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State of the campaign

Arab turnout may hold the key to election, but for the pro- or anti-Netanyahu bloc?

The Arab parties fare better when running together, yet Ra’am is determined to continue its independent course. It sat in the anti-Bibi coalition last time, but alliances can shift

  • The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 11, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.
    The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 11, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.
  • Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra'am)
    Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra'am)
  • Weekly polling average of the Netanyahu-led bloc and the outgoing coalition bloc
    Weekly polling average of the Netanyahu-led bloc and the outgoing coalition bloc
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arab Joint List chair Ayman Odeh at a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, a controversial bill that seeks to legalize wildcat West Bank outposts, in the Knesset on December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arab Joint List chair Ayman Odeh at a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, a controversial bill that seeks to legalize wildcat West Bank outposts, in the Knesset on December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Arab turnout vs. Arab seats
    Arab turnout vs. Arab seats

With no significant movement in the polls, both in terms of the parties and the blocs, this week we are looking at another set of data. Turnout.

In particular Arab turnout.

Predicting turnout is extremely difficult at the best of times, and especially in Israel where pollsters lack the level of publicly available voter data that exists in some other countries, notably the US. However, past turnout data does provide clues as to how campaigns, and in particular how disunity among the Arab parties, can have a decisive impact on the final results.

There are approximately one million Arab citizens of Israel, a huge electoral demographic with immense potential. Far from monolithic, the Arabic-speaking citizens of Israel are made up of a diverse collection of communities with a wide range of views: the Druze in the north; the Islamist Bedouin in the south; the Arabs of the mixed cities of Haifa, Acre and Jaffa; the residents of the villages, towns and cities of “the Triangle” and the Galilee; and of course a sizable Christian Arab population. It’s a massive and complex subject, and one as ever, that we will seek to analyze through data.

Nationwide turnout in Israel has hovered around the 70% mark for the last 20 years, and as seen in the graph below, has changed little throughout the past five election cycles.

Yet turnout in Arab localities is both much lower and extremely volatile, reaching highs of 65% and lows of 45% in recent years. In fact, the 45% figure in the last round of elections was an all-time low from Arab localities.

Israeli election turnout: national and Arab sector

For some important background, the major Arab parties today, Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al (currently running together as The Joint List), and Ra’am (the Islamist United Arab List), together hold 10 seats in the current Knesset; six for the Joint List, and four for Ra’am. The vast majority of the Arab vote now goes to Arab parties, with around 9% going to Jewish parties in the last election (which makes up around 1.5 seats).

Without getting bogged down in a history of the many breakups and reunions, the largest party today within the Joint List, both in support and infrastructure, is the far-left Hadash party. Hadash, an acronym of “The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality,” is a coalition of Jews and Arabs, which has traditionally supported coexistence and Jewish-Arab cooperation, though its positions have hardened over the years. The outspoken leader of both Hadash and, in recent years, the Joint List, is Ayman Odeh.

File: Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh (2nd-L), Ahmad Tibi (2nd-R), Mtanes Shehadeh (L) and Mansour Abbas meet at the Knesset on September 22, 2019, ahead of their alliance’s meeting with President Reuven Rivlin on who they’ll recommend should form the next government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Balad, led by Sami Abu Shehadeh, is the Hebrew acronym for the National Democratic Alliance, and also the Arabic word for country or nation. It is a nationalist party and the most controversial out of the four parties, with former senior members traveling to Syria and Lebanon to show solidarity with the Hezbollah terror group, and another former MK serving two years in prison for smuggling phones to convicted terrorists. Balad advocates for a binational state and the recognition of Israel’s Arab community as a national minority with autonomy in a number of fields. This differs slightly from Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al (also nationalist) which still (just about) supports a two-state solution, and demonstrates greater flexibility in its cooperation with the Jewish parties.

The fourth party is Ra’am, “The United Arab List,” which was formed from the southern wing of Israel’s Islamist movement. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, controversially pulled out of the Joint List prior to the last elections in 2021, gambling that it could garner enough support with a totally different strategy: to join a coalition and become the kingmaker, rather than remain perennially in opposition, to the direct benefit of his community.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas speaks during a press conference in Nazareth, April 1, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The gamble paid off. Abbas had read the pulse of the Arab community where polls had shown big majorities in favor of joining a coalition in Israel, a trend that has continued into the current election cycle.

A cursory look at the performance of Arab parties at the polls in recent years reveals one clear correlation. When the four main Arab parties united as a single list (as in 2015, September 2019 and 2020), Arab turnout has been around 60-65% (not so far behind the general turnout), and the Arab parties have subsequently done well in the election. But when the parties have been divided, as in April 2019 and the most recent election in 2021, turnout has dropped to below 50% and the parties performed poorly. In fact, at the most recent election, the 10 seats the Arab parties won, representing 8% of the Knesset, contrasted sharply with the Arab community’s 21% of the population as a whole.

