Will Israel’s Arab citizens turn out to vote?

Will Israel’s Arab citizens turn out to vote?

On eve of elections, residents of Tira and Taibe complain of systemic discrimination and neglect of their communities, but some remain determined to go to the polls

Campaign ads line one of the main roads in Tira, an Arab town just north of Kfar Saba, on September 15, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)
Campaign ads line one of the main roads in Tira, an Arab town just north of Kfar Saba, on September 15, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Along the dusty road to Tira, an Arab Israeli town with a population of 26,000, Israel’s left-wing and centrist parties have invested in glossy Arabic-language billboard ads.

“This time, we will be partners in the government,” read a large banner for the Democratic Camp party, featuring the smiling face of Issawi Frej, an Arab Israeli Knesset member from Kafr Qassem who is number 6 on its list.

“A program for equality and integration of Arab citizens” and “Industrial zones in all Arab and Druze towns,” promised a sign featuring Amir Peretz, the leader of the Labor-Gesher alliance.

“I commit to working on your behalf,” declared a billboard with the chiseled visage of Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s Blue and White party.

Right-wing parties, however, have not bothered to hang banners on the main thoroughfare of Tira, where the ruling Likud party garnered only 44 votes in the last election and the somewhat more centrist Kulanu party won 149.

Members of the Hadash, Ta’al and Ra’am parties pose for photographs during a press conference in Nazareth announcing on the reconstitution of the Joint List electoral alliance, July 27, 2019. (Flash90)

The Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, has posted the the highest number of banners around town, most of which did not contain images of candidates. “The more votes for the Joint List, the less for the right-wing,” one said. “The more votes for the Joint List, the higher our status,” said another.

In the last national elections on April 9, fewer than half of Arab voters cast ballots, according to a report by the Israel Democracy Institute, which put Arab turnout in that vote at 49.2%. In contrast, some 63.5% of Arab Israelis cast ballots in the March 2015 ballot, the report said.

A large number of left-wing politicians and activists contend that an increased Arab voter turnout could be key to preventing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a new rightist government.

“If we have the same voter turnout as 2015 — 63% — that would be excellent,” Aida Touma-Sliman, a Knesset member and Joint List candidate, told The Times of Israel.

“A high turnout of Arab and Jewish [non-right-wing] voters could ensure that the Otzma Yehudit party does not enter the Knesset,” she said, referring to the extreme-right Kahanist party. Such a scenario, she added, could make it impossible for Netanyahu to form a right-wing coalition.

Otzma Yehudit has been polling close to the electoral threshold. If it does enter Knesset, its seats could significantly boost Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government.

Arik Rudnitzky, an expert in Arab Israeli politics, said that fewer Arab Israelis voted in the April elections to object to the dissolution of the Joint List, which served together in the Knesset’s previous term, as well as to protest Israeli policies such as the nation-state law. Before the last national vote, the Joint List split into two alliances — Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad, but they reunified in late July after the Knesset dissolved itself, forcing new elections.

The contentious nation-state law, which the Knesset passed in July, enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, and declared Hebrew the state’s sole national language. Many felt that the legislation reduced the country’s non-Jewish minorities to second class citizens.

Last Thursday, a Channel 12 news report said that deceptive billboards appeared ahead of last spring’s vote near Arab towns and villages, calling on Arabs to boycott it. The billboards looked as if they came from within the Arab community, but the channel found that they likely were commissioned and financed by right-wing Jews who hoped to suppress Arab turnout.

But on September 15, two days before this week’s ballot, billboards along Tira’s main road and town square did not bear such posters. In contrast, the square featured a large banner sponsored by a get-out-the-vote campaign with the slogan “This time we’re voting.”

A banner in Tira calling on Israeli Arabs to vote in the upcoming national elections. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

‘The police do nothing’

There were few people outside on Sunday morning in the heat-baked center of Tira, while a modest fountain struggled to push thin jets of water into the air.

At a nearby cafe, Hisham Sultan, 53, smoked a scented nargila while reading a Hebrew newspaper.

“Of course I plan to vote,” he said. “Every person has the right to vote.”

“If we [Arab Israelis] vote, we will be able to block Netanyahu from forming a government,” he declared.

Sultan, who owns a business that makes repairs to gas stations, said that life feels stultifying for many Arab Israelis.

“It’s very hard to get ahead, to develop, there’s a lot of discrimination. How come when one Ethiopian gets killed the whole country shuts down, but when the same happens to us, nobody bats an eye?” he asked.

Sultan said that the single biggest problem that Tira faces is crime and lawlessness.

“There is gunfire every day and the police do nothing. They are nowhere to be found. All they seem to care about is giving out traffic tickets,” he said.

In recent years, Arab Israelis have participated in a significantly higher number of shooting incidents incidents than Jews. According to a 2018 State Comptroller report, Arab Israelis carried out 17.5 times more gunfire-related violations than Jews between 2014 and 2016.

While many Arab Israeli politicians and activists charge that the Israel Police has not taken sufficient action to crack down on violence in their towns, security officials have said they face challenges in gaining the trust of Arab Israelis to aid their investigations.

Hisham Sultan, 53, sitting in a cafe in central Tira on September 15, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Another problem, said Sultan, is the poor quality of schools as well as a dearth of wholesome places for kids to hang out.

“We don’t have parks and we don’t have fields for children to play. If I want to go to a park, I have to go to Ra’anana [a nearby Jewish town]. There is nothing for the kids to do and many parents are worried they will turn to crime,” he said.

