Low voter turnout projected among Arab Israelis amid frustration, party squabbles

Pollsters predict just 40% of Arabs will cast ballots in November vote, a 25-point drop from 2020 elections; widespread disappointment with Ra’am, Joint List seen as cause

Ra'am party chief Mansour Abbas (L) speaks with his party MK Mazen Ghanaim (R) during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ra'am party chief Mansour Abbas (L) speaks with his party MK Mazen Ghanaim (R) during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the public stares down its fifth elections in three and half years, widespread voter apathy is likely to again keep many Arab Israelis at home in November, pollsters and analysts said.

Two years ago, the four Arab parties rode a wave of high turnout — 65 percent of eligible Arab voters — to a record 15 seats in the Knesset. But the last two tempestuous years in Israeli politics have left both the Joint List bloc and the Islamist Ra’am party deeply battered.

Just 40 percent of Arab Israelis plan to vote in the coming election, a 4.6-point drop from last year’s elections and a 25-point drop compared to 2020, said veteran pollster Yousef Makladeh.

“The general sense is that we tried to unite as the Joint List and it didn’t pay off. We tried to enter the coalition as Ra’am, and it also didn’t pay off,” said Makladeh, who has conducted internal surveys for both Ra’am and the Joint List.

Many Arabs hoped that Ra’am, the first independent Arab party to join a coalition government, would be able to positively shape policy. Party leader Mansour Abbas pledged to increase investment in Arab communities and fight a crime wave sweeping through Arab cities.

Ra’am lawmakers hail the over NIS 30 billion ($8.6 billion) in funding allocated to fix historic neglect in Arab cities and towns as a key achievement. But much of the money is caught up in red tape, and most Arab Israelis say they do not feel a change in their communities.

Left to right: Then-members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with then-president Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“If the government had been more stable and Mansour Abbas’s political initiative had more time to be realized, perhaps we would have been in a different situation. But that’s not how it turned out,” said Arik Rudnitsky, who researches Arab Israeli society and politics at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Mohammad Darawshe, an Arab Israeli political commentator, agreed: “We can intellectualize it, and say that political processes take time. But that’s not convincing to the people who voted.”

Critics also accuse Abbas of neglecting the Palestinian national cause. The Ra’am leader was clear from the start that he would defer those issues in exchange for tangible advances for Arab Israelis.

But Abbas’s stance became increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of rising tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Violent riots at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound in April shook the flashpoint holy site, prompting Ra’am to temporarily freeze its membership in the coalition.

“At the end of the day, Abbas was very disciplined. This also sparked anger among Arab Israeli voters — how is Abbas more committed to the lifespan of this right-wing government than Idit Silman or Amichai Shikli?” said Rudnitsky, referring to two dissident members of outgoing premier Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party.

In contrast with Ra’am, the Joint List has excelled “at expressing the anger and frustration of the Arab community and the pain of Arab citizens,” said Darawshe.

But it is also far from clear what the Arab bloc could do differently this time around. While interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid has signaled his willingness to work with them in the past, right-wing Jewish lawmakers he would likely need to govern say their support is unacceptable.

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

In March 2020, the four major Arab parties — running together as the Joint List — received a near-record turnout. With 15 seats, the bloc hoped to join a center-left coalition and push for change on issues that mattered to Arab Israelis.

The high turnout was spurred in part by an immensely controversial 2018 law that declared Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. Arab Israelis decried the legislation, saying it effectively turned them into second-class citizens.

In response, many Arab voters cast their ballots with the law in mind. “You don’t want us in, we will try to force ourselves in,” said Darawshe, describing the attitude of the Arab public at the time.

But key right-wing members of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party refused to countenance Joint List support. Gantz eventually gave the Arab parties the cold shoulder and entered a short-lived government with former premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the next election cycle, Ra’am’s lawmakers broke off from the Joint List and ran on their own. Most analysts expected the Islamists to crash and burn, but Ra’am managed to slip past the electoral threshold with four seats, becoming kingmakers overnight.

But Arab turnout dropped by around 20 points between the 2020 and 2021 elections. The failure of the Joint List’s attempt to join the coalition played a role, as did the vicious mudslinging between the competing Arab parties after the rupture.

The bitter rhetoric between Ra’am and the Joint List seems poised to continue during the coming four-month campaign. On Thursday, the Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi called Mansour Abbas an “ass-kisser” for Netanyahu during a Knesset row, in vulgar colloquial Arabic.

“This is exactly the kind of behavior that is going to drive down voter turnout even more. [Arab voters] look at this and think that the politicians care about their seats in the Knesset, nothing more,” said Makladeh.

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