Two weeks before Israel is to hold its upcoming election, an increasing number of Arab Israeli citizens believe that they have a historic opportunity to achieve their biggest representation ever in the country's parliament, the Knesset.
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According to several polls, the Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, will gain at least one more seat this time around, raising the number to 14 and possibly even 15. That would make it the largest opposition grouping in the Israeli parliament if a unity government is formed.
This leap of faith, says Abraham Fund Co-executive Director Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, is due to decades of being marginalized and ignored.
“The Joint List is perceived as the genuine representative of the Arab voters,” Abu Rass told The Media Line. “I believe that the Joint List will repeat its success and build on it for two reasons: the politics of alienation and the campaigns that are being conducted by Israel's two major parties, Blue and White and Likud.”
Abu Rass says that the chairmen of the two major parties, Likud leader Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, are pushing agendas that leave little room for Arabs. But the promotion of Jewish identity politics will likely motivate the Arabs to vote in greater numbers, boosting their political power: “Both Netanyahu and Gantz are declaring that they want to form a Zionist government; this means a government without Arabs. Arabs want to see the left-center camp, at least, count them and count on them. The Arabs will increase their turnout this time and increase their demands on any government.”
Israeli voters will be casting ballots for the third time in less than 12 months. The last election, on September 17, saw a surge in turnout that gave the Arab-dominated Joint List 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, making it the third-largest block behind Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, with 32 seats, and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, with 33.
Israel is home to 9 million people, one in five of whom is Arab, including Muslims (17.8%), Christians (1.9%), and Druze (1.6%). They have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens.
Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, a civil society organization to promote equality for Arab citizens in Israel, told The Media Line, “In Israel, there are more than 30 laws that discriminate against the Arab community and create second-class citizenship.”
One of the laws that Farah is referring to is the controversial nation-state law, which the Israeli parliament passed in 2018. It states that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” And it establishes Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language, downgrading Arabic – a language widely spoken by Arab Israelis – to a “special status.” This infuriates Arab citizens in Israel and, to many, confirms their long-standing perception of being less than equal citizens.
The contentious law also “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value” and mandates that the state “shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening.”
Another issue Farah brings up is the lack of economic equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
The Mossawa Center rights group says the disparity is obvious. If you look at Israel’s state budget, Farah asserts, it’s always tilted in favor of its Jewish citizens. He says close to half of Israel’s Arab citizens live in poverty, two and half times the national average of 18%, and that Arab Israeli communities have long suffered from a shortage in housing.
“Socio-economic injustice, high unemployment, a high rate of poverty – you have to take into consideration that almost half of the Arab population is living under the poverty line,” says Farah.
Another major issue for Arab voters is crime. According to a 2018 State Comptroller report, the rate of gunfire-related violations was 17.5 times greater among Arabs than Jews between 2014 and 2016.
Political analyst Faleh Habib told The Media Line that Arab voters were increasingly “sophisticated”; they know that voting in greater numbers and putting more representatives into the Knesset will have a direct impact on their daily lives.
“The Arab citizen has begun to understand that the more representation he has in parliament, the greater the chances are for influence on central committees such as the Finance Committee … whose work directly affects his personal life, the quality of his life, and his welfare.”
Habib argues that this has mobilized voters.
“This is why the Joint List’s ability to create hope for change has motivated Arab citizens to go out and vote. Also, Arab citizens have begun to realize that even the leftist Zionist parties are no longer home, because every time the interests of these parties collided with the interests of Arab representatives in them, it was very easy to sacrifice the Arab representation,” Habib said.
Abu Rass asserts that an increased Arab voter turnout could be key to preventing Netanyahu from forming the next Israeli government.
Many Arab citizens of Israel identify as Palestinians, and Arab politicians have consistently called for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and supported the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Israeli Arab citizens are angry over US President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan, which gives the nod to Israel to transfer to a future Palestinian state an area adjacent to the Green Line known as “the Triangle,” comprising 14 cities, towns and villages with more than a quarter-million Arab Israeli citizens.
This is something that the residents, themselves, reject.
“Members of the Arab minority in Israel, as part of the Palestinian people, feel they must protect the rights of their own people and contribute to a possible peace process between their country, Israel, and their brethren, the Palestinians,” says Abu Rass. “Ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel are very important. These issues are not at the top of the Arab voter’s agenda but they’re still important.”
Farah says the Trump plan will have an impact on Arab voters, especially in the Triangle region – the area that President Trump’s plan suggests for a land swap with Palestine.
“It will lead to a higher turnout on Election Day. I think the incitement of Netanyahu and the Trump plan are alarming voters in the Arab community. They make Arab citizens angry and motivate them to go out and vote.”
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