Influenced by Netanyahu’s delegitimisation campaign, the Centre-left is making a critical mistake in not reaching out to the approximately 300,000 potential voters in the Arab community who don’t identify with the Joint List, argues Afif Abu Much. With voter turnout likely to be key in this election, it remains to be seen whether Ayman Odeh’s revolutionary statement that his party would be willing to join a coalition will make a difference to the Arab public, who broadly share his view.
Despite reservations from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit about approving a bill to place cameras in polling booths on the eve of the elections, expressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet, a Likud official reiterated that the party would ‘move forward with the camera law’. The official reason cited by Likud for this law is transparency. But the real reason is trying to deter Arabs from voting (or, to use the American parlance used to describe efforts to deter African-Americans in the last century, ‘voter suppression’.)
This move shows how determined Netanyahu is to achieve a low voter turnout among the Arab population. Indeed, everyone understands that turnout along similar levels to that within the Jewish population would make Netanyahu’s chances of being able to form a coalition almost non-existent.
The lessons Netanyahu learned from his first stint as Prime Minister
Netanyahu actually identified the importance of reducing Arab voter turnout as one of the lessons he learned from his first stint as Prime Minister 1996-99, a subject I have written about elsewhere. Netanyahu concluded then that in order to survive politically and to continue to serve as PM he needed to deal with several things:
- The media: Netanyahu has fought against all media outlets that don’t support him. In fact, only recently, recordings between Netanyahu and the former Communications Minister Ayoub Kara on the subject were released.
- Former army generals and Chiefs of Staff (following the establishment of the Centre Party during Netanyahu’s first term): In 1999, Netanyahu initiated – through Likud MK Yuval Steinitz – a law which prevented former army officers from taking part in elections without a long cooling off period (extended from six months to three years)
- The Attorney General: following the ‘Amadi Affair’ [where Netanyahu was suspected of exploiting his position as prime minister to obtain benefits from a trucker, Avner Amadi, (the police recommended indicting him on charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, and obstruction of justice, but the attorney general decided against it), it was crucial for Netanyahu to choose a ‘comfortable’ AG such as Avichai Mandelblit and Yehuda Weinstein before him. Netanyahu’s son, Yair, recently shed light on Weinstein’s appointment in one of his tweets in a way that might even have gotten his father into trouble.
- The voter turnout in Arab society: Netanyahu understood well that if Arab citizens go to the polls in similar numbers to their Jewish counterparts, there is no scenario in which he can continue to serve as Prime Minister and it was therefore important that they stay at home. Indeed, when Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak in 1999, voter turnout in Arab society was 75 per cent (in contrast to 78.7 per cent amongst the Jewish population according to the Israel Democracy Institute).
Delegitimising the Arab community
The push for cameras is of course connected to the Likud project to illegally place cameras in voting booths in Arab communities in April 2019. Those behind the project, the PR company Keisler-Inbar, even boasted on Facebook that it was ‘one of the greatest achievements of the right-wing,’ and that ‘thanks to the cameras we placed in the stations, the voter turnout in the Arab sector fell below 50 per cent – the lowest in recent years!’
This racist campaign together with the warning before the April elections that ‘Benny Gantz will establish a blocking majority with the Arabs’ which sought to delegitimise the Arab community in Israel, was intended to achieve two things. The first was to turn Arab citizens into ‘lepers’ and reduce their motivation – which wasn’t that high to begin with – to go out and vote. The second aim was to cause the centre-left and the Blue and White party that leads it, to ‘disengage’ from Arab citizens and parties, a move which would subsequently preclude the option of forming a blocking majority against Netanyahu. (Ironically, such an option has already been precluded due to Avigdor Lieberman.) It certainly precludes the formation of a coalition.
For anyone who has forgotten, 130,000 Arab voters voted for non-Arab parties in April. In fact, Meretz only passed the electoral threshold thanks to votes from Arabs. Meanwhile, approximately 330,000 voters voted for Arab parties (Hadash-Taal and Raam-Balad), which was a historic low.
It is also worth pointing out that Netanyahu himself has never been shy of ‘cooperating’ with Arab MKs when it suited him. When President Peres gave Tzipi Livni first crack at forming a coalition after the resignation of Olmert in September 2008, Netanyahu initiated talks with Ahmed Tibi (via his then trusted servant, but now bitter rival, Gideon Saar) to find out whether or not Livni had approached the Arab parties. Looking back further into history, Netanyahu led the Likud to support a vote of no confidence in the government that was raised by the Arab parties, following the confiscation of lands in east Jerusalem for the building of Jewish homes. These are two examples of Netanyahu himself going for a blocking majority with the Arab parties. Hypocrisy, for sure.
Arab voters gave a ‘Yellow Card’ to the Joint List in April
The Joint List – a coalition of Hadash, Taal, Raam and Balad – is returning to the playing field in September elections, which is bad news for Netanyahu. Anyone who follows developments in the Arab community can see the public wasn’t exactly satisfied with the Joint List’s performance in the 20th Knesset. Its subsequent break up due to arguments over seats and rotation led to many Arab voters giving the List a yellow card (and wasn’t far from giving some of the parties a red card), by staying home in April.
