Arab voter apathy in Israel may give Netanyahu the victory he wants

Netanyahu
Benyamin Netanyahu. (File photo: Jordan News)
Netanyahu

Osama Al Sharif

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

As Israeli voters head to the polls on November 1 for a fifth Knesset election in more than three years — one that some say could lead to ending Israel’s democracy — one question is being raised by pundits over and over again: Will the Arab vote matter this time around as it did in March 2021?اضافة اعلان

The short answer is: not likely. Most polls point to a record low voter turnout among Arab voters, at around 40 percent, down from 45 percent in the 2021 elections. In the 2020 elections, Arab voter turnout was almost 65 percent, giving the Joint Arab List, a coalition of Arab Israeli parties, a record 15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

A split in that alliance in 2021 led to Arab parties winning 10 seats only. But while the Joint Arab List deputies sat in the opposition, the head of the United Arab List (Ra’am), Islamist Mansour Abbas, handed Naftali Bennett and partner Yair Lapid his four seats, thus enabling him to form a majority coalition government while denying Benyamin Netanyahu the chance to make a comeback. Abbas was then hailed as kingmaker and, more importantly, made history by leading the first Arab party in Israel into a coalition government.

As Abbas made a pact with Bennett, a right winger who supports settlers and is against the two-state solution, he was lambasted by Palestinian movements and other Arab MKs.

And it was Bennett’s other Jewish coalition partners who finally abandoned him last April, and not Abbas, who was accused of staying in the government despite the war on Gaza and the unleashing of more illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank. He was thought to have betrayed his followers when he declared last December that Israel will always be a “Jewish state”.

The upcoming election in Israel is now being waged between the anti-Netanyahu camp of mostly leftist and centrist parties and the man who governed Israel the longest and now, at 72, is vying to return to power after three years in the political wilderness.

Whether it is his camp, which now includes many far-right voices, including an openly racist ally, Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, or the camp now led by caretaker premier Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, neither, according to the latest polls, will be able to form a majority government. This is where the Arab vote matters, again.
The voters feel betrayed by successive governments that had failed to deliver on promises to improve the lives of the Arab minority. Added to that is the fragmentation of Arab parties and the internal bickering that has spilled over, as well as the feuding between key political figures.
Ben-Gvir, a Jewish supremacist, was convicted 15 years ago for supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism. That alone, pundits say, should drive Arab voters to the polls in a bid to defeat his camp. But the polls suggest that Arab parties, the Joint Arab List and the United Arab List, will barely win eight seats. The Joint Arab List lost the Balad party recently, which decided to split and was later disqualified from running by the election committee.

Arab voter apathy, despite the vital importance of this election which, according to Netanyahu’s foes, could decide the future of Israeli democracy, has many reasons. The voters feel betrayed by successive governments that had failed to deliver on promises to improve the lives of the Arab minority. Added to that is the fragmentation of Arab parties and the internal bickering that has spilled over, as well as the feuding between key political figures.

Even though Ra’am was part of the ruling coalition, the Bennett-Lapid government did nothing to end the inequality and marginalization of Arab communities, which now suffer from gang wars.

In the view of most Arab citizens of Israel, all Israeli governments are the same and the differences between Netanyahu and his rivals when it comes to empowering the Arabs of Israel are minimal.

Still, it is not only Israelis who do not want Netanyahu and his far–right partners to win. The Biden administration would also hate for Netanyahu to return to power. So, too, would Jordan, which had a troubled history of relations with the Likud leader when he was prime minister.

Unconfirmed reports have talked about Jordan trying to convince another influential Israeli Arab leader to either end his boycott of elections or not prevent his followers from going to the polls. Islamist Raed Salah, who has ties to Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, could rejuvenate the Arab communities if he gives a nod of approval. So far he has not spoken.

While chances that Arab voters, who make up less than 20 percent of eligible voters in Israel, may change their minds and go to the polls in droves remain poor, some Israeli analysts believe there is still hope and that once more Arab votes will play a decisive role in defeating Netanyahu. Failing to do that, they say, will open the way for the extreme right to rule, putting the future of Israel as a state and as a democracy in peril.

Of course, after all is said and done, both camps may fail to reach the magical 61 seats needed to form a government. The question is, can Israelis withstand going to the polls a sixth time in a few months’ time, and would that change anything?  


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.     


Read more Opinion and Analysis
Jordan News