For the Arab voter, there weren’t compelling reasons to vote in the 2019 Knesset elections. In fact, a number of reasons motivated them not to.
Quarrels around the issue of seat rotation plagued the Joint List and clarified for the Arab voter that the hope for unity had been lost. The Arab public therefore decided to punish the parties, taking from them the privilege it had given, returning them to their natural size in order to school them in the laws of modesty.
Arab voters perceived the Nation-State Law as the antithesis of the integration to which they aspire. The law conveyed a clear message to Arab citizens that a border had been placed before them, and that they should not cultivate aspirations for class equality.
Arab leaders must open the ranks of leadership and accept into it pragmatic social and economic figures. The mechanism of political parties are outdated and no longer reflect the new moods of the Arab public.
There is no doubt that it is time to open a new chapter in Center-Left relations with Arab society. Without Arab cooperation, the Center-Left bloc will never come to power. Conversely, without the partnership of the Center-Left, the Arab public will not be able to influence decision-making in the state of Israel.
Had the voter turnout of Arab citizens in the last elections been the same as it was in the elections of 2015 (then, it was 64%), they would have won 16 seats in the 21st Knesset and the number of Arab MKs would have been the highest in the nation’s history. But as we know, this was not the case. Arab voter turnout in the 2019 elections was at its the lowest since the establishment of the state - 49% - and there were several reasons for this. The Arab citizen was not presented with convincing reasons for voting, and additionally, a plethora of reasons motivated him not to vote. As such, the Arab public felt a sense of fatalism that amounted to an experiment in mass political suicide.
The first reason for the low voter turnout was internal: voters were disappointed in the Arab MKs who received an expanded mandate and trust from the Arab public in the previous elections, but ultimately failed them. In 2015, the Arab public pushed for the establishment of the Joint List, and polls promised that a united party would increase voter turnout on the part of Arab citizens who until then had preferred to abstain from voting. This wave of support was followed by great expectations of the Arab representatives in the Knesset, among them, the expectation of maintaining unity and cooperation between the various parties that formed the List. Moreover, the merger of Arab parties seemed feasible because the Arab voter did not understand the real differences between them; while they all spoke similarly in Hebrew when relating to the Israeli establishment, their rhetoric in Arabic, which was intended for the Arab public, expressed the differences between them. As a result, they turned against each other.
The quarreling between the parties that formed the Joint List peaked in a fiasco surrounding the rotation of Bassel Ghattas’ seat, highlighting the individual interests of each party and emphasizing the divisions between them. It was clear that the hope for unity had been in vain, and that splitting into two parties that would represent the Arab voice in a respectful and dignified manner should be considered, with the expectation that two parties would awaken the dormant political space in the Arab communities and increase voter turnout.
The formation of the Joint List raised complications because it was not clear how to measure the true value of each of the List’s parties. The last time the Arab parties ran separately was six years ago, in 2013, and the equation used to allocate seats in Knesset to each of the list’s parties at that time seemed irrelevant in 2019. Some thought - perhaps rightly - that things had changed since 2013, and that their party now deserved greater representation. The main argument came from MK Ahmad Tibi's Ta'al party. The polls predicted success for him, partly due to the successful half term of the second candidate on his list, MK Osama Sa'adi. Tibi asked to allocate him two of the top ten seats, and three seats overall from the expected thirteen seats. Like Tibi, the Islamic Movement had never run independently, yet estimated that it was entitled to three seats in the top ten and five out of the total thirteen. The members of Balad acted in kind; though they had never claimed more than two seats when they ran independently, they asked for three seats in the top ten position and four out of the anticipated thirteen. Hadash, which at its best reached five seats in 1977 and in 2015, sought four seats in the top ten and five of the thirteen.
The Arab public perceived this internal conflict as a clash of egos between the parties, an attempt to undermine the joint lists’ unity, and finally as a betrayal of the mandate given to them by the voters. As a result, the public decided to punish them, and took from them the right they had given, returning them to their natural size in order to in school them in the laws of modesty.
The second reason for the low voter turnout of the Arab public was anger at Israel's political system because of the Nation-State Law, which was viewed by the voting Arab public as the antithesis of the integration process to which they aspire. Participation in the elections is the most salient civil act of Israelization, and it emphasizes the desire to integrate into the political arena and not only in the state’s social and economic arenas. The Nation-State Law erected a glass ceiling above the heads of those wishing to belong to the state and conveyed a clear message to Arab citizens that a border had been placed before them, and that they should not cultivate aspirations for class equality because their status in the hierarchy between Jews and Arabs in Israel would always be inferior.
The ideological boycott of Arab citizens intensified during the Knesset elections. The process of pushing the Arab public aside was answered with a process of its withdrawal from the political system, against its own clear interest.
The third reason for Arab society’s low voter turnout was dissatisfaction with the idea of replacing the current government with Benny Gantz. It was not his image as a person nor his image as a military man that concerned the Arab public; in fact, other military chiefs of staff – Ehud Barak and Yizhak Rabin – had won their support. Rather, it was Gantz's exclusionary rhetoric that troubled them, especially his unfortunate statement that he would join a coalition that would only establish Jewish parties, and his boasting that during his tenure as chief of staff, "parts of Gaza returned to the Stone Age." These two statements shattered his image as a possible alternative to deliver them from Netanyahu. The Arab public felt there was no justification to support such a substitution – it would be easier to criticize Netanyahu and his right-wing government for their blatantly racist rhetoric than to stretch to criticize latent racism. Gantz did not address the Arab public as a man who wished them well, as one who recognizes the legitimacy of their citizenship, or as one who understands their feelings. In turn, they taught him a bitter lesson: whosoever aspires to supplant the rule of the Right must approach the Arab public with respect.
