The Spring’s Back in their Steps: Arab Politics Following the Twenty-second Knesset Elections

Mohammad Darawshe, in the current issue of Bayan, discusses developments in Arab politics between the last two electoral campaigns, and addresses the future implications of the election results for the 22nd Knesset.

Voting in 2013 Israeli Elections
Voting in 2013 Israeli Elections. Noam Moskovich (CC BY-SA 2.0) from The Israel Project.


The re-establishment of the Joint List for the 22nd Knesset elections was not an easy undertaking, but the considerable support for the Joint List in the elections illustrates the Arab public’s ability to use its electoral power.

What spurred the Arab citizens to vote in the elections was precisely Netanyahu's campaign, which included messages against the Arab citizens and their leaders.

The public willingness expressed by the head of the joint list, Ayman Odeh, to join the center-left government faithfully reflects the Arab public's longing for political influence.

The Arab public wants to see results on the ground. It is relatively easy to pass government decisions that help Arab society, but the test is in the implementation.

If the Center-Left bloc maintains a close relationship with the Arab public and bridges the gap between the Joint List and other parties, the turnout of Arab citizens in the next election will continue to rise.

Israel held elections in September for the second time in 2019. However, this time their results were entirely different from the elections held in April, awaking a sense in Arab society that a correction had taken place on the level of internal politics amongst the Arab parties and on the national political level. In the realm of Arab party politics, the Joint List’s four component parties reunited to run together and avoided the crisis of splitting that they traversed in the April elections. Moreover, the percentage of Arab participation in the elections rose after having dropped to a historic low of 49 percent.

Strength in the Hands of the Public

The return of the Joint List injected life into Arab society’s political leadership. It proved that the Arab public is sober and that it uses its electoral strength for better or for worse. For example, in the elections for prime minister in 2001, after the events of October 2000, the Arab public had two options: Ehud Barak, the incumbent left-wing prime minister, or Ariel Sharon, the leader of the right-wing camp. The Arab population didn’t consider either candidate to be a viable option. Most Arabs adamantly rejected the notion of being practical and voting for Barak, whom they believed to be chiefly responsible for the killing of thirteen Arab citizens in the October 2000 events. Beyond refusing to vote for Barak as retribution, the Arab public wanted to send the Left a message: a candidate perceived by Arab voters to have a negative past is not fit to serve as prime minister and cannot be forced upon them by default. Meretz experienced this too in the last election cycle, when they joined forces with Barak under the Democratic Union and tried to ignore his dubious past.

The electoral power of the Arab public with regard to the Joint List was also proven in the twenty-first Knesset elections that were held in April. The List split into two groups under the assumption that they would profit by giving Arab voters more leeway and freedom of choice. The preliminary polls indeed supported this assumption, however the dissolution led to loud and ugly political discourse that included many instances of party leaders issuing personal attacks against each other and harsh accusations of who was at fault for the split. Furthermore, the two new lists didn’t manage to draw new support to compensate for the dissolution. As such, the strength of the Arabs in the Knesset shrank from thirteen to ten seats.

The Arab Political System in the Leadup to the September Elections

The negotiations for the reestablishment of the Joint List after the April elections were no less ugly than the dissolution that preceded them. The Arab public’s distrust of these leaders has increased due to the sense that they are self-interested, each individual looking to maintain his own seat in the Knesset and each of the component parties looking to increase its share of seats over the others. The majority of the Arab public viewed the battle for the eleventh to thirteenth Knesset seats as a greedy, petty political exercise with each of the parties demanding more than they deserved in light of their achievements just a few months before.  Even after the eleventh to sixteenth seats were agreed upon, embarrassing details of the deal’s proceedings were leaked, including the exchange of money for seats and general disagreements over the party’s platform. All of this threatened the Joint List’s chances of reclaiming the thirteen-seat victory it won in 2015. Most polls predicted that the party wouldn’t win more than ten seats in the September elections.

Some attempts were made to establish new lists that would challenge the Joint List, since its image became one of a sloppy, aging party that had wearied from its internal clashes. There were promising polls that predicted the new movements would pass the voting threshold. Professor Asad Ghanem jumped on the bandwagon and established the People’s Unity Party. His political inexperience and lack of funding led to a number of mistakes, from the selection of candidates, to hesitant messaging, to running a campaign without any aim. The total votes cast for the party were scant – less than 6,000.

