Balad’s solo run showed what may be possible, but it came up fatally short this time

Turnout was still down from the Joint List unity years, but the results of the election suggest that staying together for the votes may no longer be necessary for Arab parties

A man walks by an election campaign billboard showing Sami Abu Shehadeh, head of the nationalist Balad party, in the northern Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)
A man walks by an election campaign billboard showing Sami Abu Shehadeh, head of the nationalist Balad party, in the northern Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

Israel’s Arab citizens can hardly be satisfied with the results of Tuesday night’s election as they await the formation of a new government that will give their parties none of the space required to exercise meaningful influence.

The number of Arab-party representatives in the Knesset stayed steady at 10 — this time, five seats apiece for Ra’am and for the Hadash-Ta’al alliance — despite higher Arab turnout in comparison to the last election.

After Balad split from the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al — together they had been known as the Joint List in the previous few elections — the nearly 140,000 votes that went to Balad were wiped out because of the nationalist party’s failure to make it over the 3.25 percent threshold.

In the end, with the left-wing Meretz party also falling beneath the electoral threshold, Netanyahu and his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies won a total of 64 seats, three more than needed to form a majority government which, barring any major surprises, will include far-right extremists who will be put in positions to shape the daily lives of Israel’s Arab citizens.

The fact that a majority of people (50.5%) voted for parties not aligned with Netanyahu is cold comfort to the opposition.

The election result has sparked angry reactions, particularly from the Arab community, over the consequences of hardline, anti-Zionist Balad trying an independent run and siphoning votes away from Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am.

Head of the Balad party MK Sami Abou Shahadeh arrives to cast his vote a voting station in Jaffa on November 1, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Without a doubt, there is anger in my heart against the so-called ‘Arab nationalist party,'” Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas said when exit polls first showed Netanyahu’s bloc ahead and Balad under the threshold. “Returning Netanyahu and [Religious Zionism head Bezalel] Smotrich to power is on them.”

In April 2021, Smotrich told Arab lawmakers on the Knesset floor, “You’re here by mistake. It’s a mistake that [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”

On the day of the election, Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh pleaded with Arab voters to go to the polls. “It’s not every election that your vote is decisive,” he said in a message sent out in the late afternoon of election day. “In this election, it is!”

Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh casts his ballot at a voting station in Hafia, on November 1, 2022. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

Odeh was right, but perhaps not in the way he hoped. Arab turnout, which continues to lag far behind that of Jewish Israelis and was low even compared to other years, played a major role in Netanyahu’s victory.

But the election was also decisive in showing that the question of how deeply to engage and collaborate with Israel’s power structures is still an open one in the Arab community, torn between Ra’am’s idea of compromise in order to gain an influential seat at the table and Balad’s categorical refusal to work with Zionist parties.

And it was likely decisive in cementing the rift between the four parties that once united under the Joint List banner, providing more evidence that running as an independent Arab party is not impossible.

Turnout up, but only from a low bar

At the beginning of this election campaign, some polls projected Arab turnout to fall below the already historically low 44.6% it reached last year.

Most attributed 2021’s extremely low turnout to two factors: a feeling among Arab Israelis that the government could not ameliorate problems in their communities and second, a lack of unity among the Arab parties.

After the four major Arab parties coalesced into the Joint List for the first time in 2015, Arab turnout has generally been high in elections when Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad presented a united front. When there have been splits, Arab voters have stayed away from the ballot booths, apparently to punish their parties for fighting each other instead of teaming up.

Election billboards in the Bedouin city of Rahat on October 25, 2022 ahead of Israel’s November 1 election. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

In 2021, Ra’am left the Joint List to mount an independent campaign. This time, despite Balad also splitting off the Joint List, Arab turnout grew slightly to 53.2%. That number though, was far behind the 71.3% of the general population. And it fell short of the years when the Joint List was united.

Some Arab voters chose to abstain out of their distaste for politicians they saw as putting personal interests before the good of the community. That abstention was, however, partially offset by voters excited by Balad’s independent campaign.

Another boost to Arab voter participation came from mobilization efforts that ramped up over the course of this election cycle after last time’s low turnout raised alarms over Arab disaffection with electoral politics.

Alon-Lee Green, a spokesperson for Standing Together, a civil society group that worked to get out the Arab vote, said, a coalition of organizations had helped raise turnout.

“In the main city where we worked, Rahat — which just a few months ago became the largest Arab city in Israel — we managed to raise the voter turnout from 41% to almost 61%,” he said.

Still, Arab turnout nationwide did not the reach the heights — in the 60% range — of elections that featured all four Arab parties on a single slate.

The influence vote

Throughout the campaign, the word that kept cropping up in Arab-party advertising and in Arab Israeli households was “influence.” Ra’am turned “influence” into its watchword in the last election, when it became the first ever Arab party to join a governing coalition. There was more to gain by playing ball, it argued, than by staying on the sidelines in the name of ideological purity.

