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Elections panel rejects Likud attempt to shut down Arab voter mobilization groups

Central Elections Committee chief Yitzhak Amit rules that party must pay damages to two organizations – Standing Together and Zazim – after petition struck down

Illustrative: An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote at a polling station in the coastal city of Haifa, on March 17, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Illustrative: An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote at a polling station in the coastal city of Haifa, on March 17, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

The Central Elections Committee ruled last week in favor of two nonprofit organizations, rejecting a Likud party accusation that the groups were acting as agents of the Arab parties in their efforts to mobilize Arab voters.

Committee head Justice Yitzchak Amit ruled on Friday that the two groups in question, Standing Together and Zazim, could continue with their activities, and that Likud must pay them NIS 15,000 ($4,250) apiece in damages.

Uri Weltman, the national organizer of Standing Together, said in a statement Sunday that the group would take the money it receives in damages and “invest every shekel in the Arab youth of Rahat, Tira, Tel Sheva and other cities who are working hard to convince their neighbors to take advantage of their most basic democratic right — the right to vote.”

Likud had petitioned the CEC, the body responsible for overseeing Israel’s elections, to designate Standing Together and Zazim as “entities active in the election.”

Such a designation would have put an immediate end to their mobilization campaign mere days before the national vote on November 1, since only nonpartisan civil society groups are permitted to carry out mobilization campaigns in Israel.

The Likud party argued that the two groups were in effect acting as agents of the Arab parties running in the election, which consistently take the lion’s share of Arab Israeli votes — 81.1% in the most recent election, when Arab turnout hit an historical low of 40%.

An Arab Israeli man votes at a polling station in Maghar, March 23, 2021. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

Alon-Lee Green, a spokesman for Standing Together, argued that mobilizing Arab voters is not a partisan activity.

“Among Arab citizens of Israel, the turnout rate is lower than among Jewish citizens of Israel,” Green said. “To encourage a minority to go out and vote is a democratic issue, not a partisan issue.”

He also pointed to Standing Together’s focus on mobilizing voters in Rahat, Israel’s largest Arab city, where “Likud is the third-largest party” and in last year’s election “got more votes than all the other Zionist parties combined.”

Arab voters turning out in high numbers are more likely to frustrate opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to retake power. While earlier polls indicated that Arab turnout might fall to a new nadir, below 40%, that number has been creeping up recently, thanks in part to mobilization campaigns.

Hadash-Ta’al, the leading Arab slate, may break with its traditional refusal to recommend a prime minister and instead support Yair Lapid’s bid to form a government if he meets certain demands — precisely to foil Netanyahu’s comeback bid. The ideal scenario for Likud would see low Arab turnout putting Hadash-Ta’al below the electoral threshold of 3.25% — an outcome that is seen as unlikely, but not impossible.

Given Israel’s proportional system of allocating seats in the Knesset, the higher the turnout in general, the more votes Likud will need to win each of its seats, which provides the party with an additional incentive to keep Arab turnout low.

Hadash-Ta’al members speak to the media after submitting their list for the upcoming election at the Knesset on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This is not the first election during which Netanyahu and Likud have tried to tamp down Arab turnout through an appeal to the Central Elections Committee. In September 2019, Netanyahu petitioned the CEC to install surveillance cameras at polling stations to combat “voter fraud” by Arabs, which he baselessly depicted as rampant.

Arab rights organizations characterized the ultimately rejected proposal for cameras as an intimidation tactic to suppress the Arab vote, but turnout jumped to almost 60% in that election, as many Arab citizens appeared motivated to vote after feeling a sense of discrimination.

Green believes that Netanyahu’s attempt to shut down the mobilization campaign falls in line with his broader goal of marginalizing Israel’s Arab citizenry.

“It’s a long-term project of Netanyahu’s to repress the Arab vote, not just to affect the results of an election, but also to advance a much larger campaign to lower the [general] representation and participation of Arab citizens in Israel,” he said. “It’s what he did with the Nation-State Law and with over-policing [Arab Israeli political activities] while under-policing gun violence among the Arab minority.”

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