Mohammad al-Sayyed established the Karamah wa-Mosawah (“Respect and Equality”) Movement and believed that social connections and reliance on a number of Sheiks from the Negev region would supply him many votes. He too was disappointed after winning the support of only 1,500 voters. Both men were noticeably lacking in political experience, in knowledge of campaign management, and in the funding necessary for connecting with potential voters.

An additional attempt to create a Jewish-Arab list was undertaken by former Knesset members Talab al-Sana, Avraham Burg, and David Zucker. They received positive reviews in the media and were perceived by many as a promising option. Nevertheless, the opportunity quickly faded as it became clear that the initiative lacked financial resources and that it was targeting the same audience as existing parties, such as Meretz, the Labor Party, the Joint List and the new list parties (the People’s Unity Party and Karama wa-Masawa). The leaders decided to take the responsible decision not to run, so as not to chip away from any of the parties in the Left camp to which they belong.  As such, the options presented to the Arab public were not especially enticing and the prevailing atmosphere of heaviness hinted at another political collapse.

What Brought Arabs Back to the Polls?

The Arab public began to awaken when the prime minister began disparaging them. From the beginning of his campaign, Netanyahu adopted a familiar trick for uniting the right wing: incitement against Arab citizens and Arab leaders. It was not a campaign tactic planned at the last minute – it was opened one month before the elections, and in fact, time worked against Netanyahu. The Arab public began to react with disgust and derision at the prime minister’s statements. The statements were intended to delegitimize Arab voters, to attack their leaders, and to insult the entire Arab public with his threat to set up cameras at the voting stations. All of this prompted many in the Arab public to respond.

In the leadup to the September elections, a number of organizations mobilized to encourage Arab voters to utilize their voting rights. They took advantage of Netanyahu’s attacks to create an air of emergency in the Arab community and called for action against it. For example, the “Zazim” (“We move”) movement, harnessed the voting power of scattered Bedouin voters by providing them transportation to the polls on the organization’s expense. When Likud members turned to the head of the Israeli Central Elections Committee and demanded he prohibit the organization from transporting Bedouin voters, a contingency of private volunteers spontaneously arose to take Bedouin voters to the polling places; instead of the 60 vehicles the “Zazim” movement had intended to deploy, 300 volunteers covered the territory in their own cars. The volunteers thus contributed to the atmosphere of the election and to a substantial increase in voter turnout in the Negev. 

Perhaps the most dramatic occurrence that led to high voter turnout in September was Ayman Odeh’s statements in an interview with Nachum Barnea for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Odeh expressed the Joint List’s interest in joining a center-left government coalition and that the party would recommend appointing Benny Gantz to build the new government. He added that even if none of the Joint List’s members would serve in the government, it would nevertheless provide it support and a safety net. It important to recall that in the last twenty years, the leaders of the Arab parties have been hesitant to make such statements and have dug their heels into a warring, oppositional stance. For example, such a stance was adopted as a backlash to the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999, wherein Barak won his mandate with the help of Arab votes, but then refused to include them in the government as he had promised during the campaign. Barak’s actions caused the Arab public to feel that they had no group or person to partner with politically on the Left, and certainly not on the Right either, except for on specific agreements from time to time. This time, Ayman Odeh took a gamble that paid off. Odeh utilized polling data that asserted the Arab public is more pragmatic than its leaders, and shook off his fear of the Balad party’s reaction to these statements, which had held him from making such statements in the past.

Odeh’s statement met with a sympathetic public who wanted more of the same, and social media networks began to compliment him. They quickly silenced the boycott movement to the point that it had no influence on the elections, even after having been very active in the elections in April. Ta’al party leader, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, and the Islamic Movement leader, Dr. Mansour Abbas, joined in Odeh’s sentiments and thus created a decisive majority for pragmatism within the Joint List. Balad’s dissent had no noticeable influence over the voters or the ballots they cast.

Lessons from the Elections

In this election cycle, it was Benny Gantz and his staff who learned a lesson. This time, they were more conservative in their discussion of the identity of the coalition they would establish,  nd they didn’t speak of a Jewish or Zionist coalition. Their discourse was reserved and focused on the idea of a liberal coalition. In the leadup to the composition of their seating list for Knesset they even inserted a leading Arab personality in a secure position, but ultimately decided to return to their original list and instead proposed the idea of incorporating and Arab minister into Gantz’s government (were it to be formed). Their campaign targeted young Arabs and attempted to attract them. This did not increase the number of voters for the Blue-White party in the Arab sector, however it did contribute to a positive atmosphere within the Arab community. They voted for the Joint List as an apparent potential partner in joining the Blue-White party in the formation of a government or in the creation of a strong opposition bloc. They hoped for the creation of a technical bloc that would provide support to a government without Benyamin Netanyahu, who never missed an opportunity to lash out at the Arab public in an attempt to turn the Jewish public against them.

