing window of hope for the first center-left government since the days of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor prime minister assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995.

Serving in the opposition from 1993 to 1995 during the premiership of Rabin showed Netanyahu what a government supported by Arab-Israelis is capable of. Without the additional votes of their lawmakers in the Knesset, Rabin wouldn’t have maintained a governing coalition, and the historic Oslo agreement wouldn’t have passed. The passage of Oslo—still deeply unpopular among right-wing Israelis—is precisely the image Netanyahu is conjuring up when he warns of the dangers of a left-wing government supported by Arab lawmakers. 

That may still play with his base, but the tectonic plates of Israeli politics are shifting. Even as the Israeli right continues to delegitimize Arab political participation, the Israeli left is taking a radically different approach in an effort to reverse its historic decline. Until this election cycle, center and left-wing parties kept their distance from Arab voters. Taking Netanyahu’s bait, they largely ignored Arab voters in their campaigns for fear of looking like the “weak leftists” Netanyahu made them out to be. But what is happening in this election has never been seen before, Abu Rass told me. 

“The Arab vote actually matters this time,” he said. That might not sound groundbreaking, but the outreach by Jewish parties to Arab voters represents a sea-change in Israeli politics. “Not since Rabin have we witnessed such attention paid to Arab voters.” 

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Israel’s multi-party political system means that elections result in various parliamentary blocs competing in the complex arithmetic required to form a government. For the center-left to regain power, it needs to secure sixty-one seats—a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats—to form a governing coalition. While the leading center-left party, Blue and White, tied with Netanyahu’s Likud in April, it failed to win enough seats to form a governing coalition. If the reunited Joint List of Arab parties gains as many as twelve seats, as expected, that would be enough to give Blue and White the majority it needs to form a governing coalition this time around.  

“More and more people in the center-left now understand the math,” said Sikkuy’s Gerlitz. “Analysts said that for the left to win they should go in the center. They should have generals. They had all of that in April but still they didn’t win, because the concept of getting sixty-one seats without the Arabs can’t work.”

Netanyahu certainly understands the political logic of this—and fears it. At his instigation, on election day in April, his party dispatched some 1,200 activists with hidden cameras to monitor Arab voters in polling stations across the country. Despite the opposition of Israel’s attorney general, Netanyahu plans to repeat this tactic in September, in the belief that it succeeded in suppressing the Arab vote. Netanyahu’s campaign has defended the move with the unproven, Trump-like claim of rampant voter fraud within the Arab sector. In fact, the only voter fraud of which Israeli police found evidence benefited Likud and another right-wing party. In another Trumpian move, Netanyahu has accused Blue and White and Arab parties of trying to “steal” the election by their opposition to his so-called “camera law.” Legislation Netanyahu initiated to allow cameras in polling stations passed in cabinet this week, but failed its first Knesset vote. 

“The cameras are not an isolated incident, but the logical next step in a years-long campaign to intimidate, disenfranchise, and frighten the Arab population of Israel into feeling it’s not truly equal,” said Daniel Sokatch, chief executive of the New Israel Fund. “This is all for the purpose of establishing an idea of Jewish supremacy among all Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, with the direct benefit of voter suppression.” 

In an effort to shore up his political coalition and electoral prospects, Netanyahu worked to bring the extreme-right Kahanist Jewish Power party into the Knesset; in August, Likud joined Jewish Power in trying to ban the Joint List from even running in the election. Israel’s Supreme Court, which Netanyahu has sought to weaken, curbed that effort. Realizing the threat to his survival, the prime minister’s most consistent attack on the leaders of Blue and White has been that they would sit in a government with Arab lawmakers, who he claims wish to “destroy” Israel.

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
A billboard in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, before Israel’s inconclusive election in April depicting the leaders of the Blue and White political alliance on the left, contrasted with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition, Israel, March 17, 2019

But that smear is losing its deterrent power on the center-left. After left-wing party Meretz raised 28 percent of its vote share from the Arab sector in April, other Jewish parties understood they can no longer afford to ignore a fifth of the population. In general, the last election saw a stunning 30 percent of Arab votes go to Jewish parties, up from 17 percent in 2015. “In the last twenty years, Arabs didn’t vote at these levels for Zionist parties,” said Abu Rass. 

“Arab voters are taking their citizenship more seriously,” he added. “In all the mixed cities we see Arabs and Jews serving together in city councils, where Arabs are part of the decision-making process. Why can’t we see this on the national government level?”

Responding to this remarkable shift in Arab voting patterns, Jewish parties began new outreach. Blue and White has invested hundreds of thousands of shekels in advertising in Arabic, given numerous interviews in Arabic media, and hosted dozens of campaign events in Arab towns. “We have an entire department dedicated to the Arab sector,” says Ram Ben-Barak, a Blue and White lawmaker and a former deputy director of the Mossad, Israel’s secret service. “We will see the impact of that in the next election.”

