Newly unified, Israel’s Arab parties seek to boost turnout

Newly unified, Israel’s Arab parties seek to boost turnout

Despite hope that a reconstituted Joint List will increase voter participation, a general lack of confidence in the Knesset could keep many Arab Israelis away from the polls

This picture from September 10, 2019, shows an Israeli election poster of Joint List candidate Youssef Atauna, with a slogan in Arabic reading 'more participation, more effect,' in the the southern Bedouin city of Rahat. (Hazem Bader/AFP)
This picture from September 10, 2019, shows an Israeli election poster of Joint List candidate Youssef Atauna, with a slogan in Arabic reading 'more participation, more effect,' in the the southern Bedouin city of Rahat. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

AFP — At his butcher’s stall in Nazareth, Bassem Zahrur shrugged when asked if he would be enticed to vote for Israel’s newly reunited Arab parties in upcoming elections.

“I stopped voting for them. People have lost confidence,” he said, before evoking the marginalization felt by Israel’s Arab population. “Whether the right or left wins… no one wants us.”

It is a sentiment Israeli Arab politicians are seeking to counter ahead of elections next Tuesday.

The country’s main Arab parties have again formed an alliance in hopes of repeating or beating their performance in 2015 elections, which saw them become the third-largest force in the Knesset.

But they must tackle low turnout figures like those registered in April elections, when their parties were divided.

(L-R) Mtanes Shihadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas, heads of the four Arab-majority parties that form the Joint List, registering their alliance at the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on August 1, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

They also face what are widely seen as attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party to deter Arabs from voting — allegations that have become a major focus in campaigning in recent days.

Netanyahu pushed for last-minute legislation to allow party officials to bring cameras to polling stations, ostensibly to prevent fraud.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many saw it as a bid to depress Arab turnout by intimidating members of the minority into staying away.

The legislation ultimately failed in the Knesset, but during a debate on the measure Wednesday, the head of the mainly Arab Joint List alliance Ayman Odeh used the opportunity to make a point.

Odeh approached Netanyahu in the Knesset and stuck his phone in the premier’s face as if filming him.

‘Let’s go’

“Look at how much they are afraid of our votes!” Odeh said recently at his office in the mixed northern city of Haifa, surrounded by posters of Che Guevara and iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

“So come on, let’s go!” he said.

But his efforts to urge Arabs to vote come after an April poll that saw just 49 percent turnout by the minority, which represents around 20 percent of the country’s nearly 9 million people.

They are descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after Israel’s creation in 1948.

They largely support the Palestinian cause, though Odeh says he wants his party to be for both Arabs and Jews, backing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s second election in five months comes because Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition after April’s vote.

A hidden camera allegedly snuck into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta’al)

Many Arab Israelis recall what happened during that election, when Likud members brought cameras into polling places in Arab areas.

Samy Talal monitored the vote at a school in Umm al-Fahm, an Arab city of 55,000 people.

Alerted by text message, he said he discovered that the head of the voting station, a Likud member, had hidden a camera-pen in his shirt pocket.

Confusion followed and voting was suspended for around half an hour. Talal said some voters left and never came back.

A voting booth in Umm al-Fahm, April 9, 2019 (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

A PR firm behind the Likud operation later boasted on Facebook of what it said was an operation to place cameras in Arab polling places to keep the vote clean.

“And thanks to observers placed on our behalf at every polling station, the percentage of voting has dropped to under 50 percent, the lowest seen in recent years!” said the post, which included a photo featuring the operation’s head Sagi Kaizler and the Netanyahu couple.

Sawsan Zaher of Arab Israeli rights group Adalah, which challenged it in court, said the episode led to a more general anti-Arab climate.

‘Destroy us all’

Netanyahu has been repeatedly accused of demonizing Arab Israelis during campaigns.

The veteran premier warned on election day in 2015 that Israeli Arabs were voting in “droves,” a comment for which he later apologized.

This week, a chatbot on Netanyahu’s Facebook account that said Arabs “want to destroy us all.”

It was deleted by Likud and Netanyahu said a staffer had published it without his knowledge. Facebook said it violated its hate-speech policy.

MK Ahmed Tibi stands between his daughter (L) and wife as he casts his vote during elections for the Knesset on April 9, 2019 in in the northern town of Tayibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

While a newly unified Arab Joint List has given hope to some, candidate Ahmad Tibi says there have been other reasons for the drop in participation.

The prominent Joint List member cites polls showing the main reason Arabs abstain is their lack of confidence in the Knesset, with party divisions accounting for only nine percent.

Beyond that, a number of the 960,000 eligible Arab voters abstain for ideological reasons, refusing to participate in Israeli politics.

Zaher said an Israeli law approved last year declaring the country the nation-state of the Jewish people has discouraged Arabs from voting.

But at his office in Haifa, Odeh remained upbeat.

In April’s polls, “the fact that we were divided lowered turnout. But this time we are united,” he said.

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