Palestinian citizens’ apathy may hand Netanyahu victory
As Israeli voters head to the polls on Nov. 1 for a fifth Knesset election in the space of four years — one that some say could lead to an end of Israel’s democracy — one question is being asked by pundits over and over again: Will the Arab vote matter this time around, as it did in March 2021?
The short answer is probably not. Most polls point to a record low voter turnout among Palestinian citizens at about 40 percent, down from 45 percent in the 2021 elections. In 2020, Arab voter turnout was almost 65 percent, giving the Joint Arab List, a coalition of Palestinian parties, a record 15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
A split in that alliance in 2021 led to Arab parties winning only 10 seats. But while the Joint Arab List deputies sat in the opposition, the head of the United Arab List (Ra’am), Islamist Mansour Abbas, handed Naftali Bennett and partner Yair Lapid his four seats, thus enabling them to form a majority coalition government and deny Benjamin Netanyahu the chance to make a comeback. Abbas was then hailed as kingmaker and, more importantly, he made history by leading an Arab party into an Israeli coalition government for the first time.
When Abbas made a pact with Bennett, a right winger who supports settlers and is against the two-state solution, he was lambasted by Palestinian movements and other Arab MKs.
But it was Bennett’s Jewish coalition partners who finally abandoned him in April, not Abbas, who was accused of staying in the government despite the war on Gaza and the unleashing of more illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank. He was also thought to have betrayed his followers when he declared last December that Israel would always be “a Jewish state.”
The election battle in Israel is now raging between the anti-Netanyahu camp of mostly leftist and centrist parties and the man who has been Israeli prime minister for longer than anyone else in the country’s history. At 72, Netanyahu is now vying to return to power after 16 months in the political wilderness. Whether it is his camp, which now includes many far-right voices, including openly racist ally Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, or the camp now led by caretaker premier Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz that gains the most seats, neither, according to the latest polls, will be able to form a majority government. This is where the Arab vote matters — again.
Ben-Gvir is a Jewish supremacist who was convicted 15 years ago of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism. That alone, pundits say, should drive Palestinian voters to the polls in a bid to defeat his camp.
But the polls suggest that the Joint Arab List and the United Arab List will barely win a combined eight seats. The Joint Arab List recently lost the Balad party, which decided to split and was last week disqualified from running by the Central Elections Committee.
Arab voter apathy, despite the vital importance of this election — which according to Netanyahu’s foes could decide the future of Israeli democracy — has come about for many reasons. The voters feel betrayed by successive governments that have failed to deliver on promises to improve the lives of the Palestinian minority. Added to that is the fragmentation of the Arab parties and the internal bickering that has spilled over, in addition to the feuding between key political figures.
Even though Ra’am was part of the ruling coalition, the Bennett-Lapid government did nothing to end inequalities or the marginalization of Arab communities, which now suffer from gang wars.
In the view of most Palestinian citizens of Israel, all Israeli governments are the same and the differences between Netanyahu and his rivals when it comes to empowering them are minimal.
Still, it is not only Israelis who do not want Netanyahu and his far-right partners to win. The Biden administration in the US would also hate for Netanyahu to return to power. So too Jordan, which had a troubled history of relations with the Likud leader when he was prime minister.
Unconfirmed reports have talked about Jordan trying to convince another influential Palestinian leader to either end his boycott of the elections or not to prevent his followers from going to the polls. Islamist Raed Salah, who has ties to Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, could rejuvenate the Arab communities if he gives a nod of approval. So far, he has not spoken.
The polls suggest that the Joint Arab List and the United Arab List will barely win a combined eight seats.
While the chances of Palestinian voters, who make up less than 20 percent of eligible voters in Israel, changing their minds and going to the polls in droves remain poor, some Israeli analysts believe there is still hope and that their votes will once again play a decisive role in defeating Netanyahu. Failing to do that, they say, will open the way for the extreme right to rule, putting the future of Israel as a state and as a democracy in peril.
Of course, after all is said and done, both camps may fail to reach the magical mark of 61 seats needed to form a government. The question is can Israelis withstand going to the polls a sixth time a few months later and would that change anything?
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010