As Israel votes (again), Arab union cracks and Jewish right unites

Oded Balilty/AP
Israeli far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir (center), head of the Jewish Power party, campaigns in Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv, Oct. 21, 2022. A disciple of extremist anti-democratic ideologue Meir Kahane, and an ally today of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Ben-Gvir has himself been convicted of incitement.
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Israeli elections Nov. 1 are in some respects a tale of two coalitions, one Jewish, one Arab. Among Israeli Arabs, who just two elections ago turned out in record numbers to vote for a unified ticket, the Joint List, disillusionment and disunity have set in.

Even though an Arab party, Ra’am, made history as a partner in the outgoing “change coalition,” many members of the long-neglected minority community say it wasn’t able to deliver on improved government services.

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It would seem like a given that cooperation is key to political success. Yet alliances can be fragile. In Israel’s fifth election in four years, one successful partnership crumbles even as an anti-democratic union gains strength.

“People here didn’t see any change in their daily lives,” says Youssef Jabareen, a former parliamentarian. “If being in a coalition didn’t make any change, what hope is there to participate?”

Turnout this time may drop to historic lows, and the fractured pieces of the Joint List may not even clear the hurdle for representation in parliament. That could pave the way back to power for Benjamin Netanyahu, whose allies on the ultranationalist right are unified, growing in popularity, and threatening to dismantle core elements of Israel’s judicial system, and with that the checks and balances inherent to democracy.

One galvanizing figure is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a proud disciple of extremist ideologue Meir Kahane. Mr. Ben-Gvir, who in the past was convicted of incitement, more recently has touted a plan to deport citizens deemed “disloyal” to the state.

The streets of this northern Arab city tell an important story about Israel’s national elections next week.

Garbage piles up. Many roads are in disrepair, and sidewalks simply disappear. Some homes sit half-built, and many that are finished have ad hoc connections to electricity.

All speak to an under-delivery of government services and a lack of building and planning permits granted by the national government.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

It would seem like a given that cooperation is key to political success. Yet alliances can be fragile. In Israel’s fifth election in four years, one successful partnership crumbles even as an anti-democratic union gains strength.

And the city, like much of Arab Israeli society, is in the midst of a wave of violent crime and murders. Nearly 100 violent deaths have been recorded in Arab communities this year – 70% of the national tally, far exceeding their 21% share of Israel’s population. Residents fault several factors, not least the lack of proper policing and education budgets.

It was going to be different.

Former parliamentarian Youssef Jabareen points out that for Arab Israelis, many of these problems were supposed to be rectified under the broad outgoing “change coalition,” which included, for the first time, an Arab party in government, the Islamist Ra’am party.

And indeed, billions of dollars were allocated for Arab Israeli communities, although much of the money and promised reforms were stymied by right-wing government ministers, according to Arab officials and analysts.

“People here didn’t see any change in their daily lives,” Mr. Jabareen says, despite Ra’am’s groundbreaking role. “If being in a [governing] coalition didn’t make any change, what hope is there to participate?”

Ahead of the Nov. 1 national elections, Israel’s fifth round in less than four years, disillusionment and disunity have set in among Arab Israelis. While the long-neglected minority, whose members self-identify nationally with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, has increasingly sought further integration into Israeli society and politics, voter turnout this time may drop to historic lows, say analysts and officials.

Such an eventuality could pave the way back to power for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Unlike the fractious Arab sector, Mr. Netanyahu’s allies on the far right are unified on one slate and growing in popularity – raising the former prime minister’s chances of winning an outright parliamentary majority.

These ultranationalist forces, encouraged and led by Mr. Netanyahu, are openly threatening to dismantle core elements of Israel’s judicial system, and with that the checks and balances inherent to Israeli democracy.

Yet among the minority group most vulnerable to the excesses of Jewish Israeli extremism, the danger of such a move seems not to resonate.

Crumbling coalition

Mr. Jabareen was holding court at the Umm al-Fahm headquarters of the Hadash-Ta’al party, which unites Arab nationalist and communist factions. The alliance is all that remains of the Joint List, wherein all four predominantly Arab Israeli parties (Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am, and the more radical nationalist Balad) united and ran together. Arab voters responded two cycles ago with historic voter turnout, turning the Joint List into the third largest party in parliament and depriving Mr. Netanyahu of a majority. 

Yet this election the Joint List’s dissolution, over issues of ideology and personal animosities, is nearly complete.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Ra'am party lawmaker Mansour Abbas (center-right) speaks with Israel's then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, now caretaker prime minister, ahead of a vote to dissolve parliament, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 30, 2022. Mr. Abbas, who sought to deliver improved government services to Israeli Arabs, was criticized by rivals for making too many concessions to join the government.