The fourth reason for the low turnout of the Arab public in 2019 elections was the abandonment of on-the-ground campaign activity in the last month of campaigning and particularly on election day. There were no real political campaigns on the ground. I have run several parliamentary and local campaigns, and I can testify that this year there was a prevailing sense that the Arab parties did not know what to do because they feared facing criticism in the field. Therefore, they abandoned on-the-ground activity and decided to run a campaign based around social networks and a number of hollow campaign posters. They did not present a platform or content, did not apologize for their mistakes, were not seen enough in the streets, did not shake the hands of potential voters, and did not touch people’s hearts. Arab voters live in a traditional society that demands a personal touch and knows how to forgive when one comes toward them. A miserable campaign yielded piteous results, and only feelings of mercy saved the Arab parties in the last two hours of the election day, when the voters concluded that the leadership had been damaged enough and that at the very least, the parties should be prevented from disappearing from the political arena altogether. The problem was that this awakening came too late.
Arab leaders must draw conclusions and initiate a reconciliation with the Arab public that is based on genuine appreciation and humility. Voter turnout of Arab citizens was 49%; from which 72% voted for them, meaning that 35% of the Arab public put their faith in them. In order to regain the hearts of Arab citizens, Arab leaders must open the ranks of leadership and accept into it pragmatic social and economic causes that are rooted in reality. Leaders of political parties are perceived as obsolete, tired, and self-serving; they are out of step with the new moods of the Arab public. Arab society requires leaders with the power to deal with the increasing violence and crime that is consuming it. It requires leaders with the power to lead economic growth in Arab society and channel its economic strategy. It requires leaders who identify with young Arab’s breakthrough in Israeli academia and who know how to utilize their intellectual potential to the fullest. It requires leaders who can conduct effective and positive conversation with Jewish society, without prickliness and finger-pointing at the group as a whole. The Arab parties must adopt a social-economic agenda that will yield real results and abandon fiery rhetoric and speeches.
There is no doubt that a new chapter in relations between the Center-Left and Arab society must be opened – a chapter based on interdependence and mutual respect, not based on the understanding of Arabs as a “spare tire” for their camp. Without Arab participation, the Center-Left bloc will not rule in the future. On the other hand, without the Center-Left, the Arab public will be unable to influence decision-making in the state of Israel, thus perpetuating the Arab role as eternally hurting, complaining, and disappointed. The Arab public aspires to be a real partner with a Jewish public that will reward them with a true partnership. The meaning of such a partnership is social and economic equality, as well as political equality, as promised in the state’s Declaration of Independence. The Jewish majority must cast away their fear of coalition with the Arabs, as this is the only structure for an alternative government in Israel. Beneath the fears raised by the right-wing against government that would rely upon Arab MKs, it bears remembering that the legitimacy of this idea is derived from the Right itself: in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu himself invited the Arab Democratic party to join his government, making him the first prime minister to offer a ministerial appointment to an Arab from an Arab party (the position was offered to MK Abd al-Wahhab Darawashe, but he politely declined). The resolutely right-winged Ariel Sharon was the first to promise he would appoint an Arab minister in his 2001 run for prime minister, a promise which forced the Labor Party to offer Salah Tarif to serve as the first Druze minister in the history of the state of Israel. In 2007, Ehud Olmert did not hesitate to appoint Raleb Majadale as the first Arab-Muslim minister, and he suffered no political consequence for it.
Unfortunately, the Left invests its efforts in immunizing themselves against the Right, trying to appear more right-wing and thereby amplifying the delegitimization of the Arab leadership. When Ehud Barak won prime minister in 1999 with the help of Arab votes, he then turned his back on his electoral partners and declared that it was necessary to have a government that relied on a Jewish majority in the Knesset. Barak was wary of the Right and feared backlash for having a government that relied upon Arabs rather than a Jewish majority. This cowardice exacted a high price from Jewish and Arab relations in the country, deepening the rift between the leftist camp and the Arab public. Furthermore, the Arabs' deep disappointment with their partners on the Left was expressed by the boycott of that same government and prime minister. This atmosphere was among the reasons for the outbreak of events in October 2000, events that deepened the divide between the Jewish and Arab publics and lost them an entire decade. The leaders of the Center-Left must extend an outstretched hand, mobilize bravery, courage, and faith in full civic equality and a willingness to withstand the anger and accusations of the Right. Attempts to please the Right have proven, time and again, to be a failed strategy.
There were considerable aftershocks following the difficult election campaign. The Arab leadership suffered greatly at the hands of Netanyahu’s incitement and from the Arab public’s dissatisfaction. The Center-Left bloc was defeated because it didn’t succeed to speak to the Arab public, and because it attempted to masquerade as something that bears no resemblance to its actual civic identity. Jewish and Arab citizens alike endured demonstrations of incitement, polarization, and delegitimization. We require leaders with intelligence, integrity, and reason who will know how to bridge divides.
Mohammad Darawashe, Director of Equality and Shared Society at the Givat Haviva Institute, is an expert in conflict resolution and a researcher at the Hart Institute and at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. Formerly, he managed the election campaigns of the Arab Democratic Party and the United Arab List. Today, he is a lecturer and political analyst for local and international media on the status of Arab citizens in Israel.