Fewer than half of eligible Arab Israelis, including Druze, voted in Israel’s national elections in April, according to a new Israel Democracy Institute report. The new study puts the Arab turnout lower than previous estimates, which had already shown voting levels in the Arab sector to be well below than in previous elections.
The IDI estimate put Arab turnout on April 9 at 49.2%. By comparison, some 63.5% of Arab Israelis cast ballots in the March 2015 national elections, the IDI report said.
The IDI’s figures show 2019 turnout in the Arab sector to have been the lowest in 20 years. Some analysts have said the turnout was the lowest in Israeli history.
IDI’s calculations were lower than those of Yousef Makladeh, an Arab Israeli statistician, who said that an estimated 52% of Arab Israelis voted in the elections in April. For 2015, Makladeh’s estimate was closer to that of the IDI, at 63.7%.
It is essentially not possible to determine the precise overall Arab voter turnout because official data does not indicate how many Arabs and Jews cast ballots in mixed cities such as Jaffa.
Arik Rudnitzky, the researcher who authored the IDI report, said that fewer Arabs voted in the most recent elections compared to those in 2015 partly to protest Israeli policies such as the nation-state law.
“The nation-state law created a major obstacle to participation for Arabs in this election,” he said in a phone call with The Times of Israel.
The law, which the Knesset passed July 2018, enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, and in contrast to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, included no reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens.
Many Arab leaders have panned the legislation, with some going as far as to call it “racist.” Tens of thousands of Arab and Jewish Israelis also participated in demonstrations against it, in the weeks following its passage.
Rudnitzky also assessed that fewer Arabs turned out to vote partially to object to the dissolution of the Joint List, an alliance of the four largest Arab-majority parties that served together in the Knesset’s last term.
Following several rounds of negotiations in February, the Joint List failed to come to an agreement to run together in elections last month. Instead, its four key constituent factions ran on two separate lists, and won 10 seats between them, three fewer than the Joint List won in 2015.
The Joint List was formed in January 2015 after the Knesset raised the electoral threshold for entry to the 120-seat Knesset from 2% to 3.25%, sparking fears that running alone, the smaller parties wouldn’t get in.
Another factor that has been cited in reducing Arab turnout was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party dispatched 1,200 observers equipped with cameras to polling stations in Arab communities on election day in what it said were areas at high risk of voter fraud.
On the day, Hadash-Ta’al and Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka submitted a complaint about the hidden cameras to the Central Elections Committee, which determined that the recording devices violated election laws. Zahalka alleged in its complaint that the “illegal” action was a bid to intimidate Arabs from exercising their right to vote. Committee chair Justice Hanan Melcer said the law only permitted filming at polling stations during “extraordinary circumstances,” and ordered Likud to remove its recording equipment.
The cameras were reportedly deployed at the initiative of Netanyahu. Carried out by Kaizler Inbar, a pro-settler public relations firm, the operation included 1,200 cameras and recording devices, 40 coordinators throughout the country and 19 security force personnel dispatched to protect the activists in the event they were caught. Kaizler Inbar subsequently boasted that the campaign had deterred Arab voters. In a Facebook post, it directly linked the campaign to the low voter turnout among Arab Israelis, bragging it was “the lowest that was seen in recent years!”
However, Arab residents of Tamra and Shfaram who spoke to The Times of Israel on April 9, including some who said they did not plan to cast a ballot, said the cameras did not intimidate them.
The IDI report found that 52% of Arabs living in Arab villages in northern Israel voted on Election Day, while 49.9% residing in Arab towns in the triangle (Arab towns in central Israel close to the West Bank) cast ballots, 41.5% dwelling in Arab localities in Jerusalem area did so and 37.5% living in Bedouin communities in the Negev did as well.
Rudnitzky said Bedouins in the Negev have traditionally voted in low numbers, taking more interest in tribal and local leadership than the Knesset. He also said that Bedouins who cast ballots in April mostly supported the Ra’am-Balad party, which won four seats, narrowly clearing the Knesset threshold. The other Arab list, Hadash-Ta’al, won six seats.
In some cases, Bedouins in the Negev, who live in towns that Israel does not recognize, also have to travel long distances to neighboring communities to vote.
The report said 28.4% of Arab Israeli voters cast ballots for Zionist parties, with Meretz receiving 8.7% of the overall Arab vote, Blue and White obtaining 8.1% and Likud 2.3%.
Eighteen percent of Arab Israelis voters supported Zionist parties in the election in 2015 and 22% did so in 2013, according to Rudnitzky, who argued that the increase in support for Zionist parties does not indicate a shift in Arab Israeli society.
“Basically there were many Arab voters who voted for Arab parties in past elections but sat out this time, raising the percentage of Arab voters for Jewish parties,” he said.
The report noted that Hadash-Ta’al won 39.3% of the total Arab Israeli vote, whereas Ra’am-Balad received 31.5% of it.
Hadash-Ta’al is an alliance of a socialist party that emphasizes Arab-Jewish partnership (Hadash) and an exclusively Arab faction (Ta’al); Ra’am-Balad is a coalition of an Islamist party (Ra’am) and a nationalist faction (Balad).
The report also stated that a plurality of Arab Christians, 45%, voted for Hadash-Ta’al. In comparison, 8.7% of Arab Christians cast ballots for Ra’am-Balad, 16.9% for Meretz and 15.9% for Blue and White.
Aida Touma-Sliman, the number three candidate on Hadash-Ta’al’s list, is Christian.