Now that Israel has raised the vote threshold for Knesset representation, shouldn’t Israeli Arabs think strategically about their participation and representation in the Knesset? In the months leading up to the Knesset vote, the loudest opponents of the threshold bill imputed conspiratorial motives to its supporters. Arab MKs especially seized upon Yisrael Beytenu’s sponsorship of the measure as an indication that raising the minimum requirement for Knesset seats from two percent to 3.25% was intended to eliminate Arab representation in the Israeli legislature.
Shunted aside in this narrative was the fact that two Jewish religious parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, also had concerns, seeing in the legislation another effort by the government to marginalize them further after they were excluded from the government coalition. Other, smaller Jewish parties that appeal to distinct segments of Israeli society – without much success – objected as well.
Also ignored by veteran Arab MKs who denounced the new law, such as Ahmed Tibi and Jamal Zahalka, is that much of the blame for their parties’ weakness is low voter turnout in their own community. While some have argued that not voting is a way for Arabs to register a protest against the Israeli government, surveys of Arab voters suggest that disenchantment with the current roster of Arab political parties has largely deterred them from participating in elections.
Seventy-six percent of Arab voters support the creation of one unified Arab list, according to a Haifa University survey taken before the previous national elections in January 2013. In an Abraham Fund survey done at the same time, 59% said Election Day participation would increase if Arab Knesset candidates ran on one party list.
Arab voter turnout, at one time comparable to that of the Jewish community, dropped from 75% in 1999 to 18% in 2001; 62% in 2003; 56% in 2006; 53% in 2009; and 56% in 2013.
While the dramatic drop in 2001 was due to an organized boycott in response to Israel’s Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon, the reason the Arab vote has never fully recovered is in large measure due to attitudes toward Arab MKs, who have focused on the Palestinian Authority agenda vis-à-vis Israel rather than on the priority concerns of Arab citizens – access to quality education, employment, health, housing, the economy and conditions in their towns and villages.
The large proportion of Arab voters who stay home on election day has hindered the minority community’s electoral potential. Arab citizens could elect at least 18 MKs if they came out to vote in force. Currently, only 10 of the 12 Arabs in the parliament are from Arab parties. One is with Meretz and, ironically, another represents Yisrael Beytenu. Labor, Likud and other Jewish parties apparently no longer consider themselves obligated to place Arab candidates high enough on their lists to get into the Knesset.
For Arab citizens who believe that Arab rather than Jewish parties would best serve their interests, a shake-up may be in order. There is precedent for this. The United Arab List, the only Arab party that would have been elected to the Knesset had the new threshold been in place in the last elections, is a combination of previously separate parties. Clearly, mergers are possible and possibly beneficial.
Alternatively, it may be time for a new party that would appeal more broadly to the general Arab electorate.
With the right leadership and support from different sectors of Israel’s Arab communities, the creation of such a party could encourage greater voter turnout. And if successful at the polls, it might even gain enough Knesset seats to be considered seriously as a member of the next coalition government. That would be an enormous breakthrough for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.
Raising the voter threshold was intended to improve overall Israel’s democracy, to reduce the fragmentation of national politics by effectively limiting the number of parties coming together to form a coalition after the elections. It had nothing to do with hurting the Arab parties.
“A system that encourages small parties is also one that discourages compromise,” columnist Shmuel Rosner has observed. “It is true that in a country as varied and complicated as Israel the representation of minorities is crucial – but for a country as varied and complicated as Israel instilling the habit of compromise is even more important.”
For the first 41 years of Israel’s independence, a party only needed 1% support to enter the Knesset. In 1988 it was increased to 1.5%, and then increased again to 2% in 2003.
If the 3.25% threshold had been in place for the 2013 elections, at least three parties in the current Knesset – Balad, Hadash and Kadima – would no longer be there. On the other hand, the introduction and electoral success of Yesh Atid showed that new concepts and imaginative organization can bring significant political transformations.
The next national elections are slated for November 2017. Depending on political developments, they may occur sooner. But that’s plenty of time for Arab leaders and community activists to adjust, prepare and take advantage of the electoral calculations.
The author is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.