Amir Peretz, the new leader of the Labor party, launched his campaign in an Arab city, a first for Labor, and with an explicit antiracist message designed to appeal to Arab voters disturbed at the prospect of another Netanyahu administration with ever more extremist partners. In July, the former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak took the uncommon step of publicly apologizing for the killing of twelve Israeli Arabs in clashes with police in 2000. Yair Golan, number three in Barak’s Democratic Union party, told a group of Arab voters that every government should have an Arab minister, voicing support for a coalition with Arab lawmakers. “We have more Arab candidates than any other Jewish party,” he boasted in an interview. 

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Old shibboleths aside, there is an underlying logic to this emerging political compact. Numerous surveys show that Arabs and Jews in Israel are far less divided than their political leaders would have us think. The majority of Arab voters—between 73 and 78 percent—want Arab lawmakers to join a center-left coalition. Part of this reflects an evolving sense of the stake Arab citizens feel they have in Israel’s body politic. In a recent survey conducted by one of the most respected pollsters in Israel, Arab respondents were asked to indicate their primary self-identification. Forty-six percent said “Israeli Arab,” 22 percent said “Arab,” 14 percent said “Palestinian,” and 19 percent said “Israeli Palestinian.” The fact that nearly two thirds of respondents included “Israeli” in their self-definition accords with their desire to see their leaders serving in the government, not merely in the opposition. 

“Until now there has been a fact,” said Amjad Shbita, the Arab-Israeli co-executive director of Sikkuy. “Since the assassination of Rabin, the center and left have not turned to the Arabs to partner with them. Now there is a chance this could happen.”

In August, the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, said he would be willing to join a center-left government if certain conditions were met, including a commitment to end the occupation of Palestinian territories—a condition that no party, besides perhaps Meretz, could accept. Even so, Odeh’s comments were vehemently rejected by the other parties in the Joint List. His overtures were also dismissed by Blue and White, which pointed out that many of the Joint List’s members oppose the existence of the Jewish State. None of this prevented Netanyahu and other right-wing officials from pouncing on the opportunity to bash Blue and White for parlaying with Arab parties. But Gerlitz warned that it would be a mistake to fold under such pressure.

“Blue and White’s biggest mistake in April was cooperating with this [right-wing] agenda,” he said. “If they repeat that mistake, that will be the one thing that keeps them from winning this election.”

The antipathy on both sides toward declaring support for a Jewish-Arab coalition explains the roundabout strategy of the center-left. Rather than cooperating directly with Arab parties, Blue and White, Labor, the Democratic Union, and others are appealing directly to Arab voters in the hope that a larger share will vote for them in September. Going over the heads of the Joint List, center-left candidates are courting Arab voters themselves.

“It was a mistake that we didn’t pay attention to Arab voters in April,” admitted Blue and White’s Ben-Barak, but added, “The Arab public also needs to take responsibility. They need to vote. The sector of the public that has the highest turnout is the one that is in power.” This is why he and other party members are visiting Arab towns every day, urging residents to vote. 

“We are not telling them to vote for Blue and White,” he said. “We are telling them to take part in the political system, because your ability to impact life here is in your hands.” As for Blue and White’s opposition to a coalition with the Arab parties, he said, “If there is an Arab party that says they support the state of Israel, we will be happy to sit in a coalition with them. There is no party like this today, and that’s the problem.”

Given the math, there’s no question that Arab voters could help the center-left beat Netanyahu. The real question is whether the center-left, and particularly Blue and White, is ready to let them. In recent weeks, Blue and White not only dismissed Odeh’s overtures, but also signed a vote-sharing agreement with the party of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman and voiced support for a hypothetical unity government with Likud (albeit one that would exclude Netanyahu—an unlikely scenario). 

“Everything they are doing is signaling that they are not ready for cooperation with the Arab public,” said Shbita. “But it’s also possible that they are just doing what is necessary to beat the right.”

Although Blue and White’s outreach to Arab voters represents a meaningful and emphatic shift, it may not be enough to convince Arab voters that the Jewish party actually cares about them. “We’re extremely skeptical,” said Sally Abed, an Arab-Israeli activist working with the organization Standing Together. “Where were you before these elections? What’s going to happen after?” she asked. “They see us as votes, not as citizens whose interests they want to advance.”

April’s voting pattern suggests, though, that there is a growing new minority of pragmatic, tactical Arab voters. Even though the prospect of Arab parties serving in a coalition remains remote, this bloc could very possibly support a center-left coalition of Jewish parties “from the outside,” as Arab Israelis did during Rabin’s government. And many of them may feel that even if the policy of entente from Blue and White and other Jewish parties is simply electioneering, it doesn’t matter, so long as Netanyahu is out. 

“I have no doubt that the Arab public will go out and vote in much higher numbers in these elections,” said Shbita. “There is a real desire in Arab society to be partners in the effort to end the Netanyahu regime.”