Israel Pulse

Israeli-Arabs key to returning the center-left to power

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Article Summary
Comparing Israel’s demographic profile with the results of the recent election show that large numbers of Israeli Arabs not voting, some due to intimidation, had a dramatic impact on the political map.

“There will be no change of government without Israel’s Arab citizens. The Blue and White party’s thesis that they can send signals to the soft right and draw voters from that bloc did not stand up to the test of reality,” former Knesset member and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On told Al-Monitor. Since the April 9 election, Gal-On has seized every available opportunity to speak about the critical need to integrate Arab and Jewish political forces. This, she says, is the only way to bring about a change of government.

Comparing Israel’s demographic profile on the eve of the nation’s 71st Independence Day and the results of the recent election leads to an inevitable conclusion: The seats lost by a large percentage of Israeli Arabs not voting could have had a dramatic impact on the political map and even resulted in a change of government.

Figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics show that Israel is now home to about 9 million people. Among them, 74.2% are Jews (6.7 million), and 20.9% are Arabs (1.9 million). Then there are the figures for Israeli Arabs who voted in April. According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, 68.5% of the total voting age population cast ballots, but voting in Arab settlements was noticeably lower, at just 49.2%, the lowest voting rate among Israel’s Arab population since the state's founding.

If most Israeli Arabs with voting rights would have taken advantage of that right and cast ballots for Arab parties, it is estimated that those parties would have won 14-15 seats in the Knesset. In the end, the Arab parties won 10 seats, three fewer than in the 2015 election.

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This disappointing result has led to calls within the Arab parties to learn from what has happened. The problem is that this fails to leave room for the most important conclusion of all, which is relevant to the center-left parties, in particular to the Blue and White: The route to a government turnover runs through the Arab sector, where there is a significant bloc of votes.

Anyone who manages to harness the Arab vote could bring about a dramatic shift in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was well aware of the potential of the Arab vote, so he took steps to reduce it by installing cameras in polling stations in Arab areas. This scared away some potential voters in Arab towns and villages.

“Anyone who denies that Israeli Arabs are legitimate partners in a change of government is taking part in Netanyahu’s delegitimization campaign,” said Gal-On. “[Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated because they said that he was ready to partition the land and that he was willing to rely on Arab votes. Rabin allowed himself to say it. If he could say it, so should anyone who wants to see his vision carried forward. Whoever wishes to carry forward that vision cannot delegitimize Israeli Arabs.’’

Gal-On further stated, “Most Israeli Arabs want full partnership and equality. They oppose separatism. That is why, if there ever is a genuine effort to bring the two groups together, such as a new joint Arab-Jewish list made up of young people, it would be the tie-breaker that tilts the balance between the two blocs.”

The impetus for change, Gal-On believes, is the younger generation. “The political hacks don’t represent them,” she asserted. “They [the young generation] are connected to social networks, and they aren’t suckers. They didn’t go out to vote because no one took them into account.”

During the election campaign, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz announced that he would not form a coalition that relied on the Arab vote. He did this in response to a Netanyahu allegation that Gantz would do just that. In retrospect, statements like Gantz's turned out to be a mistake, but at the time, Gantz and his fellow party members were put under duress by the very idea. Blue and White leaders believed that they could hurt the right-wing bloc by picking off a significant number of seats from the soft-right flank of the Likud. That didn't happen. Blue and White was regarded as a center-left party and thus failed to attract voters from the right.

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, co-chair of the Hadash-Ta’al list, told Al-Monitor that the sharp decline in voting rates among Arabs should be a warning sign to that sector’s representatives. “The reasons for that should be studied in depth,” Tibi said. “It stems from apathy, a lack of interest in the Knesset, a lack of hope, and the Nationality Law. It demands introspection and an internal investigation by each party.”

Tibi rejects the idea that the Arab sector could have won 14-15 seats in April. “Israelis tend to be right wing, and they decided the election,” he said. “Even if we had won 13 seats, like in the good days of the Arab Joint List, Netanyahu would have retained power.” Nevertheless, Tibi agrees with the idea that the Arab vote could spark change and that Gantz’s statements denigrating the Israeli Arab population were detrimental.

Mohammed Kaabia, a media consultant, claims that Tibi and the other Arab members of the Knesset are letting themselves off easy. They don’t represent the younger generation, he told Al-Monitor, and they haven't for a very long time.

“What the Arab Knesset members don’t realize is that Israeli Arabs, especially the young people like me, want to become part of Israeli society,” Kaabia said. “We want to integrate. As young Arabs, we want our representatives to deal with our welfare and well-being, with education, and with health. Young Arabs don’t want their representatives spending all their time focusing on the Palestinians. There are plenty of educated young people who are waiting for the day an Arab is appointed minister of health.”

Kaabia asserted that Gantz had lost the chance to win at least three seats, maybe even four, with the support of young Arab voters. “He could have attracted a lot of Arab voters, if only he would have approached them and given them a chance to participate,” Kaabia remarked. “But he didn’t even do the necessary minimum. He ignored them, and that was a mistake.”

Yossi Yonah, a former Knesset member for the Labor Party, told Al-Monitor, “There will be no revival of Israel’s democratic camp as a whole, and not just the left, without the Arab parties. The fact that both the Labor Party and Blue and White said on more than one occasion that they don’t consider the Arab parties to be potential partners in any coalition headed by them shows how hypocritical they are. They can’t oppose the Nationality Law and then reject the Arab parties. The conclusion from all this is clear. The democratic camp made up of Blue and White, Labor, [left-wing] Meretz and other centrist parties will not be able to form a government without the Arab vote.”

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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