Arab turnout rises to 60% after reaching an all-time low in April

Voter suppression efforts and warnings about Arabs flocking to the polls appear to have backfired, driving higher voter participation

An Arab Israeli woman votes in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a school turned polling station in the northern town of Taybe. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
An Arab Israeli woman votes in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a school turned polling station in the northern town of Taybe. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Voter turnout among Arab Israelis rose significantly on Tuesday as compared to the last national elections on April 9, when fewer than half of Arab voters cast ballots.

According to Haaretz, approximately 60 percent of Arab voters came out to the polls, despite what many in Israel see as various voter suppression efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his ruling Likud Party and right-wing activists. In April, Arab turnout hit a record low of 49.2%.

Exit polls have predicted that the recently reunified Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, could receive up to 13 seats in the next Knesset, a significant improvement over the Arab parties’ showing in April when they broke up into two competing slates and won a total of 10.

Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a civil society group, told Israeli financial newspaper Globes that he believed that Netanyahu’s warnings about high Arab turnout, meant to energize his base, backfired. Instead, he said, Netanyahu’s fiery rhetoric and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s promise to enact a Basic Law promising equality spurred Arab voters to come out and vote in an attempt to dethrone the prime minister.

Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh reacts as first exit polls in the general election are announced, September 17, 2019. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)

Aaed Kayel, the Joint List’s campaign manager, said he could not provide precise data on turnout in Arab communities, but said he also believed it rose above 60%.

“Without a doubt, the turnout in the Arab community was greater than our expectations,” he said, adding that Netanyahu’s statements had motivated Arab Israelis to vote in high numbers.

“They made people want to go to vote,” he said. “While he thought that making those remarks convinced more of his supporters to vote, they actually helped us and encouraged our voters to go to the polls.”

Earlier this week, visitors to Netanyahu’s official Facebook page were greeted by an automatic message sent by a chatbot warning of a “secular left-wing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all — women, children and men.”

Netanyahu has made repeated allegations of widespread voter fraud, claiming that that Tuesday’s election would be being “stolen” from him because of a lack of enforcement against “rampant” voter fraud in Arab communities. However, the evidence Netanyahu has presented proving such fraud has been limited at best, with the Central Elections Committee saying it has not established any significant cases.

In April, the Likud party equipped some 1,200 of its polling station representatives in Arab towns with hidden body cameras. At several locations, the discovery of the recording devices led to skirmishes between Likud officials and local poll workers, who were frustrated at having been targeted in the covert operation. The operation’s organizers subsequently boasted of having been responsible for reducing Arab voter turnout to its lowest-ever rate.

Legal authorities, including Netanyahu’s attorney general, questioned the legality of the operation and last week, in an effort to overcome these objections, Netanyahu tried to shepherd legislation through the Knesset that would have allowed party operatives to film at the ballot box. He failed. The Central Elections Committee banned the use of cameras in the polling stations during Tuesday’s vote.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, as voting proceeded on Tuesday, Likud leaked to the media that it had installed “dozens of facial recognition cameras outside Arab polling stations.” Some speculated that Likud leaked the footage to Channel 13 as part of a campaign strategy to depress Arab turnout by intimidating members of the minority, who are wary of government surveillance.

Likud MK Miki Zohar, a staunch ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, acknowledged Wednesday that Likud’s attempt to pass a camera bill ended up hurting it on election day.

“That didn’t serve us, it hurt us. It woke up the Arab sector, which in turn came out to the polls, while also lulling right-wing voters into complacency and many of them remained at home,” Zohar told the Walla news site.

Several polling stations in Arab and Druze areas were temporarily closed out of concern for election fraud on Tuesday.

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