Leading pollsters reported dramatically reduced turnout in Arab towns in the Knesset elections as of late Tuesday afternoon, amid an overall dip in voter participation rates.
While voting results cannot be released until polls close at 10 p.m., pollsters told media outlets their exit polls showed a very low number of voters in the Arab sector. Channel 12 commentator Amnon Abramovich predicted the Arab turnout could be lower than ever before in Israeli history. After 6 p.m., with less than four hours left to vote, Arab turnout was at 30%, Channel 12 reported, citing unofficial figures; in 2015, turnout in the Arab sector was 63%.
Camil Fuchs, one of Israel’s most prominent pollsters, was quoted by Channel 13 journalist Raviv Drucker as saying, “Voter turnout in the Arab community like this is something we’ve never seen before.”
A poor performance by the Arab parties, combined with talk of weak showings by center-left Labor and left-wing Meretz, would reduce Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s victory prospects and improve Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of retaining power, since it would mean a relatively weak centrist-left-Arab bloc, and more Knesset seats for Likud’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies.
Two major Arab lists are running in Tuesday’s elections. In a final pre-election poll last Friday, Hadash-Ta’al, a merger of two parties from the outgoing Knesset’s Joint (Arab) List, had six seats; the Ra’am-Balad alliance of Arab factions received four seats, just above the electoral threshold. Channel 12 reported at 8.45 p.m. that both parties feared they might fall below the threshold.
Mano Geva, another well-known pollster, told Channel 12 that polls in Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm and other Arab population centers showed startlingly low numbers of voters arriving at polling stations.
According to the Hadash-Ta’al electoral alliance, as of 3:30 p.m. some 20 percent of Arab voters had cast ballots.
Ayman Odeh, the leader of Hadash-Ta’al, warned low turnout among Arab voters could mean a “Knesset without Arab representation.”
“We’re moving forward with all our strength, going door to door and calling on people to go out and vote. Our nightmare, which is Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] fantasy — a Knesset without Arab representation — suddenly looks like a realistic possibility,” Odeh said in a statement.
“I know ‘gevalt’ is Yiddish,” he quipped — such warnings to voters on election day are termed “gevalt campaigns” in the Hebrew press — “but our fears for our children’s future are universal.”
Veteran lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, no. 2 on the Hadash-Ta’al list, said the reported low turnout was a “real danger” to both his party and Ra’am-Balad, another alliance of Arab factions.
“A very serious blow to Arab representation in the Knesset,” Tibi wrote on Twitter.
There was no immediate comment from Ra’am-Balad.
In Shfaram, Umm al-Fahm and other predominately Arab localities, staff and activists at polling stations told The Times of Israel that voting rates were far lower than in the last elections in 2015.
Nationally, the Central Elections Committee reported 52 percent turnout as of 6 p.m., down from 54.6% at the same in the 2015 elections. The committee said a total of 3,296,250 Israelis had cast votes.
It was not initially clear what was contributing to the reported low turnout among Arab voters, but some cited a feeling their votes didn’t matter, while others noted it may be tied to the breakup of the Joint List, which included the four Arab parties running this election.
The reports of low turnout came after it was revealed Netanyahu’s Likud party had dispatched 1,200 election-day observers equipped with cameras to polling stations in Arab communities.
Party officials told the Kan public broadcaster that Likud activists were hired to counter what it claimed were widespread voter irregularities, in areas it said were at high risk of voter fraud.
Hadash-Ta’al submitted a complaint about the hidden cameras to the Central Elections Committee, which determined that the recording devices violated election laws.
Hadash-Ta’al alleged in its complaint that the “illegal” action by the “extremist right” 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.
According to Kan, police have opened an investigation into the Likud observers.
Netanyahu and the party’s attorney defended the surveillance, saying the measure was necessary to prevent widespread voter fraud.
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, meanwhile, released a video branding Netanyahu a “racist” and calling on Arab Israelis to vote.
“It is your right to vote, your right to be elected,” Gabbay said. “Jews, Arabs, Druze and Muslims, go out and vote.”
Tamar Pileggi contributed to this report.