“People are so frustrated [with their political representatives] because in general we want one strong, united list representing all Arabs,” says Kamleh Eghbariyah, a local resident who intends to vote for Balad. “The split is definitely affecting the vote.”

Her distant relative and co-worker Halima Eghbariyah concurs, saying she plans to vote for the more moderate Hadash-Ta’al, and will encourage others to do so as well, counseling patience.

“If we won’t vote, we won’t have any representation in [parliament]. ... We won’t have any influence” on policy, she says. “The Arab representatives are in a hard position. I understand the obstacles to achieving everything we want – I just ask the Arab voters to put yourselves in their shoes. It can’t all happen immediately.”

According to the latest opinion polls, the three remaining factions are all hovering just below or above the 3.25% electoral threshold for entry into the Knesset. There is a real risk, Mr. Jabareen admits, that Arab Israelis may end up with no representatives at all in parliament after election day.

Polls consistently show that roughly 70% of community voters favor Arab parties joining a governing coalition, which Ra’am undertook last year.

Yet the other factions are still opposed, pointing to the major ideological concessions, as they see it, that Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas chose to make: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, publicly denouncing Palestinian terror attacks, and remaining in government despite the recent Israeli-Palestinian violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

“Abbas over the past year managed to break assumptions, dared to say things that no one ever said, and slaughtered all the sacred cows,” says Said Abu Shakra, an owner of a local gallery that brings together both Arab and Jewish artists. “But in order to be accepted he had to give up a lot of things,” not least opposition to the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, which effectively makes Arab Israelis “second-class citizens,” as he puts it.

Nevertheless, he intends to vote for Ra’am. “I want to be in a position to influence,” he says. “I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Unity on the hard right

By contrast, the cohesion and unity on the ultranationalist Jewish right are striking. Three disparate far-right parties acceded to Mr. Netanyahu’s entreaties and came together last month to run on a joint slate, to maximize their strength.

In addition to the traditionally pro-settler Religious Zionism party, which leads the slate and provided its overall name, the alliance includes a fringe religious party, Noam, which campaigns against the LGBTQ community, and the Jewish Power faction led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a proud disciple of the extremist, anti-democratic Jewish ideologue Meir Kahane.

Oded Balilty/AP
An election campaign billboard shows Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister and the head of the Likud party, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Oct. 25, 2022. Israel is heading into its fifth election in under four years on Nov. 1.

The political movement founded by Mr. Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990, was barred from politics in the late 1980s due to its anti-Arab invective. Mr. Ben-Gvir himself has been convicted for incitement, and as a lawyer has defended extremist settlers charged with violence against Palestinians.

More recently Mr. Ben-Gvir has touted plans to loosen Israeli military rules governing live fire directed at Palestinians, as well as a plan to deport citizens deemed “disloyal” to the state.

Earlier this month, amid clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in East Jerusalem, Mr. Ben-Gvir showed up and openly brandished a gun, declaring, “We’re the landlords here. Remember that, I am your landlord.”

On the back of his growing popularity, Religious Zionism as a whole has surged in the polls and may end up as the third biggest party in parliament – aided in large part by Mr. Netanyahu, who has said Mr. Ben-Gvir will be a minister in his next government, as well as by a largely uncritical local media. 

Even more moderate voters on the right seem attracted by Religious Zionism’s vows to support Mr. Netanyahu’s bid to quash the independence of the Israeli judiciary, including the power of the Supreme Court and attorney general to block government decisions deemed illegal or unconstitutional.

Such “reforms,” as right-wing politicians term them, would also likely halt Mr. Netanyahu’s ongoing trial on a slew of corruption charges.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s fundamental appeal, however, appears to be his promise to strengthen the “personal security” of Jewish Israelis against the threat of Arab violence – especially after widespread intercommunal riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities in May 2021, during a round of fighting in Gaza.

“It’s the lesson from that Gaza operation, the Arabs in the mixed cities haven’t been dealt with at all,” says Tamir Dortal, a high school teacher and podcast host in Jerusalem who is set to vote for Religious Zionism. “The center-right parties never deliver on their promises, so you have to go more extreme.”

Mr. Dortal says he believes Mr. Ben-Gvir will moderate somewhat once in government, and that even he will “betray” some of his electoral vows – “but he’ll do so the least.”

“I judge every party according to its policies and what they push for in practice, not what they say or what’s in their hearts,” he adds.

Yet for many Arab Israelis, what Mr. Ben-Gvir believes and what he does once he gains power seems immaterial, and is not likely to change their plans to vote.

“I’m not afraid of Ben-Gvir,” says Mr. Abu Shakra, the gallery owner. “[Liberal] Jews are more afraid of him because he’ll steal the country from them. Our situation [as Arab Israelis] can’t be worse. We’re ready for any eventuality, and we expect very bad news.”

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