On March 17th Israelis are going to the polls. Anyone closely following the reams of political commentary published daily, however, might be misled into believing that these are Jewish elections. The ease with which Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, numbering at the beginning of 2015 over 1.7 million (17% of the population), are being erased from the ongoing electoral analyses is simply astounding. Pragmatically, given the country’s fragmented political system, any party that ignores a large bloc of the electorate does so at its peril. More fundamentally, the tendency to dismiss such a significant portion of the population is indicative of ongoing efforts to substantially alter the character of the state — the root issue in the upcoming ballot. All Israelis have a vested interested in influencing this most critical of debates.
The Arab community in Israel has a spotty record of participation in elections. The turnout rate in municipal polls is the highest in the country — consistently reaching over 80%, and in some cases even topping 90% of registered voters. In contrast, participation in the general elections has been on the decline since the turn of the century: dipping to barely 56% two years ago. The key reason for this dualistic pattern is obvious: at the local level there is a high sense of political efficacy (the capacity to affect decisions); at the national level the opposite is true: many Arab citizens of Israel are convinced that they are being systematically excluded from the national power structure.
This sentiment has intensified in recent years as a series of anti-Arab laws have been introduced and manifestations of systemic discrimination have become commonplace. This past summer, racist discourse — emanating from the highest echelons of the ruling coalition — permeated public discourse, leading to multiple acts of blatant prejudice against non-Jewish citizens of the state. Recent polls show that the vast majority of Arabs in Israel encounter bias on a regular basis. Although this rampant intolerance has been mitigated somewhat by President Reuven Rivlin’s consistent appeals for mutual respect, the fact remains that Arab-Palestinian citizens of the country are constantly treated as a troublesome minority that potentially constitutes a fifth column (even though a recent survey by the Statnet group shows that under any future scenario, at least 77% want to remain citizens of Israel).
The strong sense of Arab isolation within Israel peaked during the past few months in the wake of the various legislative proposals aimed at defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people at the expense of its democratic character (and of its Arab citizens). While most Arab-Israelis acknowledge the fact that Israel is the political expression of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, they also insist — as did Israel’s founders–that they be treated as equal citizens. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that a growing number of Arab citizens feel alienated from political currents in the country.
These trends may have militated against strong participation in the upcoming elections if not for the outgoing government’s successful campaign to raise the threshold for entry into the next Knesset to 3.25%. This move — at least partly justified, ironically, as a means of further constricting the Arab vote — may turn out to have precisely the opposite effect. By intimating that all the non-Jewish citizens of the country are made of the same cloth (and thereby suggesting that the three current parties representing Arab voters do not reflect the essential pluralism of ideologies, aspirations, religious predispositions and penchants among non-Jewish citizens of the country), the initiators of the new rules may actually encourage a much greater Arab turnout come election day.
Clearly, in order to pass the threshold, some coalition of the existing Arab-based parties — Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al (The Joint Arab List- National Arab Movement) and Balad — is necessary. Fully 80% of Israel’s Arab community favors a single slate (according to the most recent Statnet poll). Negotiations amongst Arab leaders to achieve this goal are now at a very advanced stage (with a two-party variant being considered as a fallback option). Should a new electoral alliance be cemented, then 68% of potential Arab voters indicate that they will participate in the elections (in a poll conducted by Dahlia Scheindlin published in the online magazine +972). This is a full 14% more than in the last elections, raising the Arab representation in the next Knesset from the present 11 seats to up to a potential 15).
The realignment of Arab-based parties is intriguing in several respects. First, it heralds a reawakening of interest in national politics amongst heretofore alienated voters. Second, it creates a strong electoral bloc with the prospect of a significant impact on the political scene. Third, it reengages a large segment of the population in determining public norms (the planned list will include Jewish as well as Arab candidates, along with greater gender representation). And fourth, it establishes a strong democratic voice committed to a shared society based on the principles of equality and justice.
As in the past, not all Arab citizens of Israel will vote on March 17th for an Arab-based electoral alliance. At this stage, over 35% of those who say they plan to vote remain undecided (a united list will substantially reduce this number). Some will continue to support mainstream parties on the left (Labor, Meretz) and a few will keep giving their vote to the Likud and Shas. Clearly the attraction of the joint effort will depend partly on who heads the list (Ahmed Tibi now outpolls all other possible candidates in every survey conducted to date) and partly on the agreed platform (probably heavily opposed to any legislation designed to alter the definition of the state and strongly supportive of measures to ensure full equality for all citizens).
The conduct of Arab voters is not, however dependent only on members of this community. It is also very much a corollary of the outlook and behavior of the Jewish parties as well. Any change in the balance of power in the country involves the full engagement of all its citizens. Therefore, parties on the center and the left must make it abundantly clear that the Arab-Israelis and their representatives are an integral part of this shift and that they are legitimate partners in any future coalition. The answer to the so-called “national camp” headed by Binyamin Netanyahu is not necessarily the temporarily-named “Zionist camp” led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni but a broad “Israeli camp” which strives for the safety and betterment of all citizens.
Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute the most significant (albeit not the only) wild card in the upcoming ballot. The nature and extent of their involvement in framing the campaign agenda and in determining its outcome will have a critical effect on the results. These elections will reflect, more than their predecessors, who the Israelis are and what they want — thereby demonstrating what Israel is and can be. For this reason, all those committed to an open and pluralistic Israel must give the issue of how Israel incorporates its Arab minority top priority: this is the prime test of the country’s Jewish values, democratic robustness and prospects for a safe and peaceful future.