Low Voter Turnout among Israeli Arab Citizens during the Coming Elections: Strategic Implications for Israel
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | September, 2022
|Photos: Zaher332 | CC BY-SA 4.0|
According to opinion polls conducted in recent weeks, Arab Israeli citizens’ voter turnout in the upcoming elections is expected to be 37%–40%, the lowest since the state’s establishment. For comparison’s sake, in the last elections, that boasted an unprecedentedly low voter turnout among Israeli Arabs, 44.6% of such eligible voters had indeed cast their ballot.
The implication is reduced Arab representation in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), leading to less Arab impact on the parliamentary discourse and decision-making process on the national level. Under the present political circumstances in Israel, at the heart of which is an ongoing draw between left and right, such a scenario could have tremendous impact on the overall outcomes of the elections. The Arab public is expected to be a weighty factor in the upcoming elections, not due to its presence and involvement, but due to its absence from them.
In the present Knesset, the Joint Arab List has 6 seats and the United Arab List (Ra`am) has 4; however, a voter turnout of under 40% will reduce these figures, and perhaps even make it hard for one (or both) of the parties to cross the qualifying threshold. This analysis runs contrary to most opinion polls published in Israel, which reflect relative stability in voter turnout data in Arab society, i.e., pointing to the preservation of the current 10 seats, in a way that does not take into account the expected drop in voter turnout in this population.
The setting for the trend described is a combination of three factors: The difficulty to declare Ra`am’s experiment a success, inter alia due to the high incidence of crime and violence; the Joint List’s inability to present an appealing vision to the Arab public and the dramatic split that took place last week between Hadash-Ta`al – The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality and the National Movement for Chance – and Balad – The National Democratic Assembly; as well as the failure to incorporate Arab candidates in real positions on the lists formed by prominent Zionist parties. In addition to the above, right-wing parties are calling for prohibiting the current Arab parties’ participation in the Knesset elections.
This state of affairs is making many in Arab society wonder poignantly whether they can influence reality at all by voting for the Knesset and deepening their integration into the state institutions, and about the political establishment and Jewish society’s willingness to open their doors to Arab citizens.
At present, the lack of motivation to partake in the elections is not ideological in nature, and exists alongside many Arab citizens’ ongoing yearning, particularly among the younger generation, to focus on developing their fabric of life and deepen their integration on the non-political level, for instance, into the public sector, economy, business world, media or culture. Voices are also heard in the background, calling for the banning of the elections for ideological reasons, primarily by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement and Abnaa el-Balad Movement who advocate separatism and avoiding contact with the state institutions and Jewish society.
The low responsiveness to Arab participation in the elections is developing against a particularly charged backdrop in Jewish-Arab relations. Over the past 18 months since the May 2021 events, the two societies have swung sharply from unprecedented violent confrontation to unprecedented integration led by Ra`am. Yet the overall atmosphere common in both societies is of deep suspicion coupled with the assessment that the May 2021 events will remain “open-ended”, and that similar outbreaks could happen again, perhaps even more intensely than before.
Nor is this the only explosive point in Arab society. Others include soaring crime and violence, ongoing decline in governability (especially in the southern part of Israel, the Negev), distress among the younger generation (one third of Arab Israelis aged 18 to 24 do not work or study), as well as the tension associated with the issue of land and the Nation State Law.
The Arab public’s growing despair of the entire political system and its limited representation in the state institutions could further deepen the charged atmosphere and even render it explosive, particularly if Arab Israelis will sense that the future government will prefer to avoid collaborating with the Arab parties, or go as far as to consider limiting their activity.
Such steps could serve as the powder keg capable of turning multidimensional frustration into broad, violent and prolonged friction between the Arab public and the State of Israel. Such a development would serve as fertile ground for extremists, primarily the Islamic State, who have already proven in the last 12 months that they have a marginal but lethal hold on Arab society, especially among the younger generation. Such an explosion could flare up following specific confrontations between law enforcement forces and Arab citizens, but may also evolve due to developments associated with Temple Mount, an issue that has already proven its ability to set the mixed cities ablaze in May 2021.
The existing tension and that which could be generated in Jewish-Arab relations may transform into a strategic challenge for Israel’s security that is no less significant than those posed by the external arenas. It is crucial for this insight to be internalized by all politicians and decision makers, for it should already be impacting their conduct at present. Arab representation in Jewish parties can no longer be changed; however, restrained conduct and balanced language in the period leading up to the elections would help to maintain relative stability in the internal arena.
On the morning after elections, the decision makers will be required to divert much of their attention to the domestic issues in Israel, alongside other fateful subjects such as the Iranian nuclear program, Palestinian system and northern front. The key understanding should be that the old formula underlying the relationship between the Arab public and state is struggling to remain valid, and if Israeli Arab citizens should feel the doors shutting in the next few weeks, the result could be a severe cascade of expectations that may also lead to increasing alienation and violent confrontations.
Any government formed would be required to further and even increase the efforts promoted in recent years with regard to increasing the budgets earmarked for the development of Arab society, eliminating crime and violence there, and cultivating the younger generation, including the advancement of civil service ventures that could give these youngsters a sense of purpose and contribution to society, alongside the reinforcement of their basic affiliation to the state institutions.
The future government would also be required to broaden the integration of Arab citizens into the establishment (where they remain underrepresented compared to their demographic proportion), and perhaps even explore a strategic step such as the drafting of a convention that, for the first time since 1948, would determine the status of Arab citizens, their rights and duties.
The Arab citizens, for their part, would be required to cooperate with the projects promoted, and be willing to reshape their fundamental demands of the state so as to eliminate all inherent alienation. For instance, the willingness to accept its current character while being granted full civil rights, abandoning the notion of the non-nation state that has been rejected by the vast majority of Israeli Jews and continues to preserve inter-societal alienation.
The current fragile state of affairs cannot go on much longer, and both societies must realize that we have reached a historical crossroads from which they can either choose to deteriorate into unprecedented abysses or take cautious steps, on a road that’s bound to be bumpy, toward a stable reality that would benefit both.
 See in particular the poll published by Channel Makan 33 on 28 August, and the poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) on 31 August.
 In the 2001 elections voter turnout was approximately 20% (against the backdrop of the October 2000 events); however, at that time, elections were not parliamentary but direct prime-ministerial ones.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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