Sultan said that on Saturday night, Tira Mayor Mamoun Abdel Hay had circulated through the town with a megaphone, calling on residents to vote.

“He said that we need to vote and that not enough people came out last time,” he said.

Tira, an Arab town just north of Kfar Saba, gave 69 percent of its vote to Arab-majority parties in the last election, 24 percent to Meretz and 2.6 percent to Blue and White.

At a bakery abutting the town square, Ahmad, 21, said he does not plan to vote in Tuesday’s elections.

“The Arab representatives aren’t doing serious work,” Ahmad, who declined to provide his last name, said. “My vote won’t change the reality. It won’t make a difference one way or another. We live and work here but it’s clear that this is a country for Jews.”

‘We should vote so we are strong’

Taibe, a nearby town of 45,000, boasts a green strip in the middle of its main boulevard but few parks and trees. The town’s voter turnout was 62 percent in April, when it gave 88 percent of its vote to Arab-majority parties, 8 percent to Meretz and 1 percent to Blue and White.

In central Taibe, Mohammed, 45, was serving customers at a bustling hummus eatery, pouring lemon-garlic sauce and smashed hot peppers over freshly ground chickpea paste.

“I am leaning towards voting,” Mohammed, who also declined to share his last name, said. “I am still not 100 percent sure for whom.”

“At the end of the day we need representatives in the government. We are lacking many things, like after-school programs for kids, parks, better education, health care infrastructure and permits to build new houses. Sometimes I feel like the Arab representatives represent the Palestinian cause more than us,” he opined.

While the parties that make up the Joint List have frequently commented on and spoken out about issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have also demanded that the state provide more funding for Arab communities, crack down on crime in Arab towns and expedite the process to approve building plans there.

Mohammed said the foremost problem in Taibe is violence.

“Why did the police crack down on crime in Netanya [a Jewish city] and not here?” he lamented, referring to a coastal city north of Tel Aviv.

Infrastructure is also sorely lacking, he added.

“There are 60,000 people in this town,” he said. “Why don’t we have an emergency room? Why don’t we have a college? Why does [the West Bank settlement] Ariel have a college? Why not Taibe?”

Across the street, Aida Shokhra, 62, a clothing stall vendor, said she plans to vote for the Joint List.

“We should vote so we are strong,” she said.

“We want equality for Jews and Arabs,” she said.” I don’t want Netanyahu because I don’t want racism in government. I believe in equal rights.”

Netanyahu drew condemnation in March from Arab Israelis and their allies for stating that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else.” He also courted controversy on election day in 2015 when he published a video urging right-wingers to vote because Arab Israelis were “flocking” to the polls.

Netanyahu’s party Likud also faced intense criticism, including accusations of racism, after it placed more than a thousand cameras with party representatives in polling stations in Arab towns and villages in last elections.

Shokhra complained about the difficulty of obtaining building permits for constructing new houses.

“Jews build settlements on land that does not belong to them and no one stops them. We start building a small home on land that belongs to us and they quickly come to demolish it,” she charged.

A sign in Taibe, an Arab Israeli town in central Israel, on September 15, 2019. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Arab Israeli communities have long suffered from a shortage in housing. They need some 5,000 new housing units per year, Kais Nasser, a lawyer who advises Arab municipalities, told the Haaretz daily in 2017.

At the end of the interview, Shokhra asked jokingly if the two reporters who interviewed her were from Israeli intelligence.

“I don’t care,” she concluded after a moment. “I am speaking to you from my heart.”

The untapped voters

Rudnitzky, the expert in Arab Israeli politics, recently conducted a poll that predicted that in Tuesday’s election, voter turnout among Arab Israelis will rise to 56% compared to last election’s 49%.

Arik Rudnitzky, Researcher, Arab-Jewish Relations Program, Israel Democracy Institute (Courtesy)

But he noted: “Take that number with caution. There are a lot of people on the fence. It could be anywhere from 40 to 60 percent.”

He argued a major reason several of those surveyed said they were undecided was due to Netanyahu and his allies’ recent controversial statements that Arab Israelis have perceived as “hurtful” and “delegitimizing” of their status in society.

“These statements are making many question whether they want to participate in this political system,” he said.

Afif Abu Much, a political activist from Baqa al-Gharbiya, said that in his opinion, there are some 250,000-300,000 Arab Israeli voters who would never vote for the Arab-majority parties, but said left-wing and centrist Zionist parties have failed to win many of them over.

“Blue and White does not have a single Muslim or Christian on their slate. They are acting as if we are living in the 1960s and 1970s when Mapai told Arab voters: ‘Your job is to vote for us but you don’t have a place among us,’” he contended, referring to the party of David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel’s founders. “They want us to vote for them on September 17 but on September 18 they will toss us away. That isn’t going to work. If Blue and White wants Arabs to vote for its list, it needs to put Muslim and Christian representatives on it.”

While Blue and White’s Knesset members come from a wide spectrum of Israeli society including the Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, ultra-Orthodox, Russian-speaking, Ethiopian and Druze communities, none of its lawmakers are Arab Christians or Muslims, who together make up approximately one-fifth of Israel’s population.

Abu Much added that he thinks that the Democratic Camp, too, has not done enough to win over a significant portion of the Arab vote.

“They put Issawi Frej in 6th place but that’s not a significant placement,” he said.

“The Joint List on its own cannot bring enough voters to the polls to make Netanyahu fall,” he remarked. “If the other parties had more Arab representatives on their lists, they would have a chance to topple him.”

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