While legislation defines Israel as more of a Jewish ethnic state than a democracy, on election day, Arab citizens’ ballots are equal to those of Jews in a one-person, one-vote system. But this year, the Arab electorate is in danger of squandering this electoral equity.
Despite the potential for anti-Arab extremists to be voted into office on November 1, polling suggests that Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise 20 percent of the country’s population, may avoid the ballot box rather than defend their interests. A recent survey posted on Israel’s i24 website found that if elections were held now, only 39 percent of eligible Arab voters would exercise their right, which would be the lowest figure ever.
By contrast, Arab turnout was 64.8 percent in 2020, according to official figures. Numbers were also low in 2021, at 45 percent, largely because of the fracturing of the major Arab grouping, the Joint List. In most other elections in recent decades, the percentage of Arab voter turnout has been in the 50s and 60s.
In what is expected to be a close election this time, low Arab turnout could produce victory for Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads a list that includes many far-right voices, and his Arab-baiting ally, Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party.
If this sounds like self-destructive behavior on the part of Israel’s Arab citizens, that’s exactly what it is.
There are legitimate reasons for the apathy: dissatisfaction with fractious Arab political parties and their feuding leaders; a sense that traditional marginalization was not attenuated despite the ouster of Netanyahu last year and the formation of a coalition including the Arab Ra’am party; and non-inclusive messaging from the campaign of centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
But avoiding the polls altogether could spell disaster.
Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir “will bring about the end of Israeli democracy,” Zouheir Bahloul, a former Labor party Knesset member, told me in a recent interview. “It’s the beginning of the darkness. They don’t believe in the right of Arabs to live here.”
A popular sportscaster before he made a foray into politics to improve Jewish-Arab relations, Bahloul said he is holding out hope that the Arab electorate may still “wake up at the last minute” and vote.
To be sure, it has good reason to mobilize. Netanyahu, who would likely use a win to try and overturn alleged corruption proceedings, has been proffering unprecedented legitimacy on Ben-Gvir, best known among Arabs for his provocative visits to the compound of Al Aqsa mosque, which Jews revere as the site of biblical temples. Convicted 15 years ago for supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism, Ben-Gvir has stressed during his campaign that he would deport people “disloyal” to the state, a designation that could include Arab citizens and Jewish left-wing activists.
Gadi Gvaryahu, head of the left-wing Tag Meir organization, which condemns Jewish violence against Arabs, calls Ben-Gvir “the ultimate representative of Jewish supremacy and Jewish terrorism,” adding that if he was to become, say, the minister of interior, “we are talking about a very, very, very dangerous situation, the likes of which we have never seen before.”
In Gvaryahu’s view, the relative lack of Arab interest in the campaign is illogical. “It’s hard to understand this apathy,” he said, adding: “I hope it changes. They are shooting themselves in the foot.”
But Raja Zaatary, a Hadash party activist, said Arabs’ hesitation to vote is based on a belief that government policies are stacked against them, no matter what party holds power. “Right wing policies continued even without Netanyahu,” Zaatary told me. “The problem is that people don’t see a difference between governments …[and] concluded that even if an Arab party is in the government, it can’t change big things.”
A central concern for Arab citizens is a recent surge in gang violence, which has made their areas unsafe. Many voters believe that Netanyahu didn’t do enough to stop it when he was in power.
Fortunately, not all is lost. There’s still time to dispel the apathy. “I expect a positive surprise,” Eran Nissan, the head of Mehazkim, a left-wing activist group, said. “Arab voters will defeat expectations.”
Zaatary said Arabs must do just that – or live with the consequences. “I’m not saying [Prime Minister] Lapid is so good, but there is still a big difference between Meretz” – the left-wing party whose leader, Zehava Galon, has traditionally opposed discrimination and the occupation in the West Bank – “and Ben-Gvir.”
But much will depend on Lapid’s approach in the final weeks of election campaigning. “He needs to differentiate himself from Netanyahu and take an inclusive approach,” Nissan said. “He has to tell Arab citizens, ‘I’m your prime minister also, you deserve to be treated as equal citizens.’”
If the message isn’t delivered, or heard, all bets are off. Historians could one day be researching the rise of the extreme right in Israel, with all that implies, and conclude that the 2022 election was the turning point.
Ben Lynfield is the former Middle East affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.