The Palestinian Arab Vote in Israel: Mere Protest or Significant Influence?

On September 17, Israeli voters concluded their parliamentary elections, the second time in less than six months, due to the deadlock reached after the previously held round on April 9, 2019 failed to generate a new governing coalition. The latest results in September were not very different from the previous round. The Blue and White alliance (a.k.a. Kahol Lavan in Hebrew), led by Benny Gantz, won 33 out of 120 Knesset seats, followed by its rival, the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, with 32 seats.

The close results gave the Likud a prospective coalition of 55 seats, one more than the center-left bloc which garnered 54 seats, including the endorsement of 10 members of the Arab Joint List. These numbers were made possible by several developments and trends in Israeli electoral politics, such as a direct backlash to the racist campaign waged by Netanyahu that openly engaged in demonizing and isolating Palestinian citizens. In addition, there was a surprising, but most likely related, uptick in the Arab vote resulting in an impressive turnout close to 60 percent, compared to 50 percent in April.

The Palestinian voters who hold Israeli citizenship emerged last month as the third largest bloc in the Knesset by winning 13 seats. Blue and White has reportedly won 60,000-70,000 votes, i.e., the equivalent of at least one seat, if not two, directly from Arab support. These results presented the Arab parties with a historic and rare opportunity to play a significant role in changing Israel’s electoral balance of power and the post-election coalition formation process.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who is entrusted with the legal responsibility of choosing the candidate most likely to form the next Israeli government, launched immediate consultations with all the qualified political parties and blocs before making his choice. Rivlin did not hide his personal determination to avoid, at any price, the potential for a third parliamentary election within a year. He openly and repeatedly expressed his preference for a national unity government, including the two main leading parties, namely Blue and White and Likud. He concluded his intensive week-long consultations by asking Benjamin Netanyahu to undertake the first attempt at forming a new Israeli government. As of last week, it appeared quite likely that Netanyahu was about to surrender his mandate back to President Rivlin after failing to garner enough partners to join his government, but now appears to be turning to his Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman as a last ditch effort.

The Arab Reaction

Arab voters in Israel were truly excited at the prospects of their high turnout and began deliberating political scenarios where Arab parties would play a significant partnership role in the emerging coalition government—if specifically led by a receptive center-left bloc, as happened with the Labor Party under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. They welcomed what they perceived as a historic end to Netanyahu’s long hold on power and offered their endorsement to his rival Benny Gantz despite some deeply held apprehensions about his Arab policies and stands, particularly by the Balad Party.

The leader of the Joint List, attorney Ayman Odeh (Hadash), explained in a well-written but somewhat rosy opinion piece in The New York Times, that times have changed and that Arab voters “will decide who will be the next prime minister of Israel.” Although Odeh might have been a bit ambitious and upbeat in his assessment, he did accurately portray the optimistic mood prevalent among a significant sector within his Arab constituency. Odeh challenged the center-left parties in Israel who accept that “Palestinian citizens have a place in the country” to equally accept that “we have a place in its politics.” In subsequent interviews, he did float the idea of becoming the first Arab opposition leader in the Knesset.

Arab Objectives and Political Maneuvering

The Joint List, a loose coalition of four smaller Arab parties—Hadash, Balad, Ta’al, and United Arab List—received an estimated 81.3 percent of the Arab vote, with only 17.6 percent going to Jewish-majority parties. Throughout the campaign for the 2019 elections, Arab candidates like Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash) challenged Gantz to choose whether “he’s an alternative, or he’s Netanyahu’s double.” She highlighted four commitments and political values central to the Palestinian minority in Israel which currently constitutes 20.9 percent of its overall population. These values include:

  1. Bringing an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land since 1967.
  2. Pursuing a national agenda in search of just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
  3. Working for justice for the Palestinians inside Israel and the Occupied Territories.
  4. Striving for equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

In their tenacious pursuit of these four fundamental objectives, throughout the parliamentary campaign the four major Arab political parties sought to put an end to Benjamin Netanyahu’s 13-year-old political career as prime minister by coalescing around a cohesive list of political, economic, and social demands. These  emerged after the elections as their political conditions in return for their endorsement of Gantz as the next prime minister of Israel. They include:

  1. Repealing discriminatory and racist laws in Israel that negatively impact the legal status and welfare of Palestinian citizens, including the Jewish Nation-State Law of 2018 and the Kaminitz Law (2017).
  2. Allocating the necessary resources and undertaking tangible steps by the government to stem the tide of violent crime in Palestinian communities in Israel. (According to the Aman Arab Center for Safe Society, the total number of Arabs murdered in 2019 as a result of crimes has reached 67, a figure that represents 80 percent of all murders in Israel.)
  3. Availing adequate government funding for the economic and social development of Palestinian Arab villages, towns, and cities to bridge the gap with Jewish communities in Israel.
  4. Pursuing a foreign policy agenda conducive to direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

Will Palestinian Voters in Israel have their Political Moment?

It is difficult to blame the Palestinian citizens of Israel for harboring some hopes for a better future in a state that keeps touting its democratic nature at home and abroad. Frankly, however, achieving political equality between Palestinian Arabs and Jews in Israel is a farfetched dream as long as Israel defines itself as the nation state of the Jewish people, i.e., not the state of all its citizens. Netanyahu made that very clear throughout his campaign, with the aim of retaining his job as prime minister. Consequently, the hopeful expressions by Arab politicians and constituents in Israel quickly crashed at the brick wall of ethnically defined Zionism as the legal foundation of Israel.

Palestinian voters in Israel are currently experiencing the classic collective frustration of rising expectations. How deeply felt and how long-lasting that frustration will be depends on several factors.

First, will the Palestinian electorate in Israel remain cohesive behind its current political agenda pertaining to both domestic and foreign policy objectives? The high Arab turnout of 60 percent witnessed last month is encouraging, but it is not as impressive as the 80 percent it used to reach in the 1950s when voting participation in the Arab sector was higher than in the Jewish sector.

Second, will Arab parties remain united under the leadership of the Joint List or will they splinter on ideological or other political bases? This is vital not only to overcome the current 3.25 percent threshold, but more importantly, it is a popular demand by a clear majority of Palestinian citizens in Israel. They distanced themselves significantly from the Arab parties when they split and, most likely, will not be as forgiving next time the Joint List falls apart.

Finally, as the phrase goes, it takes two to tango. The prospects for equality in Israel and a larger role for Palestinian citizens in Israeli politics are contingent on wide support by both Arabs and Jews. Currently, according to the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, 78 percent of Palestinian voters in Israel favor joining a governing coalition with Jewish parties. That sentiment is not reciprocated at all in the Jewish sector; indeed, no mainstream Jewish parties in Israel are willing to lead a government that includes full Arab partners. Until Israeli Jewish society undergoes serious change in this regard, the role of Palestinian Arab citizens in Israeli politics will remain limited at best.