How Donald Trump is driving some Israeli Arabs to vote

Why We Wrote This

What is self-determination? At the community or national level, certainly in the Middle East context, it is often taken to mean political independence. But on an individual level, it can also mean voting in elections.

Dina Kraft
A street in the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Kara, in "The Triangle," Feb. 19, 2020.

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Maysaloon Abu Ahmad doesn’t plan to vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections March 2. “As long as the Knesset does not serve our interests, I will not vote,” she says. She’s not alone. Many Arab Israelis still don’t vote, often out of frustration.

But in recent elections, the community has asserted itself, making the Joint List, an Arab coalition, the third-largest party in parliament. And Ms. Abu Ahmad herself illustrates another trend: the community’s increasing identification and integration as Israeli. She directs a gap year program in the “Triangle,” an area home to some 300,000 Arab citizens of Israel, that brings high school graduates more deeply into Israeli society.

A proposal in President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan to include the "Triangle" in a possible land swap with a future Palestinian state sparked rage and fear among Arab Israelis. For many, that made the upcoming vote an important chance to push for their place as equals.

“In my opinion everyone needs to vote, because we are all in a situation we don’t want to be in. It feels very bleak," says Monira Falahen, a nurse from the village of Kafr Kara. “I also want ... to make things better, so there will be true equality between Jews and Arabs.”

The people of Kafr Kara, an Arab village of about 18,000, are proud of their highly educated populace and quick to share a favorite statistic: They are home to the highest number of doctors per capita in Israel.

That pride in their communal contribution to society is part of why for many, voting in Israel’s March 2 parliamentary elections is about voting against the negative messaging about them as Arab citizens, and for their place in Israel as equals.

Escaping the rain outside, Monira Falahen, a 29-year-old nurse, has dashed into a neighbor’s shop to buy dried apricots and almonds for her family. And she wonders aloud if this time the elections will bring a new era – one that repudiates the racism and delegitimization against Arab citizens fomented by the political right.

“In my opinion everyone needs to vote, because we are all in a situation we don’t want to be in. It feels very bleak. I hope the election will push Netanyahu out,” says Ms. Falahen, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly suggested the Arab minority poses a threat to Israeli Jews. “But I also want to change the way things are – to make things better, so there will be true equality between Jews and Arabs.”

Kafr Kara is one of a cluster of villages and towns in an area known as “The Triangle,” home to some 300,000 Arab citizens of Israel. In President Donald Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the area was slotted as part of a possible land-swap, to be included in a future Palestinian state.

The proposal has since been disavowed by mainstream politicians, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, but the notion sparked rage and fear. Residents view the idea as an affront to their sense of themselves as citizens of Israel who are proud of their Palestinian heritage. Despite being labeled by some as a fifth column, they see their lives and futures in the state of Israel, where they are increasingly economically and socially integrated.

On Highway 65, the main road that cuts through the verdant valley containing Kafr Kara and other villages, stands a billboard. It features Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi, the leaders of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties that joined forces and in the most recent election ranked as the third-largest party in Israel. Flanking them are President Trump and Mr. Netanyahu, but with lines crossing out their faces. In Arabic is written the message: “Your vote determines who represents you.”

Khaled Msarwe, 62, a retired construction worker, says he will be voting for the Joint List. “We feel like we are not wanted here,” he says as he packs up his groceries. This is why, he says, it’s essential to amplify the Joint List’s impact with as many votes as possible. “We need to give our sector a voice in the Knesset,” he says.

Outside support

The March vote is an unprecedented third round in a year. The previous two ended in a stalemate between Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc and a cluster of center-left parties.

Benny Gantz, a retired general and former military chief of staff who is leading the centrist Blue and White party and is desperate to woo potential swing voters from the right, has ruled out including the Joint List in a future government, alienating some Arab voters.

No Arab party has ever been part of an Israeli coalition, but there is precedent for their providing tacit support from outside. Mr. Gantz’s rejection appears a gambit to fight the central message from the right – that he can only win a majority with the help of the Joint List.

“Ahmed Tibi or Bibi, why does he have to say that?” bemoans Karem Zahalka of Mr. Netanyahu, referring to sloganeering on the right reducing the election to a simple choice: “Bibi or Tibi.” Bibi is Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname, and Tibi refers to Ahmed Tibi, whom the right paints as more loyal to the Palestinian cause than to Israel.

Mr. Zahalka, 53, who helps run his friend’s coffee, dry goods, and candy shop, then rattles off a list of Israel’s past prime ministers. “No one else has ever done this. But he [Netanyahu] keeps trying to divide people in Israel, and I can’t stand that. A prime minister is supposed to look out for all of their citizens.

“I want my vote to go to getting rid of Netanyahu,” he continues, explaining his vote for Mr. Gantz’s party. “Ultimately Blue and White and the Joint List will find a way to work together, from inside or outside the government. What we are hearing now is just political noise.”

A vote for integration

Sami Smooha, a Haifa University sociology professor and researcher, foresees the potential for especially high voter turnout this election among Arab citizens of Israel.

“They see that this time their vote really matters, that they might have power, and this power could yield some results,” he says. “They are not going to be part of the coalition, but they will see some level of involvement.”

He cautions that, according to his surveys, between a quarter to a third of Arab Israelis don’t vote. Not out of indifference, he says, but out of frustration with a system that they view as discriminatory and dismissive of them.

Dina Kraft
Rani Haykil, a resident of Kafr Kara, says he is boycotting Israel's upcoming election, since he does not see that voting helps Arab citizens improve their status in Israel, Feb. 19, 2020.

Yet this is happening against the backdrop of another trend: the process of ongoing identification as Israelis and integration into a country founded as a homeland for Jews on land they also claim as theirs.

“They view themselves as part of Israel. They are bicultural, bilingual, they know the Israeli system,” says Professor Smooha.

Joint List officials say they may gain an additional seat on the strength of left-wing Jewish voters who, they say, can find in them a new political home as the Jewish left shrinks.

“The Jews are flocking to the Joint List, and the hope for change begins with a Jewish-Arab partnership,” Mr. Odeh told Walla! News, an Israeli news site. “Together we will create a citizens’ majority that will provide a crushing response to incitement.”

The party has been savvy in its marketing to Jewish Israelis. In one ad, soundbites of presumably Jewish Israelis making racist remarks are played over the images of various Arab citizens listening to them in silence. And it has put up billboards in neighborhoods of two other disaffected Israeli minorities – Ethiopian Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Not voting

But some Israeli Arabs say they are not voting, citing both frustration and resentment.

Among them is Maysaloon Abu Ahmad, 27, from Nazareth.

“It only lends legitimacy for Israel to be able to say it is a democracy, but really, the Arab Knesset members don’t have a real voice or influence,” she says. “As long as the Knesset does not serve our interests, I will not vote.”

At the same time, she is very much part of the integration trend. She directs a local gap-year program in Kafr Kara for high school graduates from Arab towns and villages that brings them more deeply into broader Israeli society ahead of college.

Rani Haykil, 32, who works with Kafr Kara’s children, running informal education programs, echoes Ms. Abu Ahmad’s frustrations and says he does not vote, either.

“The balance of powers doesn’t shift at all, even if Arabs vote. We see the hatred and racism of the parties saying there is no way they would work with Arabs. It’s incredibly frustrating,” he says.

“We are people who studied, and learned, and want to integrate and represent the state, and we do so much in high-tech, medicine, and engineering. We lead and we take part, but when it comes to politics, they push us backwards.

“All because you are born to an Arab mother, you are not seen as equal.”

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