Did election racism transform Israeli Arabs into a political powerhouse?

Arabs that had supported Jewish parties in the past came to understand that they needed to vote instead for the Arab parties to receive civil rights and equality.

Leader of Joint List party, Ayman Odeh casts his ballot together with his sons at a polling station as Israelis vote in a national election in Haifa, Israel March 2, 2020 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Leader of Joint List party, Ayman Odeh casts his ballot together with his sons at a polling station as Israelis vote in a national election in Haifa, Israel March 2, 2020
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
The racism that was evoked in this last election by the Center-Left likely widened the gap between Blue and White and Likud and helped ensure that the Arab Joint List, headed by MK Ayman Odeh, would secure its 15-seat minimum in the 23rd Knesset.
Not only did they vote in higher numbers, but those that had supported Jewish parties in the past came to understand that they needed to vote instead for the Arab parties to receive civil rights and equality.
Dean Issacharoff, spokesperson for Odeh and the Joint List’s campaign for Hebrew and international media, said that one of the biggest mistakes the Blue and White Party made domestically was to start to talk about the Jewish majority.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz told voters in February: “We will be the biggest party and I believe we will not need the support of the Joint List. You will see that we will be the biggest party with a significant gap, and parties will join us.
“We will form a government with a Jewish majority, or we will establish a unity government with the Likud without Netanyahu,” he said, vowing not to sit in a government with Arab parties.
Issacharoff explained that “Gantz’s goal was to convince right-wing voters that there was no difference between him and Netanyahu, but what actually happened was that the only people he convinced were Arab voters.”
The result, according to Issacharoff, was that nearly all Arab voters united around the Joint List, understanding that the only address for Arab citizens of Israel in the parliament is the Arab parties.
The numbers speak for themselves: Arab voter turnout was 64.6%, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. This is the highest Arab voter turnout since 1999 and, as the Abraham Initiatives NGO points out, represents a 16-point increase in participation within one year.
The gap between Arab participation in the elections and the general voting percentage – estimated at 71% – has decreased to only six points. In April 2019, the Arab voting percentage was 49.2% (compared to 68.5% in the general population). In the September 2019 elections, 59% of Israeli Arabs voted, and the general voting percentage was 69.8%, according to Abraham Initiatives.
Moreover, 88.3% of Arab voters supported the Joint List.
“IN PAST elections, we used to see about 25% of Arabs vote for Zionist parties like Blue and White, Labor or Meretz – or even Shas,” said Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-director of Abraham Initiatives. “Not this time. The Joint List now represents the entire Arab minority in Israel.”
The Joint List won 13 seats in the 2015 20th Knesset. The list broke up and ran as separate parties in the 21st Knesset and collectively won only 10 seats.
Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said that Gantz used “racist rhetoric, negating and delegitimizing Arabs as a race and a nation… This was humiliating and racist and insulting for the Arabs – so much so, that even those who really wanted to support Blue and White eventually did not do so.”
He added that, “for me, a person who is working to promote a shared society and equality, it was upsetting to see this type of rhetoric by people who say they want to present an alternative to the incitement and racism expressed by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s regime.”
On the other hand, the prime minister actually decreased his racist attacks against the Arab people in general and even made efforts to talk to the Arab population directly during his 2020 campaign.
The 2019 “Index of Racism and Incitement,” published last week by the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, found that there was a striking increase in online incitement against Arabs in Israel between 2018 and 2019.
The report found that there is one violent post against Arabs and Palestinians every 64 seconds on key social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. In total, there were 495,000 violent posts against Arabs and Palestinians in 2019, and the Joint List and its leaders were the primary subjects of that violent discourse.
“The research revealed that the peak of incitement against Palestinians and Arabs in 2019 was correlated with the two rounds of Israeli election,” explained the center’s director Nadim Nashif, who told the Post that he, too, felt that the prime minister was more cautious in his level of incitement during the third election.
Issacharoff said he agreed with Nashif but that Netanyahu’s tactics had the reverse of his desired effect.
“The minute the prime minister starts interviewing on Arab websites and starts talking directly to the Arab community, the community feels wooed and it feels like your voice means something,” said Issacharoff. “But it also antagonized them. It’s like speaking to them as children.
“There are two types of racism,” he continued. “One kind is incitement and hate. The other is what Netanyahu did in this campaign: He incites against you for a decade and then two weeks before the end of the campaign he does two interviews on Arab websites and puts a quote from the Koran on his Facebook page – and he thinks you forgot about everything?
“That really got people riled up; they felt they were really being undermined,” he concluded.
But Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said that the efforts made by the Joint List also cannot be ignored. He said that surveys done by the NGO show that the Arab minority wants to see its leaders focused on two main issues: civil issues, such as welfare, violence, education and housing; and the peace process, such as ending the “occupation” and symbolic issues of identity and the place of the Arab minority in Israeli society.
“These expectations were answered in a positive way by the Arab leaders this time,” he said.
Issacharoff added that the recent marches and strikes by Arab leaders to protest police neglect of violence in the Arab communities helped galvanize and inspire voters.
AN INTERESTING twist was that there was also an increase in the number of Jewish voters who cast their ballots for the Joint List. Issacharoff said that the party also ran Hebrew, Yiddish, Amharic and Russian campaigns targeting Jewish voters.
“After three election campaigns full of incitement and hate – mostly against Arabs – the most depressed minority is the one to reach out to other communities about what we have in common,” he said.
According to Issacharoff, the number of Jewish voters for the Joint List more than doubled and he believes that “about a mandate” came from these people.
On Tuesday, MK Aida Touma-Suleiman (Hadash) tweeted her reaction to these results: “Arab-Jewish partnership is a fundamental principle of mine and of the Hadash Party.
“The huge increase in Jewish voting for a common cause strengthens this value,” she said. “This moment is the start of the building of a true Arab-Jewish left in Israel, one that opposes the occupation, opposes racism, opposes exploitation and that is pro-justice – for all the disadvantaged.”
Will the Joint List be able to take action with its newfound political power?
Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher in the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at IDI, said that the past year has seen much more focus on electoral campaigns and political discourse than on the conduct of the parties themselves, given that the country has had a transitional government for more than that year. The Joint List was only formed in January 2015 and did not have much time to actively legislate.
“Assuming there will be a government led by Netanyahu, there are high expectations with regards to the Joint List,” he said. “The Joint List has established itself as the address for the Arab public.”
He said that the list campaigned on solving the day-to-day challenges of the Arab public.
“If it delivers the goods, I think they will surely retain their power in any future election,” he said.
That future election could be sooner or later, depending on the final election results, which will determine Netanyahu’s ability to form a government. Nonetheless, the Joint List and Israel’s Arab minority have proven that there is a sizable percentage of the country that understands and wants to work toward a cohesive and unified society, rather than one divided by racism and demagoguery.