Arab turnout vs. Arab seats

Interestingly, the electoral assumptions regarding the negative numerical effect of pre-election mergers (see our recent article on mergers) appear to be the polar opposite of the Jewish parties where the Arab sector is concerned. Unlike Zionist parties, Arab parties have received more votes when they run together.

Given how clear the data is, one might have thought that the Arab parties would look to reunite for this election. In fact, the opposite is true. Not only will the Joint List and Ra’am again run separately, but Balad – one of the three remaining members of the Joint List – had even been threatening to run independently until this weekend.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that a recent poll reported in The Times of Israel (albeit with a very small sample) suggests Arab turnout could drop to as low as 39%.

This could leave the Joint Arab List with approximately 4-5 seats, and Ra’am also around the threshold. If one of these two slates drops beneath the threshold, the Arab parties – with approximately 20% of the population – could feasibly end up with a mere four or five seats in the next Knesset, a far cry from the 15 they won just two years ago.

File: (L-R) Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett, New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas, Labor head Merav Michaeli and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz at a meeting of the heads of the would-be-coalition in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2021. (Ra’anan Cohen)

And while on the right, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu Netanyahu is inviting far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir family to his Caesarea swimming pool for (successful) unity talks with rival-ally Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, Prime Minister Yair Lapid isn’t inviting the leaders of the Arab parties to his proverbial swimming pool in Ramat Aviv any time soon to call for unity among the Arab parties.

In fact, while Lapid has called upon the parties to keep the tone of their campaigns positive, recognizing that negative campaigns and disunity within the Arab sector suppress turnout, the voices reportedly calling for a united ticket have come from the Palestinian Authority and the king of Jordan.

Yet even if the Joint List manages to overcome the squabbles among its three remaining parties, Ra’am will be not be “coming home” any time soon to what it sees as the party of eternal opposition. Mansour Abbas has crossed that Rubicon. He believes that Ra’am can again prove a kingmaker — the Haredim of the Arab community. And despite being called “terror supporters” by Netanyahu and his fellow Likud campaigners, Ra’am has not ruled out sitting with him either.

So whereas Jewish voters are often packaged into two groups, “Yes Bibi” versus “No Bibi,” Channel 12’s Arab affairs commentator Mohammad Magadli has said that Arab voters can now be packaged into two camps: those voting to be in the opposition (Joint List), and those looking to join the next coalition (Ra’am).

Weekly polling average of the Netanyahu-led bloc and the outgoing coalition bloc

Netanyahu understands this and has attempted to tone down his, and his party’s, language of late. The last thing he needs is to do is inadvertently energize a potential Arab base which is currently disinterested, like in 2015, by attacking an entire community.

Indeed, his campaign messaging has moved away from talking about “Arabs” in general, and towards phrases like “Lapid has no government without the Muslim Brotherhood,” employing fear tactics among the Jewish population, but with terminology that large chunks of the Arab population don’t identify with anyway or find offensive.

Interestingly, despite Netanyahu’s past rhetoric, controversial legislation such as the Nation-State Law, his embrace of extreme elements such as Ben Gvir, and voter suppression tactics such as the Likud-led attempt to place cameras in Arab polling stations, Likud still received around 5% of Arab (including Druze) votes in the last election, more than any other non-Arab party.

Furthermore, a recent Statnet poll found that 75% of Arabs “are not concerned if Netanyahu returns to power,” being more troubled about the increase in the cost of living since he lost power after the 2021 elections.

There is also a claim bandied about that Ra’am leader Abbas would actually prefer to join a Netanyahu-led government, the argument being that the only way for his Arab community to get true recognition and acceptance into Israeli society is to join a government with the right and Netanyahu. Furthermore, Ra’am has a lot more in common with the religious and socially conservative Haredi parties than with its partners in the outgoing coalition such as Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz.

The state of the Israeli election campaign: Poll of polls, September 11, 2022, showing the number of seats parties would be expected to win if the election was held today, based on a weighing of the latest opinion polls.

Therefore, the prevailing wisdom — that if Arab turnout significantly increases, and if Arab parties once again move beyond the 10-12 mandate mark, Netanyahu is unlikely to get be able to form a coalition — may be misplaced. There would be stiff opposition from Religious Zionism, but Ra’am, the Islamist party, could technically become the kingmaker for Netanyahu.

After all, not long ago, Avigdor Liberman was, to some extent, the bellicose anti-Arab Ben Gvir of his day, calling for “population transfer” and campaigning with the slogan, “No Loyalty, No Citizenship.” Yet starting June 2021, he has been sitting in a coalition government with the Islamic Movement’s Ra’am and, by all accounts, one of the ministers closest to its leader Mansour Abbas.

So whether it is a case of realpolitik or a special brand of Israelpolitik, Arab turnout could be key to the November 1 elections. But key for which would-be prime minister? That we will only find out if and when the kingmaker chooses his side.

Simon Davies and Joshua Hantman are partners at Number 10 Strategies, an international strategic, research and communications consultancy, who have polled and run campaigns for presidents, prime ministers, political parties and major corporations across dozens of countries in four continents.

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