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Analysis'There's a kind of political depression'

For Arab Israelis, it all hinges on turnout as Ra’am hovers at voter threshold

Polls project drop in Arab vote from 2020, when Joint List scored 15 seats; now the party is poised to fall to 7 or 8, and Ra’am, which split off from it, may not make it in

Ra'am candidate Mansour Abbas addresses Arab voters in Kafr Kanna on February 22, 2021 (Courtesy: United Arab List)
Ra'am candidate Mansour Abbas addresses Arab voters in Kafr Kanna on February 22, 2021 (Courtesy: United Arab List)

High turnout and enthusiasm among Arab Israelis catapulted the Joint List to 15 Knesset seats in March 2020. But the Arab parties saw relatively few legislative accomplishments, despite their combined slate’s large number of seats.

On Tuesday, battered by a year of infighting amidst their shattered coalition, Israel’s fourth elections find Arab Israelis divided and disillusioned, with fewer likely to vote than in 2020.

According to recent opinion polling, only around 59 percent of Arab Israelis plan to vote in the coming election, a six-point drop from 2020. Earlier surveys had predicted even harsher drops, although enthusiasm seemed to grow slightly in recent weeks.

“There’s a kind of political depression,” said veteran Arab Israeli pollster Yousef Makladeh, who blames the relentless conflict between the current Joint List parties and breakaway Ra’am.

Balad chief Sami Abou Shehadeh addresses voters in Arraba on March 13, 2021. (Joint List)

Ra’am split from the Joint List in early February amid leader Mansour Abbas’s push for a different style of Arab Israeli politics. Abbas had provoked widespread controversy among Arab Israelis when he said he would serve in a Netanyahu-led government, crossing what the other three Arab parties consider a red line.

Makladeh emphasized to The Times of Israel that the situation remains fluid. Numerous factors, such as the high number of Arab Israelis in quarantine, could depress turnout even further.

“If the turnout is closer to 55% — which was predicted earlier — we could see the Joint List getting seven seats and Ra’am not passing at all,” Makladeh said.

The opposing Arab factions have been at each others’ throats ever since the split became official in February. The two sides were unable to even sign a surplus votes agreement, with the attempt collapsing into recriminations.

“When everything is so verbally violent, and everyone is attacking and calling each other traitors and demonizing one another, the first to benefit are the Zionist parties, even as the voter level goes down,” Makladeh said.

But Arab Israeli voter turnout on Tuesday is likely to shape not only the future of Arab Israeli politics. It has the potential to change the Israeli political map.

Perhaps more significantly, if Ra’am passes the 3.25% voter threshold required to enter the Knesset, Israeli politics will see a new and powerful kingmaker enter the scene. For the first time in Israeli history, an Arab party might have a shot at determining who becomes Israel’s next prime minister.

Ra’am party chairman and Joint List MK Mansour Abbas at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 11, 2020. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

A slightly higher Arab turnout of around 59% would likely be enough to see Ra’am pass the threshold and take at least four seats, Makladeh said.

It would be politically difficult for Netanyahu to welcome Abbas’s Islamists into the coalition. The prime minister has in fact already forsworn offering Abbas a spot in his government, instead urging Ra’am voters to vote directly for the Likud.

But in politics, yesterday’s sworn enemies are tomorrow’s partners of necessity.  And while many dismissed Ra’am’s chances back in February, the polls now give Abbas’s movement more than a fighting chance in Tuesday’s vote.

If Abbas crosses the threshold, his party could wield enormous leverage in the deadlocked battleground of Israeli politics — a tempting four seats that would be hard to refuse.

“If Netanyahu needs those four seats to support his government, he will tell his right-wing partners such as [Itamar] Ben Gvir to shut up, and Ra’am will be ready to join,” said researcher Arik Rudnitsky, who studies Arab Israeli politics at the Israel Democracy Institute.

When the Joint List split in February, observers largely believed that Ra’am would fall under the election threshold — wasting tens of thousands of Arab votes. Yet in poll after poll in recent days, the Islamists have been projected to clinch Knesset seats.