In spite of their accomplishments, the Joint List was in no hurry to congratulate themselves. The scars from April are still visible and there is still doubt about the reactions of the Arab electorate. The Arab parties fear their voters when they raise demands, many of which will affect the party’s agenda. The public does not want “niche” parties that express the ideology of the List’s component parties. It demands the party to demonstrate results that will affect the voters’ daily lives, such as a decrease in the level of crime and violence, the recognition of houses that were built without permits (through the approval of plans that outline the inclusion of these houses), and the creation of work places for the new strata of workers from Arab society who are looking to join the labor force (such as women).

In addition, the middle class that is beginning to be consolidated in Arab society has demands for quality of life. The acquisition of better quality of life requires budgets for suitable infrastructures in Arab localities – roadways, lighting, open spaces, sports facilities, maintenance and cultural activities that local authorities are supposed to provide. The Joint List is expected to provide for these needs and must deliver these budgets and not just promises.  Resolution 922, a government development plan from 2015 that budgeted 15 billion shekels to Arab communities, is beginning to be perceived as a disappointment because the budget has not been executed. Political influence is required to realize any government program; while it is relatively easy to secure government decisions to aid the Arab community, the difficulty lays in transferring the funds to carry out their purpose.  In the past, there have been dozens of government decisions and laws intended to solve problems in Arab society, however their execution fails because there is no supervision from the government or Arab MKs. The marginalization of Arab Knesset members may have prevented them from implementing their programs for Arab society, but joining a strong force like the center-left bloc may mitigate this marginalization and open a new page in Arab life. However, it is necessary to temper this optimism. While the center-left block realizes that it will not seize power without relying upon Arab MKs, it is not yet ready to confront right-wing delegitimization of Arab society. As such, the center-left still leans toward “a soft right” in its own language, especially since Netanyahu managed to impose the idea that the government should have a Jewish majority.


In Arab society, a feeling has emerged that there is power in their hands – it has the ability to punish Arab parties for their behavior through the “carrot and stick” approach. It also sensed its ability to bring down right-wing incitement against it and to compel the center-left block to employ candidates and stances that reflect their desires. This power will grow stronger in the next election cycle. If the Left will manage to preserve mutually beneficial relations with the Arab public and take additional steps to become closer to the Joint List and other parties in the bloc, the number of Arab voters will increase in the next elections and their rate of voter turnout will increase in great measure, to even more than the 59 percent that voted in the September elections. We may even approach the general population turnout rate and restore the Arab voting rate in 1999, a year in which approximately 78 percent of voters in Arab society participated in the elections.

Nevertheless, political parties that want to enjoy a high voter turnout rate must be ready to speak with voters in their own language. The current structure of the Joint List has no democratic mechanism for decision-making and no dynamic mechanism for innovation or the incorporation of new voters. As such, the party is not attracting voters beyond those that casted their ballots for the List in September. The party must change in these regards and then it might succeed to benefit from an additional rise in Arab voter turnout.

The center-left parties must also make changes. Meretz must include new Arab leaders on its list that will return Arab society’s fondness for the party. It must also renounce Ehud Barak. The same goes for the Labor party, which has no accomplished Arab representatives or public servants on its list. Its leadership must understand that the era of Arab go-betweens has come to an end and that there is a need for Arab leaders whose worldview is close to the heart of the Arab public. The Blue-White Party, which is bidding to lead the government, must also grow and lead liberal policy toward the Arab public, a policy that espouses the principle of civil equality and supports common interests.

As for the right-wing parties, which together won almost a full mandate from the Arab public: they must at least respect Arab voters. They initiated the National Law and many other racists laws, and the Arab public replied in kind. The time has come to abandon the view of Arab as an eternal enemy; they will not profit from it.

Mr. Mohammad Darawashe, Director of Equality and Shared Society at the Givat Haviva Institute, is an expert in conflict resolution and a researcher at the Hartman 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.