In April’s election, the voting rate among Israel’s Arab population dropped below 50%. There are many different reasons for this, stemming, among other things, from the breakup of the Arab Joint List and the overwhelming feeling that Arab voters have no influence. In other words, the average Arab voter feels that even if they cast a ballot, their vote will have no real impact because Arab parties don’t join the coalition, while the Zionist parties don’t really do anything to benefit the Arab sector.
In preparation for the most recent election, on Sept. 17, various groups within the Arab sector looked for ways to increase the voting rate among Israel’s Arab citizens. One such initiative is “The Local Ballot Project,” created by Maisam Jaljuli of the Tishreen association, which works to advance Arab society in Israel. It was considered a big success. The idea was simple. Right next to polling booths, where citizens would cast their votes for the 22nd Knesset, additional voting booths would be set up in Arab towns, so that residents could vote on important local issues.
In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Jaljuli said that nine local authorities in the Arab sector agreed to add local polling stations on election day, where residents would be asked to vote on local initiatives. Of course, they also agreed to implement whatever the majority of local voters decided. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” she said. “We copied the idea from the American system, as well as from systems used in certain European countries like Switzerland. In those places, voters have an opportunity on election day to respond to questions on local issues, ranging from the paving of new roads to the selection of public servants.”
So, on Sept. 17, hundreds of polling booths for local issues were set up in nine Arab towns, alongside polling booths for the national election. The issues that voters were asked to decide on were the subject of an intense advertising campaign on social media and in the local press well before the election.
Israeli Arab citizens responded positively to this and came out to vote. In the town of Sakhnin, for instance, more people voted on local issues than for the Knesset election. In other towns, the numbers were almost identical. The results speak for themselves. In Umm al-Fahm, which also had local ballots, the number of voters increased from 45% in the election for the 21st Knesset in April to 51% in the election for the 22nd Knesset this September. The same was true in Kafr Qassem (where the number increased from 64% in April to 70% in September) and Arara (from 39% in April to 56% in September).
Most of the municipalities and local authorities participating in this initiative chose questions centered on local violence and crime, both a major problem in the Arab sector. The number of murders in the Arab sector is especially high, with four Israeli Arabs killed just last weekend.
In the town of Arraba in the Galilee, residents voted on the creation of local police stations. Though the outcome was not decisive, most local residents agreed to the idea of local policing, meaning that local inspectors would maintain order in the streets instead of the Israeli police. Voters in Kafr Qassem were asked whether they agree to installing security cameras in the streets. The initiative received overwhelming support, with some 70% voting for it. In Sakhnin, the municipality asked about creating special municipal units to ensure safety, to which the residents said no. The town of Tamra also asked about the creation of local security units, as well as questions pertaining to law and order, environmental crimes, and so on. Here, the local population voted for creating those security units.
In Kafr Qara, voters were asked whether private lands could be appropriated for public use, a contentious issue that had long blocked development in the town. The answer was surprising to everyone, but especially to the municipal authorities that asked. An overwhelming majority supported such appropriations. In Umm al-Fahm, residents were asked about enforcing local bylaws banning the installation of unlicensed cellphone antennas. Here too, local citizens backed stricter enforcement of those bylaws and the removal of unlicensed antennas.
Jaljuli said that a particularly lively discussion took place on social networks about these very issues before, during and after the election, and that voters were called on to vote and have an impact. According to her, this dialogue proves that the real objective was achieved. The Arab street woke up and participated actively in the democratic process. Once it felt empowered on a local level, it could attempt to transfer that sense of empowerment so that it extended nationwide.
Gail Talshir, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that the initiative is part of a larger genre of participatory democracy. This involves encouraging political discourse and civil involvement in order for local residents to have an impact on the decision-making process. She noted that political participation in local elections in Israel is generally higher in the Arab sector than it is in the Jewish sector, which would explain the success of this initiative. Arab citizens feel that they have a real possibility to influence outcomes in local elections, so they feel a greater sense of belonging and commitment than they do in national elections, where they are voting as a minority. She added that increasing involvement in this manner is one way to fight against what is called “the crisis of democracy,” as seen in a decline in voting rates and political participation in parties and other political organizations throughout the Western world.
Inhar Masarwa, a member of the Arara municipality, told Al-Monitor that the pressing issue the town decided to bring to the voters was the system of registering students in local schools. Voters debated it intensely on social networks, she said, before they went to vote. She added that the democratic initiative blends well with the desire of local residents to impact their futures directly on issues such as education, health care and personal safety. “The second objective of increasing voter turnout in the Knesset election was also achieved,” she said. “In doing so, we proved that it is possible to have an impact on a national level and to replace a government, whose representatives disparaged the Arab sector. We helped residents decide to go out and vote by linking votes on local initiatives with the national election. Direct democracy on day-to-day issues in our towns was coupled with nationwide democracy.”
According to Jaljuli, the next step is to create citizens’ committees that will arrange meetings modeled to some extent on townhall meetings in the United States. These will be used to find ways to implement decisions by the local residents as expressed in local ballot initiatives, in cooperation with participating municipalities. “If this is also a success,” she noted, "we will conduct even more referendums on local issues in even more Arab towns and villages, though this time voting will likely be digital."
What the success of this initiative proves is that Arab citizens really are interested in being involved and taking part in the democratic process — as long as their votes really do have an impact.
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