An electoral billboard by the predominantly Arab Israeli electoral alliance the Joint List depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption reading in Arabic “the father of the nation-state law, says ‘a new approach’, whom is he fooling?” is seen above protesters during a demonstration by Arab Israelis in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel on March 5, 2021, against organized crime and calling upon the Israeli police to stop a wave of intra-communal violence. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Some ascribe Ra’am’s enduring support to its origins as the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement. The movement runs a network of charities and operates educational and religious facilities, giving them deep roots — especially in southern Israel.

“Ra’am’s strength is far greater than we realize. Their network is extremely strong, especially in the Negev, and it gives them the infrastructure to cultivate support,” one Joint List official gloomily speculated to The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Moreover, a surprising number of Arab Israelis might actually support Ra’am’s theory of change — even if they might hesitate to cast their ballot for conservative Islamists on election day.

In a recent survey conducted by Rudnitsky, 46% of Arab Israelis said they believed it was desirable for the Arab parties to be in any governing coalition — not just a center-left one. While some in the Joint List still balk at participating in any government, Ra’am has embraced the possibility.

Abu Yair

The fourth election in two years could feel like déjà vu for many Israelis, with some already speculating that a fifth round could be imminent.

However, this round has seen some completely new elements, most conspicuously Netanyahu’s vigorous campaign to win Arab votes.

Arab Israelis watched incredulously as Netanyahu — calling himself by the Arabic-language nickname “Abu Yair (Father of Yair)” — held press conferences with Arab mayors, drank coffee with local Bedouin leaders, and pledged to solve the Arab community’s problems.

“Vote Likud, Vote Abu Yair,” Netanyahu said in a last-minute video, released on Saturday night, promising direct flights from Israel to Mecca to ferry Muslim Arabs on Islam’s sacred Hajj pilgrimage.

Bedouin women walk past campaign billboards for Israel’s right-wing Likud party bearing a picture of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Bedouin town of Rahat near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on March 10, 2021. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)

It’s a strange turn for Netanyahu, who has not hesitated to vilify Arabs in previous election campaigns, and whose government many Arab Israelis blame for what they see as discriminatory legislation: the 2018 nation-state law, which downgraded the official status of Arabic, and a 2017 law targeting illegal Arab construction.

Nonetheless, according to Rudnitsky’s survey, around 1.6 seats’ worth of Arab votes will head to the Likud on March 23.

“The Likud is set to take around 10,000 votes in the Negev among Bedouins. They also take votes among the Druze, about 25-30% of Druze votes,” Makladeh said.

Rudnitsky pointed to organized crime as a factor that could play a role in spurring direct support for Likud among Arab Israelis. Ending the rising violence and organized crime in their communities is consistently named as the highest priority for Arab Israelis in opinion polls.

Netanyahu has promised to act on the issue, saying he intends to pass a multi-billion-shekel plan to combat the phenomenon. For some, attempting to achieve basic personal security could trump other ideological concerns.

“When it comes to organized crime, and the ability to bring results — this plays to Bibi’s strengths,” Rudnitsky said, referring to Netanyahu by his other nickname.

When the polls close tomorrow, whether Ra’am passes or whether the Joint List gets seven seats or nine, Netanyahu will likely be able to chalk up a major victory to his political maneuvering among Arab Israelis.

A large bloc of Netanyahu’s rivals has spent the elections fighting one another, rather than him. If Ra’am enters the Knesset, Netanyahu will have a potential partner who could hand him another term in power — breaking a deadlock that has endured over four elections.

But if Ra’am fails to pass the threshold, the prime minister will have slashed his Arab opposition in half in a single election. The relative share of the Knesset among Jewish parties — including among Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners — will swell accordingly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Arab city of Nazareth on January 13, 2021. (Gil Eliyahu/POOL/AFP)

And, after last year’s dizzying success, the Joint List will likely have to stand in front of its community and try to spin a steep drop from 15 seats to as few as seven or eight.

In a last-minute plea, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh urged Arab Israelis to head to the polls to head off a Netanyahu-led government.

“Every seat we get takes two seats from the alliance of Netanyahu, [Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Religious Zionism party head Bezalel] Smotrich, who are the most dangerous extremist right-wing coalition for us and our children,” Odeh said.

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