Arab voter turnout to surge following political union, polls find
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Arab voter turnout to surge following political union, polls find

Social issues trump negotiations with the Palestinians on list of Arab-Israeli priorities, Tel Aviv University researcher says

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Israeli Arab Abdullah Talash, 74, chooses his ballot in order to vote in Israel's general election at a polling station in the northern Israeli Arab village of Umm Al-Fahm, February 10, 2009 (photo credit: AP/Muhammad Muheissen)
Israeli Arab Abdullah Talash, 74, chooses his ballot in order to vote in Israel's general election at a polling station in the northern Israeli Arab village of Umm Al-Fahm, February 10, 2009 (photo credit: AP/Muhammad Muheissen)

Arab voter turnout is expected to dramatically increase in elections next week, reflecting a sense of optimism regarding the political unification of Arab parties in the Joint List, two new Israeli polls show.

In the last elections, held in January 2013, Arab Israeli turnout was 10% lower than the national average, standing at 57% versus 67.8%. But new polling data presented on Tuesday by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation (KAP) at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center showed that Arab turnout may reach 64.7% on March 17, the highest it’s been since the 1999 elections.

More than 80% of the 500 respondents questioned across Israel during February said they would vote for the newly-founded Joint (Arab) List, securing it 13 seats in the Knesset.

“Support for the Joint (Arab) List is very impressive,” Itamar Radai, academic director of KAP told The Times of Israel. “Unlike the past, the Arab public believes it can become an effective player in Israeli politics. The trend of decreasing [Arab] voter turnout has probably ended, as a new spirit of optimism prevails.”

When asked whether Arabs should take part in the elections, 61.3% unequivocally answered yes, while 18.1% were more reserved in the affirmative. Just 29.9% of respondents were opposed to the idea of Arabs voting.

An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote as Israeli border policemen look on at a polling station in the Arab village of Abu Gosh, west of Jerusalem, on February 10, 2009 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote as Israeli border policemen look on at a polling station in the Arab village of Abu Gosh, west of Jerusalem, on February 10, 2009 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The creation of the Joint (Arab) List is a clear driver behind the new trend, as 44.8% of respondents said that the unification of Hadash, Balad and Ra’am-Ta’al in January significantly influenced their decision to vote. Even though Joint List head Ayman Odeh said last week that the party would not join the government, 68.3% of respondents believed the List will “turn the Knesset into an effective arena for the Arab public.” Over 86% expressed hope that the list would remain united following elections.

Itamar Radai of Tel Aviv University (photo credit: courtesy/Itamar Radai)
Itamar Radai of Tel Aviv University (photo credit: courtesy/Itamar Radai)

“There still is a small group of people who claim they haven’t changed their opinion and won’t vote, but those who say that — and especially those who boycott the elections for ideological reasons — are a small minority,” Radai added.

Indeed, ideological boycotting accounts for no more than 17% of the nonvoting Arab group, or just 3% of the Arab public, a survey conducted in January by the Yaffa Research Institute for The Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Israeli nonprofit promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence has found.

Among Arabs, male turnout (70%) is expected to be significantly higher than female (55%), and Muslims (67%) will apparently vote in much higher numbers than Christians (56%) and Druze (44%).

Interestingly, in Tel Aviv University’s poll, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations rank a distant third on the list of issues Arab voters thought Arab MKs should deal with following elections.

Most respondents, 44.3%, said their top priority should be dealing with the ailments of Arab society: unemployment, violence, women’s status, education and health; 28.1% said the most important issue at hand is government treatment of the Arab population. Just 19% said peace talks should be the main concern of Arab MKs.

The death of 13 young Israeli Arabs in rioting in October 2000 led to a widespread Arab boycott of the 2001 elections, when just 18% of the Arab sector arrived at the polls. But Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, said the days of Arab alienation from Israeli society are over.

“Arabs are returning to the polls after a period of crisis since October 2000,” Abu Ras told The Times of Israel. “Arab society is extremely interested in shaping its own future and being part of Israeli politics.”

Thabet Abu Ras, Co-Executive Director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives photo credit: courtesy/The Abraham Fund
Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives (photo credit: courtesy/The Abraham Fund)

Israel’s Zionist parties should be more attuned to the Arab shift in attitude toward the state and become more inclusive, he added. “Arabs are now taking their citizenship more seriously than any time in the past.”

Arab youth aged 18-24 display the lowest voter rate of all age groups, he noted. Therefore, his organization has launched a campaign in university campuses to convince students to vote.

According to Abu Ras, it is not only the political union of Arab parties that is changing attitudes in Arab society, but the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring are causing Arabs to appreciate Israeli democracy more than they used to.

“Despite the discrimination that exists in Israel, which should be combated, people now tend to see the cup as half full,” Abu Ras said. “Arab political discourse used to emphasize the cup as half empty, but no longer.”

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