How to increase Arab participation in Israeli elections

These attempts, although commendable, are anecdotal approaches designed for election seasons.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on the fateful night of May 29, when the Knesset dissolved itself and set September 17 as the date for new elections (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on the fateful night of May 29, when the Knesset dissolved itself and set September 17 as the date for new elections
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Some of the striking findings of the April elections in Israel were the weaknesses of the Left and the low voter turnout in the Arab community. Even though low Arab turnout on Election Day is not new, it was more noticeable during the last election, amid the backdrop of the potential chance to create a bloc that would prevent the Right from forming a government.
Arabs in Israel are about 17% of the electorate. This is equivalent to slightly more than 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. If Arabs had voted in droves in April’s elections, their vote could have pushed Gantz’s presumed bloc over the top. However, Arab voter turnout was less than 50%. The seats lost due to this small percentage could have had a dramatic impact on the political map and even resulted in a change of government.
Since the announcement of the new elections in September, various parties from the Right and Left have been trying to reach out to Arab citizens of Israel to increase their voter turnout. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz addressed the concerns of the Arab community in an interview with Hala, a channel popular in the community. Former prime minister Ehud Barak apologized publicly to the Arab community for the murder of 12 Arabs citizens of Israel in protests under the watch of his government in the year 2000. Arab parties have finally agreed to resurrect the Joint List and run together. We also see discussions and campaigns by activists such as Afif Abu Much calling for the inclusion of more Arab representatives in political parties across the political spectrum.
These attempts, although commendable, are anecdotal approaches designed for election seasons. They do not provide a systematic approach to building trust between these political parties and the Arab community extending outside of elections seasons to guarantee a sustainable improvement in the political participation and engagement of Arab citizens.
The revival of the Joint List does not guarantee more massive voter turnout, due to trust issues the Arab community has with representatives on the list who are more concerned with seat rankings rather than representing the community. Moreover, Barak’s apology has been viewed by many as suspect due to its proximity to election season. Also, some people do not consider it a sufficient move toward reconciliation, with an actual due process to hold the individuals who were in charge accountable for the loss of lives.
Recently, Barak made a new campaign statement asking for replacing the Nation-State Law with an equality law. This comes very close to the date of elections and still does not guarantee that he will follow through with it after the voting. Additionally, in response to the formation of the Joint List, some Arab voters might turn their vote away from Meretz, especially after its unity with Barak, a man who has a controversial relationship to the Israeli-Arab community. I also highly doubt that the one interview Benny Gantz gave to Hala is sufficient to substantially increase Arab votes for centrist parties such as Blue and White, especially after his hesitation in April to approach the Arab community, and the second candidate on Blue and White’s list, Yair Lapid making a statement supporting the disqualifying of Balad from running for the Knesset.
THE INCLUSION of more Arab candidates does not automatically guarantee these candidates will push the party toward addressing Arab voters’ needs. They could easily be viewed as tokens and part of an insincere campaign strategy to gain votes. Even the Likud, the party that pushed for the Nation-State Law, has an Arab representative. We also know the existing Arab parties and their representatives wield no power in the Knesset due to their exclusion from any Israeli governing coalition.
Formal cooperation between Arab and Jewish parties has only one precedent in Israel dating back to the Rabin government in 1992-1995. Some Zionist parties actively distance themselves from Arab parties. For example, during the April election campaign, Benny Gantz explicitly said he would not include an Arab party in his coalition under any circumstances.
So what is the best way to increase Arab voters’ turnout? Comparing Arab voter turnout in local elections (60%) to Knesset elections (49%) suggests that they are not against political participation. In one survey, a strong majority of Arabs (87%) desired increased involvement in the political system and were supportive of joining the government. However, Arab voters only participate when they feel that their vote has some influence, such as in local elections. According to a Local Call (Sicha Mekomit) survey before the last election, almost half the Arab public (47%) would consider voting for a Jewish party if that party represented its positions.
The most effective way for leftist Arab and Jewish parties to increase Arab voter participation is by engaging with the community, through collaboration with civil society organizations and local municipalities to understand its needs and address them in the most efficient way. This engagement could help these parties present a clear plan for tackling burning issues in Arab society, such as the battle against crime, violence against women, and permits for legal construction.
Civil society organizations work closely with the community. They have gained trust due to their work on specific local issues on the grassroots level. Moreover, their connection to the different parts of society helps them resolve problems and trigger interest in particular matters. Having consultations with these groups could be very beneficial in understanding the community’s needs. Moreover, due to cultural and political differences in every Arab town and city, the outreach efforts need to be catered to the specific needs of each particular town or city. The municipalities are best suited to understand the challenges facing their communities and the obstacles facing them.
This will require grand gestures by the winning coalition toward the Arab community. Revoking the Nation-State Law or building new Arab cities could promote Arab voters’ faith in the democratic process. Actively and publicly seeking to create a partnership between the Zionist and non-Zionist parties is also essential to restore confidence in the electoral process and garner the support of the community. Arabs in Israel need concrete assurances that their voice matters.
Passing slogans and vague statements during a one-off interview or a shallow apology to the community are not sufficient for increasing political participation and support for a specific party. Parties need to create and present to the community a substantial and robust agenda for addressing the significant problems it faces. To increase voter turnout, Zionist and non-Zionist political parties need to move away from reaching out to the Arab community only during election cycles, and instead work to establish sustainable connections with the community.
The writer is an Umm el-Fahm native. She is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Stonehill College, Massachussets. Twitter: @mhajneam