In northern Israel, Ra’am makes final push to cross election threshold

Arab areas reportedly see lower turnout than expected, leaving both the Joint List and the breakaway Ra’am faction worried

Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas casts his vote in his hometown of Maghar in northern Israel, March 23, 2021. (Ra'am Spokesperson)
Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas casts his vote in his hometown of Maghar in northern Israel, March 23, 2021. (Ra'am Spokesperson)

In northern Israel, the Arab parties were fighting an uphill battle against predicted low voter turnout Tuesday, with Ra’am seeking to break through the election threshold.

While the Arab parties have run together in a four-party bloc known as the Joint List in most elections since 2015, the coalition broke apart in early February.

The conservative, Islamist Ra’am left the bloc after its leadership took positions that the other parties saw as crossing red lines — including contemplating an alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

On Tuesday morning, Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas cast his vote in a quiet schoolyard square in his hometown of Maghar in northern Israel, flanked by bodyguards.

Abbas said he was optimistic that he would pass the electoral threshold. Ra’am has seen increasingly favorable polling in recent weeks.

“We’re looking for meaningful representation for Arab Israelis, representation that can influence decision-making,” Abbas told reporters.

The Joint List, led by Hadash faction chair Ayman Odeh, has been strongly critical of Abbas’s political approach, which it charges has not brought results for Arab Israelis.

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

Abbas said that “every party that hopes to be in power” has sought to reach out to Ra’am in the past few weeks.

“They are checking to see our stance. We don’t have an unequivocal answer, but we will put forward our demands,” Abbas said.

Asked directly whether he would join Netanyahu in the next government, Abbas repeated his main slogan of the previous campaign: “Whoever comes toward us, we’ll work with them.”

“I don’t rule out the possibility,” Abbas said, before setting off for Ra’am party headquarters in Tamra.

On Tuesday, battered by a year of infighting amidst their shattered coalition, only around 59 percent of Arab Israelis planned to vote in the coming election, a six-point drop from 2020.

As of 1 p.m. only around 13%-14% of Arab Israelis had voted, meaning that the expected turnout could be as low as 55%, according to the Haaretz daily.

In the neighboring city of Sakhnin, the Islamic Movement appeared to see widespread support — stoked, residents said, by the appearance of former Sakhnin mayor Mazen Ghanaim on Ra’am’s list. Many in Sakhnin belong to the extended Ghanaim family.

Many voters casting their ballots in Sakhnin also mentioned the issue of violence and organized crime as a key motivation for turning out to vote.

Sham Ghali, 18, a Ra’am voter in Sakhnin, on March 23, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

“We need to see solutions, especially solutions for the violence issue,” said Sham Ghali, an 18-year-old mathematics student at Haifa University who voted for Ra’am.

Others said that they supported Mansour Abbas’s political approach — although not everyone was willing to follow him all the way.

“I want to change things. I want to see something new. It can’t be that we’ve been in the opposition for 40 years,” said Mohammad Ghanaim, a photographer who cast his vote for Ra’am.

But asked whether he would support Abbas entering a coalition with Netanyahu, Mohammad hesitated.

“No, no, I don’t think he would do that. I hope not,” Mohammad said.

Mazen Ghanaim, the former Sakhnin mayor and ex-soccer star, made an appearance at the Salam Elementary School in the city to gladhand local residents.

Ra’am candidate Mazen Ghanaim visits a polling place in his hometown of Sakhnin on March 23, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

“We’re entering the Knesset to put an end to the racist laws against our community in Israel,” Ghanaim told The Times of Israel, saying he was optimistic that Ra’am would pass despite the lower turnout.

Back in Maghar, however, a number of voters said they were going to vote for the Joint List. One man, who identified himself as Abu Eid, blamed Ra’am for splintering Arab Israelis’ political unity.

“Mansour Abbas? He’s my neighbor, I’ve known him since he was this big,” Abu Eid said, lowering his hand nearly to the ground. “He’s always wanted to get into the Knesset.”

But Abu Eid said he was not voting for Abbas on Tuesday, but rather for the Joint List. He said his decision had to do with his family being displaced in 1948 during the Israeli War of Independence, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or disaster.

“I was born in 1948 — do you understand what that means? They took our land. There once was a place, known as Halisa, where Kiryat Shemona now is,” said Abu Eid. “If we don’t look back, we won’t see anything going forward.”

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