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Another chance for the Joint List

Boycotting the elections hurt the Arab parties and the Arab citizens; what they need to do now is get out the vote and be a strong voice in Knesset
Illustrative. Arab Joint List head Ayman Odeh (center) reacts with other party members at the party headquarters in Nazareth as election exit polls are announced, March 17, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90/File)
Illustrative. Arab Joint List head Ayman Odeh (center) reacts with other party members at the party headquarters in Nazareth as election exit polls are announced, March 17, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90/File)

Only rarely do politicians get a second chance, and even more rarely – a second chance at a second chance.

In the elections to the 21st Knesset held in April, Arab politicians were given the opportunity to demonstrate that they could overcome the internal crises that had beset the Joint List throughout the four years of its existence. This was a second chance to repeat the historic success of the 2015 elections.

But they turned down this opportunity. The Joint List split into two smaller Arab factions, and the Arab public punished them severely for this failure. Only 49.2 percent of registered voters in Arab communities turned out at the polls, and many of them — only in response to Arab politicians’ desperate pleas to get out and vote   during the last two hours of the April 9 elections.

While the motto of the Joint List in at the 2015 elections was “the will of the people,” in  the most recent elections, the activists of the Movement to Boycott the Elections — a small group comprising only dozens of Arab young people and students — turned this on its head with the slogan “Boycott: The will of the people.” They didn’t need to do much to persuade the Arab public not to vote. As a result, the Arab parties won only 10 seats, three seats fewer than the number of seats won by the Joint List in the previous Knesset. Arab politics emerged from the election campaign — battered and split.

But as fate would have it, less than a month after the members of the 21st Knesset were sworn in, new elections have been called for September 17. Once again, Arab Knesset members have a second chance.

Over half of the Arab public did not turn out to vote in the last elections, but that doesn’t mean that they are opposed on principle to casting a ballot. It is estimated that only 10% of Arab citizens boycott the Knesset elections for ideological reasons. Another 10% do not vote because of practical obstacles s (the elderly, the disabled, and the sick) or because they are politically apathetic. But for the overwhelming majority of those who did not vote at the last elections — some 30% of the Arab electorate — it was a deliberate decision. The reasons were many: frustration at the lack of political influence in the Knesset, anger at the passing of the “Nation-State Law,” and also — harsh criticism of the Arab parties for trashing “the will of the people” and shattering the dream of unity that had been realized with the formation of the Joint List.

This deliberate refusal to vote sent a clear political message to the Arab parties, indicating that they must adopt a new and more constructive discourse, that they must be more attentive to the feelings of their public, and that they cannot allow the Joint List to disintegrate. This was a constructive message that could only have been conveyed via the highly unconstructive step of boycotting the polls.

And indeed, only hours after the Knesset was  dispersed, as soon as Arab Knesset members indicated that they would consider re-forming the Joint List, popular responses were already being voiced along the lines of: “If you’ll come back, so will we!”

So, what should Arab politicians do now?

They must address the Arab public directly and focus on two messages. First, that they have learned their lesson from the public criticism of the disbandment of the Joint List, and they now are working to correct their mistakes. Second, that a popular protest and boycott of the elections will yield no benefits for the Arab public, and that what is needed is constructive action in the Knesset.

Arab politicians need to prove to the Arab public that the problems that are of most concern to it — health, education, housing, employment, and crime — cannot be addressed without effective representation in the relevant Knesset committees. They need to emphasize that Resolution 922, which allocated unprecedented budgets totaling NIS 11 billion to the development of Arab local authorities, would not have been passed by the government without the direct involvement of Arab Knesset members.

In addition, Arab members of Knesset need to make a special effort and focus on the younger generation (under the age of 30), of whom almost 60% did not vote in the last elections. They must offer these young people clear and simple messages that emphasize the positive impact of voting, as a counterbalance to the effective messaging of the Movement to Boycott the Elections.

Above all, Arab politicians must send their public a straightforward message: This time, we won’t let the opportunity slip through our fingers.

About the Author
Arik Rudnitzky is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University.
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