Disillusioned Palestinian voters may shape Israeli election

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Disillusionment with politics among Palestinian citizens could help determine next week’s election in Israel where former premier Benjamin Netanyahu is bidding to return to power, just a year after an Arab party joined an Israeli government for the first time.

With polls showing the conservative former leader still unsure of a majority, Arab parties could help form an anti-Netanyahu bloc and decide the government if the turnout among Palestinian voters is high enough.

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But, a week before the Nov. 1 ballot, some polls suggested the participation rate among Palestinian voters could fall to historic lows, with one survey showing only 42 percent sure of casting a ballot.

Other polls, meanwhile, indicate Palestinian turnout could rise slightly from last year’s 44.6 percent to as much as 50 percent - still well below the 67.4 percent national rate in last year’s election.

Arabs in Israel account for a fifth of its 9 million people and most are descendants of Palestinians who remained within the newly founded state after the 1948 war. They have long debated their place in the nation’s politics, balancing their Palestinian heritage with their Israeli citizenship.

Some citizens identify as Palestinian, despite their Israeli citizenship, while others prefer to be called Arab citizens of Israel, because they want to emphasize equal rights with Jewish Israelis.

With prospects for the creation of an independent Palestinian state as distant as they have ever been, the rise of the United Arab List (UAL) - known by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am - has shifted the debate in Arab Israeli politics.

The Arab Muslim party won 4 lawmakers in Israel’s 120-member parliament at elections last year and broke with tradition by joining a broad coalition government.

Abandoning nationalist rhetoric, the party focused instead on combating organized crime and improving planning and infrastructure in Arab areas, which opinion polls show are top priorities for Palestinian citizens in Israel.

According to Yousef Makladeh, founder and director of the Statnet Research Institute, the UAL’s gamble to break the taboo of joining a government paid off. Opinion polls he conducted show that more than 70 percent of eligible Palestinian voters now support an Arab party participating in a coalition, whether they intend to vote themselves or not.

Crami Amer, a 47-year-old electrical engineer and resident of Kufr Qasem, a city in central Israel bordering the occupied West Bank, said he will vote for UAL.

“They are being practical and are thinking of new ways to support our people and advance our society,” Amer said.

But, even after finally taking a seat at the ruling table, many Palestinians in Israel say they’ve lost hope in their ability to affect change as an Arab minority in a Jewish state.

Makladeh, the pollster, said the most repeated phrase during interviews with 200 Palestinian citizens in Israel for a recent poll was: “We are voting for nothing.” Tuesday’s election will be Israel’s fifth in less than four years.

A 2021 report by the Israel Democracy Institute found significant social and economic gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens, who also include the small Druze community in the north and Bedouin communities living mainly in the south. The poverty rate among Arabs remains more than three times higher than among Jews, the report said.

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