Arab voter turnout projected to drop below 50%

Grassroots groups entreat more centrist, secular voters to go to the polls next Tuesday and challenge an expected Netanyahu victory

An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote at a polling station in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh in 2009. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote at a polling station in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh in 2009. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Arab Israeli voter turnout is projected to dip below 50 percent in the upcoming elections on account of broad voter apathy and dissatisfaction with Arab parties elected to the Knesset, Maariv reported on Wednesday.

According to the paper, only half of the 950,000 eligible Arab voters in Israel cast a ballot in the 2009 elections, only 60 percent of whom (320,000) voted for one of the Arab parties. Turnouts are expected to drop below 50% turnout, versus 65% among the general population, the lowest since 1949 except for 2001, when Arab Israelis boycotted the vote because of the Second Intifada.

A recent poll by the University of Haifa predicted that just half of Israeli Arabs will vote. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they have no faith that Arab parties will be able to improve the lot of their communities, which suffer from poverty and discrimination.

“Who cares about them?” Musa Abu-La of Shfaram was quoted saying of Arab MKs Hanin Zoabi and Ahmad Tibi. “They only worry about themselves.”

Another voter from the village of Tamra told the paper that Arab voters are disappointed by their minority’s representatives, and that their MKs address “the problems of the Palestinian nation” in the Knesset “instead of worrying about our economic welfare.”

Attorney Sami Abu Warda of Haifa advocated the unification of the three major Arab parties and declaring their intention to join any government “in order for there to be an Arab minister who would not only worry about the Palestinians, but for welfare and employment.”

Abu Warda said that he, like many Israelis, is unsure for whom he will vote in next week’s elections — if at all.

If the Arab voters were to increase their turnout by 10 percentage points, they could win an additional five or six parliamentary seats, said Ytzhak Katz, of the Maagar Mohot survey service. “They could tap their electoral potential and strengthen themselves, but they don’t do it,” he said.

Helmi Kittani, executive director of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, has appealed to Arab voters directly, telling them it’s not too late to speak up.

“It’s not right to sit in your chairs and watch others wage your just struggle,” he said. “Elections are an opportunity to change your lives. Don’t sit at home.”

Meanwhile, with large numbers of Israelis expected to sit out next week’s election, centrist activists launched a last-ditch appeal to get out the vote, hoping to defy what appears to be a guaranteed victory for a hard-line bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This grassroots effort could be the moderate camp’s only chance. Moderate, secular voters tend to turn out in smaller numbers than ideologically motivated hard-liners. Reversing this trend, experts say, is the surest way to take on the government’s handling of major issues like stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians, Iran’s nuclear program and a troubled economy.

Polls published in Israeli newspapers over the weekend projected Netanyahu and his traditional right-wing and religious allies winning between 64 and 71 seats, enough to secure a majority in the 120-member parliament, compared to 49 to 56 for centrist and Arab parties.

Pollster Camil Fuchs says those numbers reflect current trends. “But a four to five percentage point change in turnout could change things,” he said.

The get-out-the vote campaigners, including television personalities and local celebrities, present their efforts as non-partisan, but many are perceived to be aligned with Netanyahu’s opponents.

Netanyahu’s opponents say the stakes are especially high in the current election. Critics point to the deadlock in peace efforts with the Palestinians, his repeated run-ins with President Barack Obama and Iran’s suspect nuclear program. Without a strong alliance with the US, they say, it would be difficult to halt the Iranians or rally international support for Israel’s positions toward the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party has fielded an especially hawkish slate of candidates who reject concessions to the Palestinians. The rise of Jewish Home, a pro-settler party that could play a major role in the next coalition government, could further affect peace efforts. Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, and many inside Likud have advocated annexing parts of the West Bank.

Reflecting his hawkish line Monday, Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 TV that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas does not want to negotiate. “We don’t have to say that we don’t have a future here because Abu Mazen doesn’t want to negotiate with us,” Netanyahu said, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. Abbas blames Israel for a four-year stalemate in peace talks.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, for their hoped-for state. Israeli moderates warn that Israel’s continued control of these territories and their millions of Palestinian residents threaten Israel’s status as a Jewish democracy.

Despite the pressing issues, turnout in recent elections has been just over 60 percent. Fuchs said turnout among supporters of Netanyahu and his allies is generally higher than among the rest of the population.

According to pollsters, turnout is especially low among several key groups — political moderates, people under 30 and Israeli Arabs. These constituencies all tend to favor Netanyahu’s opponents.

Political parties are conducting classic get-out-the-vote campaigns, with automated phone calls, parlor meetings, transportation to polling stations and specific appeals to groups, like women and young voters.

Other groups not directly affiliated with specific parties are also getting out the message.

Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, teamed up with people from Israel’s popular TV satire “A Wonderful Country” to produce a get-out-the-vote video clip for his Facebook page. In his largely ceremonial post, Peres, 89, is supposed to avoid politics, but the Nobel peace laureate’s dovish leanings are well known.

Social activists who drew hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets in 2011 to demonstrate against the gaps between rich and poor have recruited dozens of artists, TV personalities and journalists to take part in an ad campaign called “2013 elections — this time we’re all voting.” In ads, they don black shirts that read, “Vote or they’ll vote for you.”

Israeli film producer Ofir Kedar, who is based in London, is pushing a get-out-the-vote campaign with two YouTube videos he hopes will go viral. One of the clips, produced with the “One Voice” non-profit organization, shows a potential voter having a nightmare in which he is fired from his job and Israel is under attack and isolated internationally. He snaps out of it only when his young son says “wake up,” followed by a call to go vote.

“I’m trying to help the center-left bloc, not necessarily a specific party, but those who support a two-state solution,” Kedar said.

Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, voters cast ballots for parties, not individuals, and parties receive seats in parliament based on the percentage of votes they win. To enter parliament, a party must win at least 2 percent of all votes cast, or about 70,000, giving them a minimum of two seats.

“If two … parties on the left pass the threshold, that could change the blocs,” Fuchs said. “The chance for a big change is small but it exists.”

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