Israel's Arabs Weigh What's Worse — to Vote or to Boycott Elections

Israel's Arabs Weigh What's Worse — to Vote or to Boycott Elections

Will she vote for Bibi? An Israeli Arab woman walks past an electoral billboard showing Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Haifa.

SourceAHMAD GHARABLI/Getty

Why you should care

Growing disenchantment among Israel’s Arab population could lead to low voter turnout. 

Aida Touma-Sliman’s concern is palpable as she hits the campaign trail in the final days before Israelis go to the polls. For four years, she has battled to represent the country’s Arab minority in a Parliament dominated by right-wing politicians who regularly whip up anti-Arab sentiment.

Touma-Sliman was reduced to tears when she and her fellow Arab lawmakers were unable to stop the passing of a nation-state law that declared Jews alone had the right to national self-determination in Israel — legislation that deepened Arabs’ perception they were second-class citizens.

Now Touma-Sliman fears that as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has presided over the most right-wing government in Israel’s history — seeks a fifth term, the Israeli-Arab community is losing faith that its vote matters.

We are at the stage of defending, not achieving.

Aida Touma-Sliman, Israeli-Arab politician

At stake is whether a community, which accounts for 1 in 5 Israelis and has for decades faced institutionalized discrimination, retains a strong enough parliamentary voice to at least attempt to put a brake on the divisive policies of the Jewish state’s muscular right.

“It’s not easy this time, it’s really difficult,” says Touma-Sliman, who was the first Arab woman to chair a parliamentary committee. “I’m worried, to be honest. If we are still fighting for equal rights we cannot withdraw from the most important platform.”

A women’s rights activist from Nazareth, she doesn’t pretend that Arab lawmakers can deliver significant change for their constituency: “We are at the stage of defending, not achieving.” But the spirited 54-year-old grandmother believes if enough Arabs turn out on Tuesday they may be able to help sway what is expected to be one of the closest elections in Israel in years.

One hope is that Arab parties can take advantage of a rule that requires parties to win 3.25 percent of the vote to secure seats in the Knesset. The calculation is that if Arabs vote in significant numbers the harder it will be for small hard-right parties, such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Our Home party, to cross the threshold to enter Parliament. The issue could be critical to Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition, with the performance of small parties pivotal to the outcome.

“Don’t vote for us, vote against them,” was the message Touma-Sliman delivered to convince a group of Arab women not to boycott the poll.

“They understand that there are more important things in this election — the core, fundamental change that will happen in Israel,” she says. “It’s given them hope they can influence those who scare them.”

However, a poll commissioned by her own party, Hadash, last month indicated that Arab turnout could plummet from 64 percent in 2015 to 50 percent.

Arab lawmakers partly blame themselves for the apparent shift in sentiment. At the last ballot, four Arab parties came together for the first time in an alliance that won 13 seats to become the third-largest bloc in the 120-member Knesset.

Expectations were raised but never met. Netanyahu forged ahead with his right-wing policies virtually unchecked. More than anything, last year’s passing of the nation-state law, which downgraded Arabic from its status as an official language and encourages the building of Jewish-only communities, demoralized Arabs.

Then, weeks before campaigning for this election began, the Arab alliance split, threatening to divide the Arab vote. If turnout is low, the second Arab list, Balad-Ra’am, may struggle to pass the 3.25 percent barrier.

“Our program is strong but the real problem is trying to convince and reach people in large numbers. A big part of the population is angry, in part because of the breakup of the list,” says Mansour Abbas, a candidate for the Balad-Ra’am list. “If we don’t take part in the political process it will undermine our ability to be citizens of the state and it will move further to the right and take away what rights we have.”

He reckons Arab parties will still get 11 to 12 seats. Touma-Sliman hopes such forecasts are accurate, “but I’m really scared it could end up being five,” she says

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer with Israeli citizenship, said there were two categories of Arabs who will not vote: those who are disenchanted with the system and a smaller group who believe they would be legitimizing a government they consider an occupying force. Her concern is that as Arab complaints about discrimination, ranging from the “erasure” of the Arab language to social inequalities, are ignored, the number of those disenchanted is rising.

“This is the first election that you see the category ‘what have you done for me lately’ coming into play,” she says. “The challenge the next politicians are going to face is to counter expectations, but also show they are a force that can be reckoned with; to show that they are pushing back against racism and discrimination.”

With an overwhelming young Arab population, much will rest with voters such as Bianca, a 21-year-old student in the mixed city of Haifa who will cast her ballot for the first time. “I know we are a minority, but I want to use this right, this is our democratic choice,” she says.

Further down the street, Mohammed Soli has given up on politics. “They only care about their salaries,” the 22-year-old says. “They are just talking, not doing.”

His sentiment underscores the challenges politicians such as Touma-Sliman face. She describes the Arab MP’s lot as a “lose-lose situation.”

“It’s like taking food from the mouth of the wolf,” she says. “Sometimes you get your hand out safe, and sometimes you lose your hand and you don’t even get the food.”

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By Andrew England and Mehul Srivastava

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