Fearing low turnout, leaders of the two Arab parties running in the Knesset election on Tuesday appealed to Arab voters to head to the ballot boxes on the pretext that their abstention would strengthen right-wing parties and candidates.
By three o’clock, only 20% of Arab voters had cast their ballots, prompting Arab candidates and leaders of the Arab Israelis to make urgent appeals to their constituents to take part in the electoral process.
The two Arab parties running in the election are Hadash-Ta’al and the United Arab List-Balad. In the last election, they ran together as the Joint List.
Public opinion polls published in recent weeks showed that Hadash-Ta’al, headed by MKs Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi, would get 6-7 seats, while the United Arab List-Balad would receive 4-5 seats in the Knesset.
The split in the Joint List, which led to the establishment of the two parties, drew sharp criticism from many Arab-Israelis, with some calling for boycotting the election.
Several online campaigns launched by Arab activists have urged voters to punish their MK’s by staying at home. They further argued that since there was no chance that Arabs would be part of any government coalition, there was no reason why Arabs should participate in the election.
“They don’t want us in the opposition, and they don’t want us in the coalition,” was the message of the advocates of the boycott.
Opponents of the campaign warned that an Arab boycott would play into the hands of Likud and other right-wing parties.
“Arab voters don’t have many options,” said Khaled Khalifa, a journalist and political analyst. “Therefore, we need to wake up and try to get as many Arab members in the Knesset as possible to counter the fascists who are calling for the expulsion of the Arabs.”
Another political analyst, Maroun Azzam, warned that an Arab boycott of the election would be a “political catastrophe.” He also warned that a boycott would “increase anti-Arab incitement in Israeli society.”
Talal al-Krenawi, the mayor of the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev who is part of the Ta’al list (headed by Tibi), urged Arab voters to ignore calls for boycotting the vote. “This is exactly what the right-wing parties and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu want,” he said. “We appeal to all the Arabs to head to the ballot boxes to give their response to Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. Our goal is to defeat the right-wing parties and extremists. We want an end to Netanyahu’s government.”
The mayor of the village of Ar’ara in the Triangle Area said that while he understood the reasons why many Arabs were calling for boycotting the election, it would be harmful for the Arab citizens of Israel if they did not take part in the vote. “I can understand that Arab voters are disillusioned with their Knesset members, especially after the split in the Joint List,” he said. “But it would be a grave mistake to boycott the election because Zionist parties are not going to look after the interests of our people.”
IN UMM AL-FAHM, also in the Triangle, residents seemed to be divided more than ever over the issue of boycotting the election.
Ahmed Mahameed, a 26-year-old university student, said that he and many of his friends were “very upset” with the Arab MK’s. “What have they done for us?” he asked. “Some of them do more for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than for their own people here. That’s why I decided to punish them by staying at home.”
Samira Mahajneh, a 34-year-old pharmacist, said she too wasn’t voting this time because she doesn’t feel that the Arab MK’s have done much for the Arab Israelis. “The Arab Knesset members care only about themselves,” she said. “I’m not going to vote this time and I don’t care if this means strengthening Netanyahu and the Likud.”
Political activist Ahmed Khalifa of Umm al-Fahm said he was opposed to Arab participation in the election for ideological reasons. “The Arab presence in the Knesset has no influence,” he said. “By running in the election, we are helping Netanyahu’s propaganda machine that claims that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East because Arabs are sitting in the Knesset. The Arab parties will never be invited to join any coalition, so what’s the point of sending our representatives to the Knesset?”
In the city of Tira, in the southern Triangle area, residents reacted with mixed feelings to the election. Many said they were worried by the increased “anti-Arab incitement” in the country, especially during the election campaign.
“We see no difference between Netanyahu and [Blue and White Party head Benny] Gantz,” said Ayman Abdel Hai, a 48-year-old accountant. “They both incited against the Arabs during their election campaigns and said they would not invite Arabs to be part of any coalition. I never saw such racism in an election campaign.”
He and several other residents said that they have also lost faith in the Arab parties. “The Right in Israel is inciting against us and delegitimizing us, while our representatives in the Knesset are busy fighting each other,” Abdel Hai added. “I believe many residents here are going to vote for Meretz this time because they seem to be the only party that speaks out against racism and fascism.”
In east Jerusalem, many Arab residents said they had no interest in the election. “There’s no difference between Netanyahu and Gantz,” said east Jerusalem shopkeeper Khaled Salaymeh. “The Zionist parties may disagree on everything, but when it comes to the Arabs, they are all united in their hatred for us.”
The vast majority of the east Jerusalem residents do not vote in the election because they are not Israeli citizens. As permanent residents of Jerusalem, they hold Israeli ID cards that allow them to cast their ballots in municipal elections. However, the majority of the Arab residents of the city has been boycotting the municipal election since 1968 for political reasons.
But there are thousands of Arab-Israeli families who moved to Jerusalem from different parts of the country in the past 51 years. It was not clear on Tuesday how many Arab Israelis living in east Jerusalem had voted in the election. Two Arab Israelis from the Beit Hanina neighborhood in northern Jerusalem said they were opposed to the calls for boycotting the election.
“The Arab citizens are facing huge and serious challenges,” one of them said. “I’m very worried because of the Nation-State Law, which turns us into second class citizens. Boycotting the election would be a big mistake because we need representatives in the Knesset to fight for our rights and try to change this law.”