The Palestinian Arab Vote in Israel: Facing the Ultimate Test of Inclusion

On Monday, March 2, 2020, Israeli citizens will head to the polls for the third time in less than a year, to participate in national elections to choose the 120 members of the 23rd Knesset. The two previous rounds on April 9 and September 17, 2019, failed to produce a clear majority for the ruling Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, or its main competitor, Blue and White, headed by Benny Gantz. Neither party was able to form a new government for the country, hence, this week’s “three-peat” election.

The challenge currently facing Israel, according to the Economist, centers around overcoming this political stalemate and finally restoring a functional government to conduct routine state activities and operations on a long-term basis. Many Israelis are asking whether the third time will be a charm. Political observers, in Israel and beyond, are wondering whether the Israeli electorate will vote decisively and with a large enough turnout this time to overcome its endemic political divisions and avoid another deadlock that will lead to an unprecedented fourth election.

The Persisting Stalemate

Public opinion polls over the past four weeks portrayed a persistently tight race between the two major Israeli voting blocs with a slight lead maintained by Blue and White, projected to win 32-36 potential seats, over Likud’s anticipated 32-35 Knesset seats. However, as the campaign intensified in the last few days of February, it seems that Netanyahu has succeeded in further galvanizing his political base and attracting significant enough support from the so-called “stability voters” and the ‘soft right’ camp of the Likud to shift the momentum in his favor and achieve a statistical tie with Gantz, or even surpass him with 2-3 seats.

While earlier polls, as stated earlier, continued to show a two-way dead heat between the major candidates, David Horovitz, the founding editor of The Times of Israel reported on February 26, 2020 that the momentum seems to be shifting in favor of Netanyahu. Horovitz explained, “In three rapid-fire election campaigns, relatively few Israelis have been moving across the political spectrum, from Netanyahu’s right-Orthodox bloc to Gantz’s center-left, or vice versa. Most Israeli voters have evidently long since made up their minds about whether they want more years of Netanyahu.”

The Palestinian Arab Vote in Israel’s Legal Context

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship constitute 21 percent of Israel’s population, i.e., 1.9 million out of a total population of 9.1 million. Unlike their fellow 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem––who do not hold Israeli citizenship and, therefore, are not allowed to vote in Israeli elections––Palestinians who live in the “48-Areas” or the pre-1967 “Israel proper,” as some prefer to call it, constitute around 17 percent of the 5.9 million eligible Israeli voters according to The New York Times (i.e., 1 million Arab voters). That’s a few percentage points below their share of the overall population due to the large number of Palestinian Arab youth under 18.

Logically, one would assume that by constituting 21 percent of the general population and 17 percent of eligible Israeli voters, Palestinian citizens of Israel would be expected to play a significant role in the governance of a political system based on coalition politics. They also can help resolve the current electoral stalemate by virtue of being the third largest electoral bloc in the Knesset. However, Israel is not your typical open and multi-ethnic representative democracy. It defines itself as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” instead of the state of all its citizens, as typically practiced in most truly democratic states.

The Nation-State Bill or the Nationality Bill, adopted by the Knesset on July 19, 2018 was meant precisely to prevent that possibility. Likud member Amir Ohana, chairman of the committee that prepared the legal path for its passage, stated unequivocally, “This is the law of laws. It is the most important law in the history of the State of Israel, which says that everyone has human rights, but national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people. That is the founding principle on which the state was established.” These words prompted Ayman Odeh, the current head of the Joint Arab List to announce “the death of democracy” in Israel.

This legal measure, in practical terms, trapped both Arabs and Jews in Israel in the jaws of an apartheid system. Palestinian Arabs in Israel realize that there is no light at the end of the Israeli tunnel for them, in the sense that they will always lack full rights in a “the State of the Jewish people.” They may vote to secure their basic human rights but they cannot be an active partner in Israeli governance. On the other hand, Israeli Jews now have lost their democratic fig leaf having to admit that exclusion of Palestinian Arabs as full partners is “the founding principle on which the state was established.”

This is exactly what is unfolding in advance of this week’s national election in Israel. Leaders of both Jewish political camps, Likud and Blue and White, campaigned for Palestinian Arab votes, yet both acknowledge that they are looking forward as future prime ministers to lead a Jewish majority government, to the exclusion of Arab coalition partners. Indeed, the most vicious campaigning between both Jewish camps centered around Likud’s accusations leveled at Gantz that he would win the elections with Arab votes and become the next prime minister on the backs of Arab voters. Frankly, this is the ultimate racism by any definition of democratic electoral politics.

The challenge on the Palestinian Arab side is equally complicated and quite existential. The Arab voters seem determined to cast their votes to protect their identity and preserve their narrowly defined rights in Israel. Pollsters predict the Arab turnout rate on March 2 will be closer to 60 percent. According to a Tel Aviv University poll conducted among Arab citizens by Keevoon Research and Strategies, 45.3 percent of the respondents indicated their intention to vote. Analysts expect a turnout of 60 percent among registered Arab voters, compared with the historic low of 49.2 percent in April and 59.2 percent last September.

Leaders of the Joint Arab List are optimistic and working hard to mobilize their constituents for a decisive confrontation. While acknowledging that some 14 percent of Arabs will boycott the election, Joint List candidates insist that they will expand their bloc in the Knesset from 13 to 14 and possibly 15 seats. In the final analysis, however, even if the Arab turnout rate were to exceed 60 percent percent, giving the List more than 15 seats in the Knesset, their victory as the third largest political bloc in parliament will remain pyrrhic as it clashes with the brick wall of Jewish nationality. Disenfranchisement of Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel might be challenged by a strong Arab vote, but Arabs will never be welcome as full partners in the Israeli political system as it is defined today.