Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Israel’s Arabs awaken to their electoral power

Arab Israelis have been slow to realise their potential pivotal role in the nation’s politics. That’s changing.

Ayman Odeh (centre) with members of the Joint Arab List (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Ayman Odeh (centre) with members of the Joint Arab List (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 25 Sep 2019 

Members of the Arab List elected to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) at last week’s elections are walking a tightrope. The decision announced by the List’s leader, Ayman Odeh, on 22 September to endorse Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, as Israel’s next Prime Minister has generated a backlash.

Palestinians that I have contacted have told me that many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who as non-Israeli citizens could not vote in the elections, are angry over the List’s decision – as are some Arab Israelis (Palestinians living within Israel, who comprise a fifth of Israel’s population).

It is the first time since 1992 that Arab parties have endorsed a prime ministerial candidate.

They argue that endorsing Gantz is equivalent to supporting Zionism (the nationalist movement to create a Jewish homeland in what is now Israel), which has caused the dispossession of the original Palestinian inhabitants. Gantz, as Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015, oversaw Israeli military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, which he highlighted during the election campaign.

Even one of the four Arab parties that make up the List, Balad (Arabic for “homeland”), has dissociated itself from Odeh’s announcement.

Moreover, the List’s plumping for Gantz has been seized on by Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains caretaker Prime Minister pending formation of a post-election government. Netanyahu commented that Odeh’s decision is “exactly what we’ve been warning of”. This point chimed with his campaign rhetoric, which was peppered with anti-Arab statements, including a comment on his official Facebook page that “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children, men”.

Netanyahu’s Likud party won fewer seats (31) than Blue and White (33) – both well short of the necessary 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset). But Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops to remain Prime Minister in the hope of gaining immunity from corruption charges against him.

With the List’s endorsement and that of centre-left parties, Gantz had the support of 57 Knesset members (MKs) against Netanyahu’s 55 (comprising the religious and right-wing parties). But Balad’s dissociation from the List’s decision leaves Gantz with 54 MKs, giving Netanyahu an edge.

So far, secular nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party won eight seats and whose walkout from Netanyahu’s coalition after the April elections sparked the fresh poll, has not shown a preference for either leader. Lieberman, poised to be kingmaker, has said he wants a national unity government comprising Blue and White, Likud and him.

Odeh’s decision is controversial, as it is the first time since 1992 that Arab parties have endorsed a prime ministerial candidate. Then their support was for Yitzhak Rabin, also a former senior military commander, who went on to sign the Oslo Accords with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993.

Odeh has made clear in his public comments, including an op-ed in the New York Times on 22 September, that he has no illusions about Gantz. Though prepared to support Gantz in the Knesset, the Arab List would not join a coalition led by him.

But Gantz has not been overtly anti-Arab in the way Netanyahu has. He denounced Netanyahu’s incitement against Arabs and rejected a Likud-sponsored bill that would have allowed filming of predominantly Arab-Israeli polling centres – a tactic that would have discouraged Arab participation.

Netanyahu’s concerns about Arabs voting against him have in the past seemed overblown. Arab Israelis have historically been less interested in national politics than in municipal elections. Arab parties have never participated in a national government, whereas at the local level they can make a difference in predominantly Arab communities. The Arab turnout in the April election this year was only 49%.

But something changed in the lead-up to this month’s election.

Firstly, Arab Israelis structured their four main parties into a single list, which maximised their representation in Israel’s proportional voting electoral system.

Secondly, they sensed a vulnerability in Netanyahu, given the split between him and Lieberman.

Motivated by determination to oust Netanyahu, Arab Israeli turnout leapt to 60%, giving the List 13 seats, making them the third largest bloc in the Knesset and potentially the official opposition – assuming Lieberman gets his way and there is a national unity government.

Being the official opposition would be a big deal. Odeh would be entitled to a protective security detail, intelligence briefings from Mossad, meetings with visiting international leaders and first right of reply to the Prime Minister in the Knesset. For many Israelis, that would require some getting used to.

The question is: will Arab Israelis blow it? They won 13 seats in 2015, when they previously had a Joint List, but Arab representation fell to ten seats when their parties competed separately in April this year. As Balad’s split with the other List parties over endorsing Gantz showed, they have many differences.

Whoever eventually becomes Prime Minister, much of the future for Arab Israelis will depend on Odeh’s leadership in the coming months.

Odeh seems to understand this. He wrote in the New York Times:

Arab Palestinian citizens cannot change the course of Israel alone, but change is impossible without us … If the centre-left parties of Israel believe that Arab Palestinian citizens have a place in this country, they must accept that we have a place in its politics.

You may also be interested in