Arab votes in upcoming Israeli election may change political map

Israelis will head to the polls on Tuesday for a critical election that may extricate the country’s two-year political deadlock. A decisive factor in the election is the Arab-Israeli voters, about 20 percent of the country’s population that traditionally votes for Arab lists.

Last year’s election saw the Joint List of Arab parties gaining 15 seats out of the 120 parliament seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset. However, a recent split in the party will likely reduce the size of the Joint List.

Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra’am faction and broke away weeks ago, has said he is not committed to the bloc opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While traditionally, the Arab representatives do not recommend any candidate to form a government, and the parties are positioned on the left-wing bloc in the Israeli political map.

Recent polls show Abbas will pass the electoral threshold and gain four seats in the parliament. With a current tie between the blocs, these seats could tip the balance for either side.

A recent poll conducted by researchers at the Tel Aviv University showed that almost half of the Arab population supports entering a coalition government. The poll demonstrated that the issue most concerning the Arab-Israelis is the growing violence within their communities. Abbas’ breaking away from the Joint List has touched on that sentiment.

“If Ra’am passes the electoral threshold, this will be a historic event in which an Arab party will enter the Knesset independently and not as part of a unified list,” said Afif Abu Much, a political analyst and contributor to the Al Monitor website.

This would reflect a growing belief within the Arab-Israeli population that the only way to elevate their position in society is by sitting in a government or at least, being close to positions of power and influence.

The appearance of Abbas as an independent candidate has given the Arabs an alternative outlet to their traditional vote. His more pragmatic approach has the potential to attract a significant amount of voters.

“The Palestinian issue and relations with other Arab countries concern only a small percent of the Arab population,” Arik Rudnitzky, who led the research from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation at the Tel Aviv University, told Xinhua.

“They are more concerned about issues pertaining to their daily lives,” he added.

Netanyahu himself also attempts to win the Arab votes. For years, he treated the Arab Israelis and their representatives with suspicion, calling them “supporters of terrorism.” Far from being a political novice, he has now realized the potential in the support from the Arab community.

As Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu has been in power for over a decade. At the beginning of the month, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved a budget to “strengthen Arab sector communities and reduce crime.”

“Everyone wants our votes because the right realizes that it cannot be with us, nor the left in the middle can be without us,” said Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, during the list’s election campaign launch two weeks ago.

“The age of the Arabs being treated as a last resort is over,” Abu Much told Xinhua, stressing that by not committing to any bloc, Abbas’ party is trying to elevate the position of the Arab constituency.

“He wants to change the rules of the game,” he added.

Voter turnout is expected to drop. This is projected to be a national trend reflecting voters’ fatigue from three previous elections that failed to unravel the political mess. For the Arab population which historically has a lower voter turnout, this could change their representation dramatically.

As Netanyahu has toned down his rhetoric against the Arab population and is even trying to pacify it, this may even further reduce turnout.

“We see no burning desire to oust Netanyahu this time, because the Arabs do not see a real difference between the candidates,” Abu Much said. While the Arab votes could change the political map significantly, only when an Arab party is a solid member of a coalition, will a real change be seen.