NAZARETH — Members of the Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, immediately raised their arms in celebration late Tuesday after Israeli television stations published exit polls which projected that the party would win as many as 13 seats in the Knesset.
They then smiled and started applauding seconds later after all the TV channels predicted that the far-right Otzma Yehudit party did not receive enough votes to pass the electoral threshold.
The results were almost a complete reversal from fears of low voter turnout in Arab-majority cities and a rise of the extreme right. And they only got better. Updated exit poll results released hours later showed Joint List getting as many as 15 seats, according to Channel 13 news, with other channels also upping their totals to 13.
Standing on a makeshift stage at an Arabic-language radio station headquarters in Nazareth, party candidates delivered impassioned speeches and predicted the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.
“We feel good that [Netanyahu] cannot form a government,” Joint List leader Ayman Odeh stated, speaking to a cluster of activists and journalists. “We also feel good that the Otzma Yehudit party failed to enter the Knesset.”
Netanyahu has been accused of centering his campaigns on suppressing the Arab vote while “warning” supporters that they needed to counterbalance high turnout in Arab areas, drawing charges of racism.
Odeh said Netanyahu’s repeated attacks had boosted turnout and hurt him in the end.
“There’s a heavy price to pay for incitement,” he told Channel 13.
Exit polls and early results showed a deadlock between Netanyahu’s Likud and centrist rival Blue and White, with neither party having a clear path to forming a government with natural allies.
With coalition wangling set to get underway, the parties will likely need to reach across the aisle or pursue a unity government, though Blue and White can also possibly pull support from the Arab parties for a mandate to begin coalition negotiations.
Asked whether the Joint List would recommend Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin to serve as prime minister, Joint List candidate and MK Aida Touma-Sliman did not rule out the possibility that the party would do so.
“We first must wait for the final results and hear what Gantz has to say. Then we need to sit down and study the political map and decide,” she told The Times of Israel.
A Joint List spokesman confirmed on Wednesday that Gantz called Odeh in the early morning and that the two agreed to meet.
Party candidate Mansour Abbas said that in order for the Joint List to consider recommending Gantz, it would need clear pledges from him to renew the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and Israelis, fight crime in Arab communities, provide greater budgets to Arab municipalities and increase approvals of building permits in Arab towns.
Following the last elections, the two Arab-majority slates which now make up the Joint List did not recommend any party to Rivlin.
Speaking to supporters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu kept up his attacks on the Arab factions, vowing to block a government that included “parties that praise and glorify blood-thirsty terrorists who kill our soldiers, our citizens, our children.”
The acrimony was mutual.
“The era of Benjamin Netanyahu has come to a close,” Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi said from the stage in Nazareth, emphasizing that “the end of Netanyahu means ‘The Deal of the Century’ has fallen.”
“The Deal of the Century” is derogatory term used to refer to the Trump administration’s peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Odeh vowed that the Joint List would work to fight crime in Arab communities, bring greater budgets to them and legalize homes at risk of demolition in them.
Odeh also contended that the Joint List had erred in splitting up into two separate slates — Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad — ahead of the last national elections in April.
“We made a mistake five months ago. The chance to fix that mistake came quickly. We took advantage of that opportunity and we rebuilt the Joint List,” he said.
The Joint List reunified in late July after the Knesset dissolved itself in May, forcing new elections.
Aaed Kayel, the Joint List’s campaign manager, said that he could not provide precise data on turnout in Arab communities, but said he believed it rose above 60%.
“Without a doubt, the turnout in the Arab community was greater than our expectations,” he said.
In the last elections, fewer than half of Arab voters cast ballots, according to a report by the Israel Democracy Institute, which put Arab turnout in that vote at 49.2%. In contrast, some 63.5% of Arab Israelis cast ballots in the March 2015 ballot, the report said.
He also said 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.”
In addition to claiming Arabs were voting in high numbers, Netanyahu recently accused anyone who opposed a bill his party proposed to place cameras in voting booths, including Arabs, of supporting stealing the elections. Also, Netanyahu’s Facebook page said Arabs “want to destroy us all – women, children and men.”
Netanyahu later denied he wrote the statement on his Facebook page, blaming it on a campaign staffer.
In 2015, Netanyahu also courted controversy on election day in 2015 when he published a video urging right-wingers to vote because Arab Israelis were “flocking” to the polls.
By midnight, most of the Joint List members and reporters had left the radio station headquarters.
Hours later, Tibi tweeted: “We flocked to the polls in droves.”