Exit polls released Tuesday night showed two of three Arab parties winning enough votes to make it into the Knesset, and a third just below the threshold, as some lawmakers and voters vowed to oppose the far-right after the election and others were unnerved by its strong showing.
The exit polls, which have been inaccurate in the past, predicted four or five seats each for the Hadash-Ta’al alliance and the Ra’am party, and the Balad faction hovering several thousand votes short of the 3.25 percent electoral threshold.
The surveys also forecast a slight majority for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, which would allow him to form a government with the support of the far-right Religious Zionism faction’s predicted 14-15 seats. The party, including its No. 2 Itamar Ben Gvir, have run on a starkly anti-Arab platform.
While the Arab parties were relieved that their nightmare scenario of zero Arab parties making it into the Knesset will likely not come to pass, the prospect that Netanyahu will need to rely on the hardline far-right to regain power had some of Israel’s Arab citizens concerned for their future.
Ben Gvir, who heads the Otzma Yehudit faction, has called for the “deportation” of supposedly disloyal citizens and has said he will demand the public security ministry, which oversees police, during coalition negotiations.
At Balad’s headquarters in the northern city of Shefa Amr the mood was somber, even after party leader Sami Abou Shahadeh predicted the party would win enough votes to make it into the Knesset despite the polls showing it shy of the threshold.
Speaking after the exit polls were released, Abou Shahadeh said he believed the surveys have underestimated Balad in the past.
Should it squeak into the Knesset, Balad would swing four seats away from other parties, and could conceivably leave both the Netanyahu bloc and the outgoing coalition bloc short of a majority.
Two Balad supporters at the event who declined to be identified said they were “not surprised” by Otzma Yehudit’s strong showing, arguing that the party reflects the “thinking of the Jewish majority.”
Bouran, a 38-year-old Balad supporter from just outside Shefa Amr, said “Every year we see the government becoming more right-wing.”
“There is no ‘Zionist left,’ just the right and the extreme right. So we’re not scared of Ben Gvir,” she said.
She said Balad’s main goal was “to introduce a discourse for the sake of new generations, showing them that there is a [Palestinian] national movement in Israel.”
At the Hadash-Ta’al party headquarters, the general mood seemed to be that a Netanyahu government including far-right elements would represent a dire break with the status quo.
According to a party insider, Hadash-Ta’al supporters feel the exit polls mark a harbinger of frightening things to come under an emboldened Netanyahu supported by extremists.
Party leader MK Ayman Odeh, in an interview with Channel 12 after the exit polls were released, said he believed his faction would win one more seat than the four or fives seats predicted by the polls.
He also vowed to oppose the far-right.
“Kahanism has become 15% of the Israeli public,” he said, referring to the ideology of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, a model for Ben Gvir.
“We will stand against fascism and racism,” Odeh said.
Earlier in the evening, Odeh had encouraged his supporters to vote, saying of the extreme right, “Either those bastards will be celebrating the defeat of our people or our people will turn the tables on them.”
Despite his animus toward Netanyahu and his allies, Odeh said Monday that Prime Minister Yaid Lapid, who heads the bloc opposing Netanyahu, “does not deserve our recommendation.” A Lapid-led coalition would almost certainly need Hadash-Ta’al’s support to have any hope of mustering a majority.
MK Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am, appeared nervous on Tuesday night despite his party’s relatively strong showing in the exit polls. Abbas cautioned that the results were “not final” and could “go up or down.”
Abbas’s faction is part of the current government and has ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, after previously remaining open to the option.
If the polls are accurate, Netanyahu would not need Ra’am’s support to form a government anyway and would have little incentive to include the Islamist party. Ra’am has been a common target for Netanyahu and his allies, although the former premier courted Ra’am ahead of the last election.
Voter turnout in the Arab community was around 58% — higher than expected and more than during the previous election, but below the national average of 71.3%. Overall turnout was the highest since 2015 with 4,843,023 ballots cast.
As Balad neared the electoral threshold, Netanyahu repeated an unfounded accusation of voter irregularities at certain polling stations in Arab communities, saying that he was waiting for the “real count, not the fake count that somebody is trying to subvert by violence or intimidation.”
The Central Elections Committee said in response that it had no evidence of irregularities at polling stations in Arab communities. Police also dismissed the accusation.
“Given that the counting [of votes] has just begun, there is definitely no basis for unfounded rumors about supposed ‘forgeries’ in one community or another,” the Central Elections Committee said.