TAIBE — Senior Joint List politician Ahmad Tibi predicted “unprecedented” gains for the Arab-led alliance in Monday’s vote, which would block Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu from remaining as prime minister.
“Today, we will make history. The Joint List will realize an unprecedented achievement. At least 15 seats. With everyone’s determination, we will move towards 16 seats,” he said.
Tibi, who was surrounded by his mother, daughters, brother and other family members, made the comment before he cast his ballot at the Omar ibn al-Khattab elementary school in his hometown Taibe.
“Our votes, the votes of the Joint List, are what will prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government,” he said.
The Joint List, an alliance of four smaller Arab-led parties, currently holds 13 seats in the Knesset, but polls have shown it going as high as 15. Its forecast is far behind those of major parties Likud and Blue and White, which are predicted to get over 30 seats each, but could be enough to keep Netanyahu and his right-wing allies from forming a majority coalition.
Police officers attempted to prevent Tibi from entering the polling station accompanied by journalists, but they conceded after the lawmaker protested.
“What is permitted for Netanyahu is also permitted for me,” Tibi said.
The police officers said they had been instructed not to allow journalists into the polling stations.
Authorities have allowed reporters in past elections to photograph politicians while they cast their ballots.
In Taibe, an Arab-majority town in central Israel adjacent to the West Bank, residents who spoke to The Times of Israel on Monday morning overwhelmingly said they would cast ballots for the Joint List.
“Is there anyone else worth supporting?” Mohammed, a 45-year-old hummus restaurant owner, asked. “They are the only ones who actually represent us and care about us.”
Large posters encouraging residents to vote for the Joint List lined many of the main streets in Taibe. “Our votes are power,” read one of them.
The city is one of 10 Arab towns that the recently revealed US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “contemplates” placing inside a future Palestinian state, if both Israel and the Palestinians agree to do so.
The idea has been met with fury by many Arab residents, and the Joint List is hoping to turn that anger into increased support, much as it did in the previous vote on the back of anti-Arab rhetoric from Netanyahu.
“This plan is a bunch of nonsense,” said Marwan Sharif, a 57-year-old teacher, who added that he thought the plan was motivating Arabs to vote in the election.
“We are citizens who deserve all of our rights. This plan, which I call the steal of the century, should not determine our future,” he said.
Netanyahu, who has welcomed the US initiative, has recently tried to distance himself from that part of the plan and said it would not be pursued. The idea was first proposed over a decade ago by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, but many Israelis have rejected it as racist.
At the Omar ibn al-Khattab school, a steady stream of voters made their way to the polling booths. A polling official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that most residents ordinarily come in the afternoon and evening.
Mohammed, a 28-year-old occupational therapist, said that he believed that turnout would be higher on Monday than in the past two national elections in April and September.
“People are fed up with the incitement and racism by Netanyahu,” he said. “They want to see him go and they know that if enough of us vote, he will be gone for good.”
Netanyahu has made attempts to reach out to Arabs in recent weeks, highlighting investments the government has made in Arab communities under his leadership.
But during his campaign before last September’s vote, he tried and failed to push a bill through the Knesset to allow party observers to bring cameras into polling stations in what his Likud party claimed was an effort to prevent rampant voter fraud in Arab communities. Those who opposed the bill, he said at the time, were “stealing the elections.”
Netanyahu’s Facebook chatbot also stated last September that Arabs “want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.” The prime minister later denied he wrote the statement, blaming it on a campaign staffer.
Moreover, Netanyahu has repeatedly suggested that the Joint List lacks the legitimacy to be involved in government decision-making and tried to encourage his right-wing supporters to vote by claiming that Arabs were turning out to the polls in high numbers.
Arab turnout stood at 59.2% in September; in comparison it only reached 49.2% in the national elections that took place in April.
The increased turnout in September compared to April was widely attributed to Netanyahu’s rhetoric ahead of the former vote.
Mohammed said that he hopes that the Joint List will either join a governing coalition or support one from the opposition. He said the town, where streets are pocked with potholes and other infrastructure is dilapidated, had issues that needed to be addressed.
Arab communities suffer from widespread crime and violence, a shortage of permits to build new homes and structures, and insufficient municipal budgets, among other issues.
“It does not matter how we wield influence — whether it is inside or outside a government,” he said. “We have many problems that need solutions. So whatever is needed to resolve them should be done.”