Low Palestinian voter turnout expected as Israel's fifth election launches next week

Low Palestinian voter turnout expected as Israel's fifth election launches next week
Amid concerns about low voter turnout, four Arab parties, who once formed the formidable Joint List, will also run for the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
6 min read
26 October, 2022
Jaffa's al-Ajami neighbourhood. Elections advertisement for Sami Abu Shehade's A-Tajamo party on a billboard. On top, a poster for the joint electoral list of al-Jabha, and the Arab movement for Renewal party. [Ibrahim Husseini/TNA]

National elections in Israel are drawing near. The polls will open for 6.78 million eligible voters on 1 November to choose candidates from forty lists competing for the 25th Knesset. It would be Israel's fifth national election within three and a half years.

The front-runner parties are the Likud, Yesh Atid, and the Religious Zionist party.

The Likud party is right-wing and headed by former PM Benyamin Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a corruption trial.

PM Yair Lapid's 'Yesh Atid' or 'There's a Future' party is the second largest, according to polls, and brands itself as a centrist party.

'Religious Zionism' is far-right and headed by Bezalel Smotrich. It's an alliance of three parties, including Itamar Ben Gvir's 'Jewish Power' party.

Amid concerns about low voter turnout, four Arab parties, who once formed the formidable Joint List, will also run for the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. They are Mansour Abbas' United Arab List, then there is the joint electoral list of 'Al Jabha' and The Arab Movement for Renewal, headed by Ayman Oudeh and Ahmad Tibi, respectively, and  finally, the National Democratic Party, also known as al-Tajamo, which the Jaffa-born Sami Abu Shehada leads.

The United Arab List (UAL) was founded in 1996. Dr Mansour Abbas is the current party leader. Following the 2021 election, UAL became the first Arab party to formally join a ruling coalition in Israel, drawing praise and criticism from across the political spectrum in Israel.

The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, or Al-Jabha, was founded in 1977. Its voting members are Arabs, mainly, and Israelis. Ayman Odeh is the party leader.

The Arab movement for Renewal was established by Dr Ahmad Tibi in 1996. It brands itself secular.

Al-Jabha and The Arab movement for Renewal have agreed on a joint electoral list at the last minute. Together they are forecast to harness four seats at the Knesset.

The Al-Tajamo, or the National Democratic Party, is considered far-left. It calls for a State for all its citizens, rather than the often-heard Jewish and democratic motto. Sami Abu Shehade, the party's chairman, comes from the famous port city of Jaffa. Al-Tajamo is not expected to cross the electoral threshold.

All the Arab parties in Israel support establishing an independent Palestinian State in the territories Israel occupied in 1967. The parties' platforms also call for achieving equality between Arabs and Israelis within Israel and the recognition of Arabs as a national minority.

Al-Jabalieh Mosque in Jaffa's al-Ajami neigborhood.
Al-Jabalieh Mosque in Jaffa's al-Ajami neighbourhood. [Ibrahim Husseini/TNA]

Ayman Odeh, the leader of Al-Jabha, told The New Arab that he expects the Arab vote to be critical enough that the Israeli parties find it impossible to do without the support of Arab parties.

"We're going to set two choices: either they respect us or there would be a sixth election," said Ayman Odeh.

Apprehensions about an all-right-wing government headed by Benyamin Netanyahu, with the far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir as a cabinet member, appear to have struck an alarm with many disenchanted Arab citizens.

"We expect our people to prevent the Kahanists from reaching the government and to stand firm against any government that assaults our people, the Palestinians," he added.

According to analysts, the election on 1 November might yield a meagre turnout among Arab citizens. Still, Ahmad Khalaileh believes at least one factor that may change the voters' minds: the rise of the Right in Israel and far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party.

Ben Gvir, considered radical and a proponent of the transfer of Arabs, struck a nerve when he pulled a handgun in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem earlier in the month.

"The behaviour of Ben Gvir affirms that the danger is not imaginary but rather real," remarked Khalaileh.

There are nearly one million eligible Arab voters in Israel, according to Khalaileh, but he thinks only half will cast their votes.

Dr Samir Ben Sa'id from the Naqab (Negev) is the number six candidate on the Joint electoral list of Al-Jabha and the Arab movement for Renewal. He told TNA that support for any potential ruling bloc would be conditional on stopping home demolitions and recognising Arab towns in the Naqab.

Ben Sa'id discounted the possibility of a Netanyahu-led bloc approaching them for support but expressed readiness to support a Lapid-Gantz bloc should conditions are met.

Meanwhile, TNA spoke with a few eligible voters from diverse backgrounds.

Near Nazareth, 60-year-old Nisreen Murcos is a social and political activist and member of the Al-Jabha party. She cited the rising cost of living and rampant crime as one of the pressing issues in this election but articulated that the State of Israel must come to terms with its Palestinian citizens.

"We demand the State to acknowledge our Palestinian identity and to recognise us as a national minority," she added. 

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Jamal Abu Raya, 46 years old, is an active member of the United Arab List in Galilee.

"Under no circumstance, we would lend support to a Netanyahu-led government," he stressed.

Abu Raya expressed optimism that the party would pass the electoral threshold and gain five seats in the Knesset.

"Our plan remains the same: tackling crime and improving education and infrastructure in Arab towns."

In the town of Abu Ghosh, Yousef Abu Ghosh, 34 years old, is a member of Al-Tajomo, headed by Sami Abu Shehade. Though the polls show Al-Tajomo having little chance of passing the threshold, Yousef believes his party's message will resonate.

"No doubt the Arab community has been let down and is deeply disappointed because of the Israeli policy and the ineffectiveness of the Arab parties," Yousef said.

Abu Ghosh is a small town West of Jerusalem. The votes, according to Yousef, are traditionally split between Al-Tajomo and Mansour Abbas' United Arab List.

Al-Tajamo advocates for a State for all of its citizens.

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Ahmad Khail, a 41-year-old resident of Jaffa, works at a Shawarma restaurant in Old Jaffa. He said he would vote for Sami Abu Shehada's Al-Tajamo party. When Asked what issues he was worried about, he cited the rising cost of housing and the inequality between Arabs and Jews.

"In ten years, I think there won't be any Arabs left here," he said.

"So many underprivileged people have already moved to places like Lod or Ramla or Qalansawa or even the West Bank," he added.

Ahmad said abstaining from going to the polls serves "Jewish settlers." It would "play into the hands of those who don't want me to stay in Jaffa," he said.

On Yafet street, in Jaffa's Ajami neighbourhood, Reuven Orr stood holding a hand-written sign in Hebrew. It read: 'No to Ben Gvir'…'Come to vote'.

"He belongs in jail," said Reuven Orr of MK Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power Party. 

"He wants to set fire not only to this country but the whole middle east," added the Israeli resident of Jaffa.

Orr is still undecided between PM Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party and current Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz's National Unity party.

"I think they are [two] people who look for a greater solution in the country."

The seventy-three-year-old said he fought several wars for Israel and thinks it's best to "separate peacefully with Palestinians."