Exclusive'Why do only 50% vote in the Knesset elections?'

Abbas urges Arab Israelis to vote for Knesset: They can have ‘major influence’

In recording, PA president criticizes Arabs who shun national ballots in Israel because they consider the Knesset to be a ‘Zionist council’

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks to Palestinian leaders at the Muqata, the PA headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 25, 2019. (Wafa news agency)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks to Palestinian leaders at the Muqata, the PA headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 25, 2019. (Wafa news agency)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently asserted that Arab Israelis would become a “major influencer” in Israel’s politics, if only they would turn out for national elections at similar levels as they do for municipal votes.

He also expressed criticism of Arab Israelis who he said shun the elections in Israel because they consider the Knesset to be a “Zionist council,” and lashed out at members of the majority-Arab Joint List party for quarreling over what he described as “trivial matters.”

Abbas made the comments at a closed-door meeting in late September in New York City before he addressed the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The Times of Israel recently obtained a recording of the PA president’s remarks at the gathering, which have not been previously reported.

They shed light on Abbas’s views on Arab-Israeli politics, including the Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties in Israel.

“[Arab Israelis] go to the municipal elections, which are about trash, water and so on. Their turnout in those elections is 110 percent… How is it 110%? They bring out the dead people… That’s fine and good,” he stated, then asking, “Why do only 50% vote in the Knesset elections?”

Israelis cast their votes at a polling station in the Arab town of Beit Safafa on March 17, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Abbas continued: “There is one wise guy. I don’t want to mention his name. Or there are two wise guys. They tell you that [the Knesset] is a Zionist council. Which country are you in? You are in a Zionist country. So you think the municipalities are national Arab bodies? That is a Zionist council too. Then, why don’t 70%, 80% or 90% vote in the [Knesset elections]? If they vote that way, they will win 16 seats and become the major influencer.”

In the last Knesset elections in September, 59.2% of Arab Israelis eligible to vote cast ballots, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. Arab Israelis often vote in high numbers for local elections, with turnout consistently standing around 85%, Arik Rudnitsky, an expert on Arab Israeli politics at IDI, said.

In the wake of the September elections, Netanyahu and his top rival, Benny Gantz, both failed to form a government. Israel will now head to an unprecedented third national election in under a year, slated to take place on March 2.

Abbas’s suggestion that Arab Israelis participate in widespread voter fraud in municipal elections was false, according to Salim Breek, a lecturer in political science at Haifa University.

“Voter fraud in Arab communities is marginal,” he said. “There is very little.”

Arab Israelis vote in higher numbers in municipal elections because families encourage their members to vote and most people see value in casting a ballot, Joint List MK Mansour Abbas said.

“The first thing is families get all of their relatives to go. The second thing is that the people feel the municipalities directly serve them,” he said. “The path between the Knesset and the people is much longer, so many people do not realize the importance of it and decide not to vote in its elections.”

In his recorded comments, the PA president issued a rebuke of the Joint List, whose leadership he called “not good.”

“The Arabs inside [Israel] are our brothers, but they are Israelis. The Arabs inside — the people of Nazareth, Haifa, Acre, the Galilee, the Triangle, Lod and Ramle — are 1.8 million people,” he remarked, referring to various areas in Israel where Arab Israelis reside.

Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“The increase [in the number of Arab Israelis in Israel] is good, but the leadership is not good. In any case, don’t get annoyed with me. Last time, they could not agree,” he said, referring to last April’s elections. “They honestly had disputes over trivial matters that have nothing to do with the homeland and their cause.”

Alluding to September’s elections, he said: “This time, God guided them a bit but not a lot. They came together and returned to the Joint List and won 13 seats.”

The Joint List — comprising the Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad factions — was first formed ahead of the March 2015 elections, in which it won 13 seats in the 120 member Knesset. Before last April’s vote, however, the alliance disagreed about the makeup of the slate it wanted to put forward for the elections, and ultimately split into two separate lists, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad, which collectively scored a total of 10 seats.

Ahead of September’s elections, the four original parties of the Joint List again expressed disagreements about the makeup of a reconstituted alliance but ultimately arrived at a consensus to run together. In that vote, the Joint List won 13 seats.

Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh declined to comment on Abbas’s remarks. But Joint List MK Mansour Abbas, who is a member of Ra’am, an Islamist faction, said he thought the PA president had expressed an “acceptable” criticism.

“The Palestinian president’s words are mostly correct. The Arab parties made a big error in the April elections when they divided the Joint List,” he said. “We have made steps to rectify this error including by reuniting the Joint List before the September elections. In this current period, the challenge for us is to keep the Joint List together and prove to the people that we can positively influence their situation.”

(L to R) Joint List candidates Ofer Cassif, Heba Yazbak, Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman and Iman Khatib Yassin appear before supporters at the alliance’s campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

MK Abbas added that he was aware the PA president was disappointed by the breakup of the Joint List before the elections in April: “He has clearly expressed his dismay about that.”

Odeh and senior Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi have been known to visit the PA president at his office in Ramallah, but in recent months they have not been spotted there.

Ziad Darwish, a member the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli society, backed the PA president’s statements.

“We affirm the president’s comments. We do not intervene in Israeli elections, but we can state our opinion or position on various issues,” Darwish, a cousin of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, said. “What he is saying is that he believes in unity.”

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Abbas’s spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the same September meeting, Abbas also said that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to annex the Jordan Valley as he has promised, the Palestinians would cancel all of their agreements with Israel while continuing to “fight terror.”

A Bedouin shepherd walks with his herd of sheep in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank on September 11, 2019 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“If you annex it, there will be no relationship between us and all of you. We will cut all ties and cancel all agreements regardless of what these agreements are,” he said, then added, “We will preserve one thing… I will continue to fight against terror and preserve international legitimacy.”

In September, Netanyahu promised to annex most of the Jordan Valley if he is given another term in office.

The Palestinians hope to create a Palestinian state that includes the Jordan Valley, which makes up about 30% of the West Bank.

In the recording, the PA president admitted that the establishment of a Palestinian state was not imminent.

“It won’t happen tomorrow,” he said. “It requires time, effort and labor.”

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