What election issues are most important to Israeli-Arabs?

Inclusion, economics and crime  top the list of important issues in the upcoming elections

 AN ARAB-ISRAELI man casts a vote in Kafr Manda in the North (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ARAB-ISRAELI man casts a vote in Kafr Manda in the North
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Jonathan Elkhoury, 30, is a freelance lecturer on Israeli minorities and a human rights activist. He has also led over 30 delegations from Israel’s minorities abroad in order to give them a broader perspective about the country.

Elkhoury is also the son of a former South Lebanon Army officer. His family escaped to Israel when he was nine years old, after Israel decided to retreat from southern Lebanon.

“Ahmad,” who preferred not to use his real name, is a 33-year-old middle school English teacher in Petah Tikva. He lives in Tira and is currently completing an MA in national security studies at Tel Aviv University.

Wajdi Heijazi, also 30, is a social worker from Tamra. Besides his daily job, he volunteers at a surfing club that helps at-risk youth.

All Israeli citizens with different viewpoints on many issues, Elkhoury, Ahmad and Heijazi are united in believing that the most important issue in the upcoming election is inclusivity in Israeli society of the nearly two million Israeli-Arabs.

Is there a party that truly offers what Israeli-Arabs need?

There are four Israeli-Arab parties currently in the Knesset. The first is Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, which won four seats in the previous election and joined Israel’s governing coalition last June, making it the first Arab party ever to do so. It is polling consistently at four seats for the upcoming election. The other three, Hadash, Ta’al and Balad, make up the Joint List, which won six seats in the previous election and remained in the opposition. The Joint List is polling at six seats in the upcoming election as well.

“What I most care about is which party most calls for inclusivity, and not to divide the communities that live here in Israel. But I care more about actual doing, and not just talk,” Elkhoury said to The Jerusalem Post.

“Right now, I don’t see any political parties on the Right or Left that are actually dealing with this, rather than just talking about it,” he said.

“I’m kind of trying to figure what my thoughts are [about Ra’am]. On the one hand, I do not like Mansour Abbas, because of his opposition to LGBT communities,” he said. “But once he joined the coalition, I supported the step he took, because I think this is super important because it showed the Arab community that it can start taking steps towards being a larger part of the decision-making about our own life here in Israel.”

For Ahmad, the most important issues were integrating Arabs into Israeli society and the economy, but also finding a solution to the rampant crime.

“First I think that [Ra’am joining the government] is a wonderful precedent, and I was very happy that it happened. I think that very good things happened in Arab society over the past year.

 DR. MUHAMMED KHALAILA of Haifa University and the Israeli Democracy Institute. (credit: ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE) DR. MUHAMMED KHALAILA of Haifa University and the Israeli Democracy Institute. (credit: ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE)

“I think that Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev did everything he could with the budget he had to solve the problem of the violence in the Arab sector. I don’t have a statistical measure, but I feel that there was a certain drop in violence in the Arab sector during this period. I also began to feel that we are heading in a direction where the Israeli-Arab civilians will become more part of the mainstream and become further integrated into the Israeli workforce,” he said.

The election issues

Heijazi, as a social worker, is familiar with the issue of crime firsthand. But while he voted for Ra’am in the previous election and continues to support its partnership in a future coalition, he thinks that on crime the government should not get involved.

“These are social problems that are internal, and the solution needs to come from within, not just from the government. The government has a large part in budgets, budgetary equality and planning, but I think that the majority should come from us as a society. The police has been confiscating weapons for 20 years, and it doesn’t work.

“It starts from education at a young age, giving equality of opportunity, equality of careers. People turn to crime out of a lack of career, a lack of income. The way the system is now, it encourages crime. It is the easiest [path forward] today to enter crime, to sell drugs. That is the way to make money fastest,” he said.

“Some 90% of all shooting incidents in residential areas occur in Arab society."

Dr. Muhammad Khalaila

Heijazi thought that the economy was a central issue and in the previous election even considered voting for economist Yaron Zelekha. He went for Ra’am, though, because he felt that its move to enter the coalition was more important.

