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Arab voters in Israel turn out in force, win new Knesset seats

A united effort helped Arabs in Israel claim two more parliament seats that they hope will translate to a better quality of life.
Ayman Odeh (3rd-L), leader of the Hadash party that is part of the Joint List alliance, gives an address with other alliance leaders at their electoral headquarters in Israel's northern city of Shefa-Amr on March 2, 2020, after polls officially closed. - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to lead his main challenger following elections with multiple exit polls putting his right-wing Likud several seats ahead of the centrist Blue and White party. Exit polls by three Israeli television network

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Nermin Mawaad of Nazareth boycotted the April 2019 Israeli legislative election, but was determined to vote this month.

She told Al-Monitor that because Arab parties ran this time with a unified slate of candidates and because of the dangers haunting Palestinians in the territories in the wake of Washington's peace plan for the Middle East, she felt driven to vote and persuade others to do so too.

These reasons led thousands of Palestinians inside Israel to vote, some of them for the first time in their lives. As a result, the Arab-majority Joint List political alliance won 15 seats — two more than it got in the September elections and five more than it won in April — in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

This was Israel's third legislative election in less than a year, after repeated failures to form a consensus government. 

What allowed the Joint List, which brings together the parties and political forces of Palestinian society inside Israel, to achieve such results?

Journalist Bakr al-Zoubi, also from Nazareth — a cultural and media hub for Palestinians inside Israel — always takes part in the elections, but he found this month's results unusually encouraging. He told Al-Monitor that because more Palestinians were able to win seats, the Knesset now has fewer right-wing representatives, meaning it will be harder for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government.

“We know full well that the general policies adopted against us, the Palestinians inside Israel, are the same, regardless of whether or not the government is formed by the right. However, life inside Israel will be different if the government isn't formed by the extreme right opposed to Arabs, and this in itself is a great motivation for everyone to vote,” he added.

Arab Knesset members usually receive votes from Nazareth and the Triangle, a heavily Arab area of Israel. In this election, they received the votes of more Palestinians fearing Netanyahu will implement the US peace plan for the Mideast. Among the plan's many proposals Palestinians find objectionable is one to annex the Triangle area to the Palestinian state instead of the settlements Israel has built in the West Bank, even though Netanyahu said last month that will not happen.

Nahar Masarwa, an activist in Triangle village of Arara who focuses on advancing the status of women, told Al-Monitor that the area saw increased voter turnout.

“We voted to oppose change and prevent racist laws that will change our destiny and the way we deal with the Israeli settlements,” she added.

According to Masarwa, Palestinians in Israel had hoped that abstaining from voting would send a message, but they're also determined to prevent Netanyahu from continuing to rule and imposing more racist laws.

Masarwa believes the results will help the Palestinians' situation in Israel by improving education and reducing poverty, unemployment and violence.

Masarwa, who works as a consultant to her village council, considers the results of the elections a great achievement, as four women from the Joint List won Knesset seats compared with only two in the last election.

Antoine Shalhat, an Arab-Israeli author and journalist with the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, attributed the high turnout to several factors, mainly opposition to the Mideast peace plan, talk of annexing the Triangle and Netanyahu's anti-Arab policies.

Asked what the list can achieve after winning 15 seats, Shalhat explained that real change, as far as civil issues are concerned, is possible despite a panoply of difficulties.

He said the Arab community should not flog the Joint List if it fails to deliver on all of its promises. Though major transformations have been taking place in the Knesset, control by the extremist parties has made it difficult for other parties to achieve their goals.

“As far as the general policies adopted against the Palestinians are concerned, it is difficult for this list, let alone any other Arab forces, to change them, but it can achieve real breakthroughs on issues such as violence in Arab society, unemployment, poverty and education,” he added.

The Palestinian community in Israel suffers from several social problems. Its poverty rate hit 44.2% in 2018, compared with 20.4% in Israel overall, and the unemployment rate among Palestinians there stood at 14% in 2018 and 2019.

Razi al-Nabulsi, a researcher at the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, established a link between the high Palestinian turnout and the US peace plan, Netanyahu’s incitement against Arabs and their fear for their legal and political status in the event the plan is implemented.

Nabulsi said the civil discourse adopted by the Joint List has created a general expectation that the list will work on these issues. “These promises could backfire if the list fails to deliver on them,” he added. "In any upcoming elections, citizens will vote for those capable of achieving their goals, which unfortunately are the Israeli parties that control the … state."

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