Israel Pulse

Israeli Arabs engaging in electoral campaign

Article Summary
The merger of the Hadash and Ta’al parties reflects growing willingness within the Israeli Arab population to become a meaningful part of Israel’s society and electoral map.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps warning his voters against their fellow Arab voters. In 2015, his famous call on Election Day warning that the Arabs were flocking “in droves’’ to the polls was successful in getting out the right-wing vote to support him and head off the Arabs.

On Feb. 21, Israel Resilience leader Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, with the participation of two other former military chiefs of staff, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, announced the formation of the new political platform Blue and White. In light of this event and the threat it represents to his continued rule, Netanyahu has reverted to frightening his constituents with the “Arab devil.”

In a scaremongering speech Feb. 21, immediately following the festive unveiling of the Blue and White alliance, Netanyahu warned that its intention was to wrest power from the right with the help of the Arab minority. Lapid and Gantz “rely on Arab parties who not only don't recognize the State of Israel, but want to destroy it,” Netanyahu said in a televised speech.

Whereas Netanyahu in 2015 warned voters that his Likud party’s hold on power was under threat, he has now taken the scare tactics up a notch to warn that the entire state! is under threat. Why? Because the Arab parties, that is, Arab voters, aspire to destroy it.

Netanyahu is reading the new political map correctly. He analyzes the polls not only according to the number of Knesset seats each party is forecast to get, but also according to his future options for forming a government coalition after the elections.

Polls conducted Feb. 21 give Blue and White a distinct lead of 35 or 36 seats, at least four more than Netanyahu’s party. Some polls put the gap between the two parties at six seats. These elections will be determined according to the size of each bloc — left and right — as has been the case in all previous Israeli elections. The right-wing bloc (comprised of the Likud and small rightist parties) could garner 48 seats, just like the center-left (the Blue and White, Labor and Meretz parties). The ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and Yahadut HaTorah) are forecast to get 12 seats, equal to the number predicted for the Arab parties. Thus, those who will tip the scale in favor of center-left or right and decide who will form Israel’s next government are the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. That is why Netanyahu did not wait for Election Day and for the polls to open and rushed to launch his scare attack.

In the April 9 elections, the four Israeli Arab parties will run on two separate lists, after the Arab Joint List alliance formed in 2015 was dismantled at the initiative of Knesset member Ahmad Tibi. The smaller of the four parties, Balad and Ra’am, fearing they would not garner sufficient votes to pass the electoral threshold, joined forces at the last minute before the Feb. 21 deadline for submitting all candidate lists. The communist Hadash party and Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al party also agreed on a joint ticket.

Hadash and Ta’al have much in common. They both appeal to secular Arab society, seek to attract young voters and to restore Arab public trust that has been badly eroded by Israel’s political system. Together and separately, their platforms focus on the economic and social hardships facing young Israeli Arabs in attempting to attain acceptance as equals.

Hadash is mostly a communist, socialist party, while Knesset member Tibi describes his party as social-democratic. In recent months, Tibi has been meeting young people in Arab towns and villages, asking them to believe in the Israeli political system and warning that boycotting it would contribute to perpetuating their discrimination and rift with Israeli society. If the political right forms the next government, he argues, it will marginalize them even more and further deprive them of their rights as sons and daughters of this land.

Hadash Chair Ayman Odeh, too, has been reiterating that most of the Arab public he represents is eager to integrate into Israeli society, to form a part of it and for its Arabs to live their lives as civic-minded equals. Polls give the Tibi-Odeh alliance about 10 Knesset seats — a significant chunk that could help the center-left bloc form the next governing coalition. Absent their support, the Gantz-Lapid alliance does not stand a chance of breaking the right-left electoral tie.

Even before Hadash and Ta’al announced their union, young Arabs were flooding social media with posts urging their fellow Arabs to exercise their civil rights and prevent a victory for the right. The message was clear — vote for whichever party you want, not necessarily the Arab parties, with the focus on stemming the flood of undemocratic, discriminatory legislation enacted by successive right-wing Netanyahu governments over the past decade, which peaked in 2018 with the passage of the Nationality Law that officially downgrades Israeli Arabs to second-class citizens.

Munib Nahle, a resident of the central Arab town of Taibe, told Al-Monitor that if the radical right grows stronger, Arab citizens will be unable to live in Israel with dignity, especially after Netanyahu pushed a political merger of radical right elements. “If radical right activists, who are followers of [the late Rabbi Meir] Kahane, get into the Knesset, they are quite capable of shouting ‘death to Arabs.’ If the Arab citizens do not wake up and do the simplest of things — vote, they must not complain later,” he says. Nahle says he started out with some friends in the area where he lives, who were then joined on WhatsApp groups and social media forming what has become a growing movement of young people calling on their fellow Arab citizens to “stop moaning and take your future into your own hands.”

Nahle called his WhatsApp group “The Arabs are flocking.’’ He says it has generated a shift in the mindset of many Arabs, who now agree that elections in Israel are not only for Jews but for all citizens.

Amar Daka, the chief producer of the Arabic news website Al-Masdar, was the first to use this name, taken from Netanyahu’s infamous warning on Election Day 2015 (warning his constituency that Arab voters were coming out in droves to the polls). “The Arabs are flocking” was the headline of a December 2016 editorial he wrote in reaction to Netanyahu’s former Knesset coalition whip, Knesset member David Bitan, who said, “Arabs flock to the polls? I’d prefer if they didn’t show up to vote at all.”

“I call on my Arab friends, who see how the waves of cheap populism and racism are pounding away at Israeli democracy, to flock en masse to the ballot boxes in every conceivable way,” Daka wrote at the time. “Vote for your representatives, no matter from which party, take part with all your might in the democratic game lest it trample you.”.\

The Hadash-Ta’al alliance is counting on this message, which appears to be making inroads into Arab society. Odeh and Tibi realize that the Gantz-Lapid alliance will work in their favor, but they are not interested in serving the anti-Netanyahu bloc so much as being a force to be reckoned with against fascism and Kahanism.

Indeed, after the two Arab parties announced their joint ticket, Odeh said, “While the Kahanist right is uniting, we must make sure that not a single Arab voice is lost, for the sake of the Arab interests and for all forces of democracy.” An hour later, Netanyahu accused the Arab parties of striving for Israel’s destruction. And this is just the beginning.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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