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The surprising voters who could swing Israel’s election: Palestinians

Campaign billboard showing Arab candidate in Israeli election
A campaign billboard shows Sami Abu Shehadeh, head of the Arab nationalist Balad party, who is running in Israel’s Nov. 1 election.
(Mahmoud Illean / Associated Press)
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The voices of Israel’s Palestinian citizens are often drowned out or de-legitimized in the country’s noisy politics. Yet in the upcoming parliament election, they could hold the key to breaking an entrenched political deadlock.

Israelis vote Tuesday for the fifth time in under four years. The country remains divided over former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption. Polls show those numbers have barely budged.

What could tip the scales is the vote of one-fifth of Israelis who are of Palestinian descent, with family ties in adjacent territories Israel captured in 1967.

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Turnout among these voters will be key: High numbers could swing the election in favor of Netanyahu’s opponents, while a drop could pave the way for Netanyahu’s return.

“I can hardly remember a single election campaign that all depended on the vote of Arab citizens,” said Arik Rudnitzky, who studies Arab voting patterns at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank.

Most polls predict a historically low turnout among Arab voters, even though the outgoing coalition government included an Arab party, a first in Israel’s history.

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That first-time participation in government hasn’t generated much excitement among voters disillusioned by rampant crime, the rising cost of living and a loss of hope for change within a slow-moving political system.

This could be a boon for Netanyahu, who in his lengthy political career has both played on ethnic tensions to drum up support for his nationalist Likud party and sought support from the same Arab voters he derided to bolster his party’s chances.

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Arab parties are expected to win eight seats in the 120-member parliament, down from a high of 15 in 2020, some polls suggest. Other polls predict even fewer seats. A decrease in Arab representation could result in Netanyahu heading a hard-line government that includes Jewish extremists who call Arab lawmakers “terrorists” and want to deport them.

Sensing the urgency, Arab lawmakers are making a last-minute effort to rally their supporters. Signs around Arab areas implore residents to vote.

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“People have lost hope,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, head of the Arab nationalist Balad party. “We tell them that voting for Balad now, it’s not [just] another vote.” Instead, he said, it “can change the whole political map.”

Lower turnout by Palestinian voters could hobble the current coalition’s chances to return to power, or grant the Netanyahu camp more seats.

“The only thing that is ambiguous in this whole story is the Arabs, and therefore they are the only thing that this time can decide the elections, for better or worse,” said Mohammad Magadli, a political analyst with the Arabic-language Nas Radio and Israeli Channel 12 TV.

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Since the political crisis began in 2019, Netanyahu has struggled to form a viable government. Israel’s fragmented politics require coalition-building to govern, and former allies have refused to sit under him as long as he is battling corruption charges.

Arab parties have historically been shunned by or refused to join Israeli governments. But that tradition was shattered last year when a small Arab Islamist party joined the coalition formed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, sending Netanyahu packing after 12 years in office. The government, a hodgepodge of parties with little in common, ultimately collapsed after one year because of infighting.

The small Arab party in the coalition, the United Arab List, is polling at four seats. A separate Arab group also is set to capture four seats. The third party, Balad, may not even cross the electoral threshold to enter parliament. Balad opposes joining a coalition.

Balad leader Abu Shehadeh sees no policy differences between Netanyahu and his opponents that could benefit his constituents. He was out recently in the Arab Israeli city of Umm al Fahm, trying to convince people to vote for the sake of Arab representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Shadiya Mahajneh, an Umm al Fahm resident, said she would not be voting. “We don’t feel that there are achievements,” she said. “The crime levels in the Arab sector are increasing, and they [Arab politicians] are not doing anything.”

Palestinians in Israel enjoy the rights of citizens, and some have reached the highest echelons of government and business. Yet they also face discrimination in housing, jobs and public services. Their communities tend to be poorer and less-educated than those of Jewish Israelis.

Voter turnout among Arabs has generally been lower than among Jews. In next week’s election, turnout among Arabs is expected to be in the low 40s, and among Jews in the mid-60s.

Many Arab voters are skeptical of their leaders’ ability or desire to bring about change. They also feel their standing in the country was downgraded with a 2018 law that codified Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. And they’re frustrated by the never-ending cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has cast them as a fifth column because of their solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967.

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Disillusionment has been fueled by the entry of Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List into the coalition government that wound up collapsing. While the move was initially welcomed, Abbas was unable to prove to voters that he could deliver results, deepening their sense that the political game is rigged against them.

“After 75 years being a minority inside Israel, people want to have ready-made or quick solutions,” said Dalia Fadila, an educator who promotes Arab integration into Israeli society. “They are very much sick and bored of all the promises.”

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