The three main problems

INDEED, THE economy and crime are part of what Arab-Israeli voters are thinking about, according to Dr. Muhammad Khalaila of the University of Haifa and the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI).

Three issues stand out as central to the agenda of many voters in Arab society, Khalaila said.

“The first issue is the issue of crime and violence in Arab society, because we continue to count victims killed and murdered.

“The most important figure of all is the citizen’s sense of personal security. This has not changed, and in fact is decreasing day after day, even though in the numbers you can see a relative decrease from the previous year in the number of murdered victims. But the atmosphere is very unsafe. We still experience shooting incidents on a daily basis in residential areas.

“Some 90% of all shooting incidents in residential areas occur in Arab society. This is an official figure, and shows the acuteness of this issue and the urgency to address it.

“This continues to concern the voters, and if things move in this regard, it can give them hope,” he said.

“The second issue is the issue of the cost of living and the increase in prices, and relates to the socioeconomic situation of the Arab society.

“Israeli society in its entirety suffers from the increase in prices. It affects everyone – fuel prices, vegetables and fruits and apartment prices... but because of the condition of the Arabs to begin with, because of the high unemployment rates in relation to the Jewish population, [and the] higher poverty rates... it is more acute in Arab society. This is a topic that is of great concern to the public, especially the Arab mainstream who barely make it through the month, and now it is [becoming] more and more difficult,” he said.

A recent IDI study found that nearly 60% of Arab voters said that a party’s views on the economy and high cost of living was the most important factor on its agenda. While this was also the most important issue for Jewish Israelis, a significantly smaller percentage – some 41% – listed it as the No. 1 factor.

The third issue is a longer-term issue, which, contrary to crime rates and the economy, is also a matter of ideology – housing and land allocation.

“This is an issue that has always taken the top in terms of Arab society in terms of priorities....

“The two issues of crime and violence are passing episodes. Perhaps in a few years a serious government will implement a real plan to crack down on criminal organizations and break them up – we hope for that day – and then the issue will pass and cease to be top priority,” Khalaila said.

“Then we will return to the issues of lands, jurisdictional areas, master plans and house demolitions, which all have to do with planning and land ownership, which is a very central issue in the political perception and history of the Israeli-Arab conflict as a whole,” he said.

“Land can also solve many economic problems. If you decide that a certain area in a town will be an industrial area, then... this can improve the [town’s] economic situation. Land is also related to many other things such as issues of density and shrinking public space, which in turn increases violence. The next murder in Arab society will be over parking spaces in the neighborhoods, because there is no compatibility between available land and growth rate in Arab society. In this respect, land is not only a long-term issue; it connects to all the other issues, [including] violence, economy and education.”

Personal problems, community struggles

The problem affects Khalaila personally.

“In my town, for example, Majd el-Kurum, we have had an authorized budget for several years to build educational institutions, because the schools are packed full. The Education Ministry recognized the need and transferred budgets to the local authority to build schools. There is no budgetary problem, but there is a problem of land – we do not have available land on which we can build schools and educational institutions that will support our educational reality,” he said.

The aforementioned IDI study, which was published earlier this month, included an astounding statistic: While only 2% of Jewish Israelis who voted in the previous election said they would not vote this time around, a whopping 21% of Arab-Israelis said the same. This could bring the Arab-Israeli vote to historic lows. With an Arab party in the coalition for the first time ever, what went wrong?

There are three different attitudes toward the government’s actions in the past year, Khalaila said.

There are some that say that not only has nothing changed, the economic struggles show that things have become worse, and there is no difference in this respect between the Netanyahu governments and the Bennett-Lapid government. Others supported Ra’am’s entry into the coalition and feel like things did improve slightly for the better, but there is still a long way to go. A third group had its expectations set so high that its disappointment will cause it to stay away from the upcoming election.

“Ra’am promised miracles and wonders after joining the coalition, and [this group] dreamed that the situation would change, that tomorrow morning we would wake up and then the criminal organizations would fall apart. But what they see is that things have not changed, and their disappointment is a function of their system of expectations,” Khalaila concluded.