Israel’s Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election

Israeli Arab politician watching at the Joint List’s campaign headquarters in Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (AFP)

Israel’s Arab coalition appears poised to emerge as the main opposition bloc following Tuesday’s election, a historic first that would grant a new platform to a long-marginalized minority.

With more than 90% of votes counted on Wednesday, the Joint List was expected to win about a dozen seats in the 120-member assembly, coming third after the Blue and White party of former military chief Benny Gantz and the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In absolute terms, the Arab bloc appears to have repeated its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats.

But this time around, due to the shifting constellation of Israeli politics, it would be well-placed to lead the opposition if a national unity government of the two largest parties is formed, as seems likely.

That would put a representative of Israel’s Arab citizens closer to the center of power than ever before and strengthen their ability to influence the national agenda.

A target of incitement

Israel’s Arab minority makes up about 20% of the population of 9 million, and is descended from Palestinians who stayed in Israel after it was established as a state in 1948. They officially enjoy full citizenship, including the right to vote, but they lived under martial law until 1966 and still suffer widespread discrimination.

Decades of marginalization have bred voter apathy, and in April’s elections more than half the Arab electorate stayed home.

This time around, Arab leaders joined forces and mobilized turnout, vowing to topple Netanyahu and push for improvements in public services.

Arab citizens have close family, cultural and historical ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with the Palestinian cause. That has led many Israelis to view them as a fifth column and a security threat.

Netanyahu has repeatedly branded them as terrorists and traitors in a bid to energize his right-wing base, in remarks widely condemned as racist incitement.

In the closing hours of the 2015 elections, Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting in “droves.”

This time around, he pushed for the placement of cameras at polling stations in Arab districts based on unfounded claims of widespread fraud, saying Arabs were trying to “steal” the election .

Facebook suspended an automated chat function on his account for 24 hours last week after it published a post saying, “Arabs want to annihilate all of us.”

Netanyahu appeared to double down in his election-night speech, saying no Israeli government could include “anti-Zionist Arab parties” that “reject the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “praise bloodthirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, citizens and children.”

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:56 - GMT 06:56
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