The drop in voter turnout of Arab citizens of Israel is related to divisions among the Arab political parties and their MKs’ excessive preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Arab members of the Knesset are largely considered by the Israeli public a fifth column. The average news consumer experiences negative emotions upon seeing Haneen Zoabi holding forth at the Knesset podium, popular interviewee Dr. Ahmad Tibi speaking or Taleb el-Sana protesting against Yassam riot police at one of the Bedouin settlements scattered through the Negev. It now appears that the Jewish citizens of Israel are not alone. The Arab representatives are also unpopular among the Arab population, who do not perceive them as serving their constituents faithfully.
The Abraham Fund Initiative has taken upon itself the right and the obligation to bring the Arabs of Israel and their Jewish cousins closer. As the organization sees it, the nation’s founding father is Abraham/Ibrahim, and we have no option but to live together. Ahead of the 2013 election, the organization undertook an expansive survey to examine the positions of the Arab sector, in order to understand its dramatic drop in voter turnout.
For example, in 2009, voter turnout among Arabs in Israel stood at only 52%, whereas the general turnout stood at 65%. The survey also reveals that only 28% of the Arab sector will definitely vote in the coming election. The percentage of potential voters from the Arab public (meaning those who are not sure whether they will vote — and if so, for whom) increased by 32% from the last election.
The drop in voter turnout can’t be explained only by segregation and the sense of disconnect felt by Arabs in Israel, but rather an internal process the sector is undergoing. The Arab public in Israel is far more interested in social issues than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Arab MKs prefer to emphasize and perpetuate. A total of 24% of the participants in the poll said that education is at the top of their priorities. Sixteen percent said that violence and crime are the most important, and only 12% answered that the conflict is their top priority. This was the case during the social-justice protest in the summer of 2011, and it’s the case now — daily civilian life is what preoccupies Israel’s Arab citizens. The survey gives the sense that their lack of attendance at the polls stems at least partially from a desire to punish Arab Knesset members, who don’t take enough action on the issues that really matter.
Another problem the survey raises is the general sense that there’s no one to vote for, and that divisions and the relatively numerous parties within the sector adversely affect voter turnout. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents expressed a pragmatic wish for the different Arab parties to unite, which would encourage voting. The division may be the central reason that only 30% feel the Knesset members can be trusted to represent them. This feeling was expressed well by Dr. Salman Masalha in a piece published in Haaretz on October 16, 2012, under the headline “For Israeli Arabs, there’s no one to vote for,” in which he laid out the reasons that so many people from the Arab sector don’t take part in election day.
“Four years ago, I confess, I didn't vote in the elections,” Masalha wrote. “I refrained not because I don't believe in democracy, but for a very simple reason: There was no one to vote for. And now, wonder of wonders, with new elections upon us, this opinion of mine has received redoubled validity.” It’s important to emphasize in this context that 18 Knesset seats could potentially go to the Arab public, as opposed to the 10 or 11 seats the Arab parties have been winning in different polls published in recent weeks.
One figure that sticks out from the survey is what is likely to be mistakenly perceived as the central cause for the absence at the polls of Arabs in Israel — a boycott for ideological motivations. Only 17% responded that this is the reason they do not vote, a figure much smaller than expected. This figure may be the most important of all. The Arab public strives to participate in the state, with less than one-fifth not interested in taking part.
The Abraham Fund Initiative survey supplies a heavy dose of hope that there exists a will for partnership among Arabs in Israel. Daily life, proper and unified representation, more women in politics (more than 50% said that incorporating women into the party lists will increase the chances they will go to the polls) and the absence of an ideological factor all point to a willingness and desire to integrate into Israeli society to an extent greater than had been assumed. This poll is much more than a gauntlet thrown at us, the Jewish citizens of the state and its leaders, calling for the incorporation of Arab citizens of Israel — before it’s too late.