Israel elections 101: On eve of vote, momentum on Arab street

Defying calls to boycott next week's vote, turnout among Israeli Arab voters is projected to rise. A unified Israeli Arab party could be the third-largest in the Knesset.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
A woman walks past a Joint Arab List campaign billboard in the Arab Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, Monday, March 9, 2015.

The Joint List, an unprecedented alliance of communist, nationalist, and Islamist parties representing Israel’s Arab minority, is poised to make history in next week’s election. Polls indicate that the Arab bloc could become the third-largest in Israel's parliament for the first time.

Though the Arab list is unlikely to join a coalition government due to its strong stand on Palestinian issues, it could help left-wing allies block Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party from a third consecutive term in government. The latest polls show the center-left Zionist Camp, which is led by the Labor party, leading Likud by three or four seats.

Blocking the return of the Likud is a chief goal of the newly united Arab politicians, who aim to counter what they describe as a rise in undemocratic legislation by Netanyahu’s right-wing allies.

“The Arab street feels the discriminatory policy of the government – they feel the dangerous situation that we live in, and the deterioration in our rights and our social status,” says Yousef Jabareen, who is No. 10 on the Joint List. “They want us to act better in representing their challenges.”

One key step of progress is overcoming voter apathy among Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority. According to poll results announced Tuesday by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, Arab turnout is projected to rise from 56 percent in the last election to 65 percent – enough to boost their share of the Knesset’s 120 seats from 11 to at least 13. While that increase may seem modest, it is amplified by the math of coalition building in a sharply divided parliament.

“They gained quite a bit of momentum in the last two weeks and there’s almost a week to go,” says Itamar Radai of Tel Aviv University, who presented the poll results. “I might even take a risk and say they could win even more.”

Whether or not to vote

Still, a significant proportion of Arabs are disillusioned with politics, and 10 to 15 percent oppose Knesset participation on ideological grounds. Since Israel was founded in 1948, they argue, Arab members of Knesset (MKs) have largely failed to deliver better housing, education, health, and other social services.

Perhaps the leading critic of participation is Raed Salah, one of the most prominent, if controversial, Arab leaders in northern Israel. He was jailed by Israel from 2003-05 for funding the militant Palestinian movement Hamas, and he is criticized by Arab leaders for boycotting parliamentary elections.

“In my view, the impact of engaging in Knesset elections has created a kind of illusion, and this illusion has said we’re able to deal with all issues relating to Arab lives in the Knesset,” says Sheikh Salah, a former mayor of Umm el-Fahm and leader of the Islamic Movement in northern Israel. “Had we looked for an alternative to this illusion, establishing civil society institutions that serve the needs and rights of our people, we would have been able to succeed more.”

Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, begs to differ. He says Arab MKs and civil-society groups have made important progress over the last couple of decades. These advances include getting the government to halt demolition plans for unrecognized Arab villages in the Galilee; increasing the percentage of Arab employees in government offices from 5.25 percent in 1999 to 10.5 percent today; and connecting some 30 villages and cities to public transportation in the past five years.

Bread and butter issues

According to a poll published by the left-wing Haaretz newspaper last month, socioeconomic problems ranked far higher than solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among 70 percent of Arabs in Israel. Roughly half of Arabs surveyed expressed dismay with the lack of results from Arab MKs in this area. 

At a local mall in Umm el-Fahm, one of the largest Arab cities in Israel, Salahs followers and even some opponents praise the northern Islamic Movement for improving water and sewage systems, building playgrounds and stadiums, and founding a national network of highly regarded Islamic schools. “What hasn’t it done?” asks Wael Mahameed, a follower of Salah.

It hasn’t run for parliament. In fact, in every election until now, the Islamic Movement has encouraged Arab voters to boycott parliamentary elections.

Adl Moussa, a convenience store owner just down the street from the sheikh’s office, acknowledges that the movement has “achieved tremendously” on the local level. But he says he doesn’t agree with its opposition to Arab MKs.

“The Arab parties managed to stop [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman from provoking us and talking badly about us,” he says, referring to the main right-wing proponent of discriminatory legislation. “Only through the Knesset can you put an end to their injustice.”

US civil rights movement as inspiration

The Joint List was formed after a new election law raised the minimum threshold for representation in the Knesset from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. The law, sponsored by Mr. Lieberman’s party, was seen by Arabs as a right-wing move to oust their four small parties, Hadash (which includes Jewish members), Balad, Raam, and Taal.

Though they had a combined total of 11 seats, individually none of the parties met the new threshold. Together they will handily exceed it.

Still, the Arab list faces enormous challenges. Mr. Jabareen, the Joint List candidate from Umm el-Fahm, says he finds hope in the American civil rights movement.

“Who could think 60 years ago if you asked African-Americans that the laws will be changed and you might have even an African-American president?” he asks. “People would say you’re crazy. Even if it has had limited success, it continues to be a source of inspiration."

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