The idea led to Ra’am’s expulsion from the Joint List, but it found an audience, and the party defied expectations by scraping together enough votes to enter the Knesset. Upon gaining independence, it adopted the slogan “Realistic, influential, and conservative.”

This time around, Ra’am billboards dotting Arab communities declared the party “Closer to influence,” and the message must have struck a chord, since it proved to be the most popular Arab party when election results came in, with 15,000 more votes than Hadash-Ta’al.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas at his campaign headquarters in the Arab Israeli town of Tamra, as the results of the Israeli elections were announced. November 1, 2022. (Flash90)

Ra’am’s gambit has forced Arab parties to contemplate how much they should bend on ideological principles for the sake of exercising influence with the dominant political parties.

Most Arab Israelis believe that funding Ra’am managed to get earmarked for the community — which remains largely caught up in red tape — has made little practical impact on their lives. Still, polls show that the majority of Arab voters would support the presence of an Arab party in a governing coalition.

This election, Hadash and Ta’al declared their willingness to consider recommending Lapid for prime minister provided that he met certain demands — a step toward cooperation, even if the party was still opposed to actively joining a coalition headed by Lapid or any other party leader. For its slogan, the Hadash-Ta’al alliance adopted the phrase “We influence, with dignity,” a subtle jab at Ra’am, which lost face among many Arab Israelis for staying in the governing coalition during clashes between Israeli police and Muslim worshipers at the Temple Mount last April.

The party least ready to contemplate cooperating with the Jewish-majority political parties is Balad, which reportedly severed ties with Hadash and Ta’al over their willingness to recommend a prime minister, as well as disagreements about how to divvy up spots on a shared electoral list.

The divisions over this question within Arab Israeli society broadly overlay socioeconomic ones. Ra’am garners much of its support from the Negev desert in southern Israel, where many Arab citizens are desperate to have their unauthorized residences officially recognized and hooked up to basic utilities like electricity. Meanwhile, Balad’s more educated and urban base is more concerned with higher-order political needs like asserting their Palestinian identity.

Disjointed list

The Joint List first came into being in 2015, after the Knesset had voted to raise the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% — a move widely condemned as a ploy to stymie the representation of Arab parties in the Knesset by setting the bar too high for them to clear.

Instead, the four parties in the Knesset joined forces to guarantee they would all get in. This was a shotgun wedding more than a marrying of the minds, with parties ranging from Communist to Islamist compromising to rally around their ability to unite Israel’s Arab electorate.

But Ra’am’s twice-successful independent runs, and the fact that Balad fell just a few tens of thousands of votes short, suggest that independent runs are possible and Balad is well-positioned to make it over the hump next time around. The voters are there: some 30,000 surplus votes between Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al, since you can’t win half of a seat, were also essentially burned.

An electoral banner is seen in the village of Hura in the southern Negev desert on October 7, 2022 (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Balad’s run, like Ra’am before it, was dismissed off the bat as quixotic and liable to hurt the community by costing Arab Israelis Knesset seats. And in the end they were right about the seats. But not about everything.

Muhammad Mujadleh, an Arab Israeli political commentator for Channel 12, said in the immediate aftermath of Balad announcing a solo run that the party would get some support from Arab voters who largely bought into the party’s narrative about the reasons behind the split.

Mujadleh predicted that in the end Balad might win a maximum of 90,000-100,000 votes, describing the prospect of such a large electoral haul as “a bit far-fetched, but not impossible.” Balad ended up with 138,000 votes.

Balad’s message resonated with parts of the Arab street, and anecdotally, most Arab voters do not seem to blame Balad head Sami Abou Shahadeh for having supposedly “stolen” votes that could have added Arab seats to the Knesset. Instead, he is widely admired.

At Balad’s election afterparty in the Arab town of Shfar’am in northern Israel, the crowd of supporters was largely composed of young people — many of them young women, a demographic significantly less represented at Hadash-Ta’al headquarters that same night.

May, a 22-year-old law student who hopes to work in the field of human rights, said she was “surprised and proud” about Balad’s performance. “In Balad you feel that you don’t need to give up on your principles, that you don’t need give up on your roots… I don’t want to be a partner in a coalition that I know won’t do what’s best for my people,” she said.

Arab Israeli voters, it turns out, are not a monolith. There are votes out there for parties that want to engage with Israel’s political system in ways that can bring concrete results, votes for parties that are not yet ready but also willing to consider the possibility, and votes for Arab Israelis who are so disillusioned with Israel’s political system that they see politics less as a way to effect change in tangible ways than as a way to maintain their dignity and celebrate their identity.

Had there been another 15,000 disillusioned voters casting ballots for Balad, Netanyahu might now still be looking for seat number 61.

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