It’s worth remembering that Raam-Balad were in real danger of not passing the threshold because only 50 per cent of Arabs voted and 130,000 voted for non-Arab parties. In this sense, one could claim that for every vote that went to an Arab party, there were the equivalent of two votes that stayed at home or voted elsewhere. This warning forced the four parties to reunite almost at any cost.
The Centre-Left’s mistake
Regardless, it is important to remember that the Joint List doesn’t constitute an address for many Arab voters, and this is one of the critical mistakes of the Israeli Centre-Left. Instead of embracing those Arab potential voters (comprising about 300,000 voters) who do not intend to vote for the Joint List, the Centre-Left chose to get pulled along by Netanyahu’s campaign and to disengage from the Arab community – by not granting them representation on their Knesset slates (apart from Meretz) – in order that Netanyahu wouldn’t tag them as ‘leftists’.
Just imagine what might have happened if these parties succeeded in bringing out those 300,000 voters to the polling booths. This is the equivalent of several Knesset seats just lying on the floor with no one daring to pick them up.
Of course one needs to take into account the negative contribution of the racist Nation State Law of July 2018, which granted supremacy to Jewish citizens over their Arab counterparts. Any thinking person realises that this was an unnecessary law which contributed nothing to any Jew other than to Netanyahu. Ever since 1996, Netanyahu has waged a campaign to show his voter base ‘look what I did to the Arabs’. Netanyahu has even succeeded in turning the word ‘right wing’ into another phrase for hating Arabs, which works well for some of his supporters. Through his anti-Arab campaigns, Netanyahu has managed to take the wind out of the sails of the Arab community and cause them to feel like unwanted citizens. The resulting frustration lowers voter turnout.
The exclusivity of the Joint List
On the other hand, there is a feeling in Arab society that the Joint List has turned into a type of exclusive club, closed to any Arab citizen who wants to compete for the Knesset and doesn’t already belong to one of the four parties. This led to a situation in which a famous Arab journalist decided to run for Knesset (as have many Jewish journalists in the past such as Miki Haimovich, Yinon Magal, Nitzan Horowitz and others) by trying to become part of the Joint List. But he found the door locked and he wasn’t given any place on the slate, because all the spots are reserved for the politicians and their acolytes. There were even reports that Ahmed Tibi had sought to dissolve the Joint List simply to receive better representation for his supporters and brother in law. (Tibi argued he did it to advance a civil agenda).
The closing of the Joint List to any new non-partisan/political forces created large amounts of antagonism and lack of confidence towards the current representatives. No one was thus particularly surprised by the fact the reunited Joint List is seemingly failing to increase its strength and still stands at 9-10 seats in polls. No one has yet managed to understand why the Joint List decided that any Arab citizen who doesn’t belong to one of the four parties can’t join their slate.
It was this that led Professor Ghanem to go his own way and declare that the time had come to end this exclusivity club created by the four Arab parties. Its likely Ghanem didn’t intend for this to happen in these elections. But his aim was to change the rules of the game and create an established fact that shows there are other voices and other parties in Arab society. In my opinion, the true measure of this development will not be in the September elections but for the ones following it.
Where to for the average Arab voter?
Joining these dots brings the average Arab citizen to the conclusion that there is no point in taking part in the elections, because he feels like an outsider and doesn’t believe he has any ability to influence the political game in Israel. This feeling also explains the very low voter turnout in April. And this was exactly Netanyahu’s aim.
It is also reasonable to assume that what motivated the declaration by the leader of the Joint List, Aymen Odeh, that he was prepared to join a centre-left coalition was the attempt to reverse this trend. Indeed, such a scenario might persuade Arab citizens that their vote has influence. A survey by the Abraham Fund concluded that one factor in increasing voter turnout would be the intention of the Arab parties to join a coalition.
Many people have already concluded that the Joint List doesn’t constitute a big enough trigger to bring out Arab voters. There is thus a need to think creatively and try and ‘awaken’ the average voter from his indifference by an out of the box declaration along the lines of a willingness to join a coalition under certain conditions.
It is unnecessary to point out that such a scenario won’t happen in practice, primarily because the Jewish public is not ready nor willing to hear about Arab parties joining the coalition. It is enough to watch Netanyahu’s election videos where he warns that there might be an Arab Minister. If this isn’t racism, then what is it?
Moreover, it seems Odeh was speaking in his name only, rather than in the name of the other Joint List representatives who opposed him. Balad censured Odeh, with its leader, former MK Jamel Zahalka, clarifying that ‘Odeh’s comments contradicted the position of the Joint List and Balad.’ Ahmed Tibi also hurried to create space between himself and Odeh’s words, while declaring he preferred and was striving towards influencing via a blocking majority rather than from within the coalition. This begs the question as to whether there is a scenario in which Tibi refuses an offer of becoming a Minister in centre-left government if such a position is offered him? (One assumes not, but time will tell).
With polls showing that 80 per cent of Joint List voters (and 72 per cent of Arab voters in general) seemingly support Odeh’s statements, we once again find ourselves in a situation where Arab society doesn’t agree with the actions of its representatives, who opposed Odeh. According to the CEO of Stat Research Institute-Net, Statnet, for the first time Odeh is actually putting the view of the majority of the Arab public on the table. Whether this has any affect we will have to wait and see.