NAZARETH, ISRAEL – Less than half of Israel’s Arabs, who represent a fifth of the population, are expected to vote in Tuesday’s election, in what pundits say could be their lowest-ever turnout.
Despite calls from all sides for them to get out and vote, many feel disenfranchised and are increasingly fed up with being excluded from the political decision-making that has for four years been dominated by rightwing nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties.
In Nazareth, the city with the largest Arab population in the country, the election campaign has been largely discreet.
“The Arab parties don’t represent us well,” says Samih Taha, a 23-year-old student who voted in the last legislative election for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a Jewish-Arab socialist alliance better known as Hadash.
“I don’t believe in elections. Even if (the Arab parties) get 18 seats in the Knesset, what can they do or influence? What can we do to change Israeli decisions?” he asked.
Those involved in piecing together Israel’s multiple coalition governments have systematically excluded the Arab factions from executive power, often accusing them of having an anti-Zionist agenda.
According to a recent study by Haifa University, which has a large number of Arab students, the percentage of Arab Israelis voting in the election was likely to reach its lowest ever, falling below 50 percent for the first time, according to professor Assad Ghanem.
And the figures are confirmed by another survey by the Nazareth-based Mazzawi Foundation.
“The latest surveys that we have conducted indicate that turnout among the Arab community would be around 44 percent,” Director Faddul Mazzawi said.
The general turnout has reached over 60 percent in the last few elections.
“People already know who will form the next government and who will be part of it, that’s why they are not paying any attention to these elections,” Mazzawi said.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party is running on a joint ticket with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, is expected to cruise to an easy win.
This will hand him a fresh mandate to build what is expected to be another rightwing coalition.
In the face of such disaffection, Arab lawmakers and activists from the three main Arab parties have launched a bid to buck the trend under the slogan: “Not voting means giving your vote to Netanyahu and Lieberman.”
In a first, the Arab League joined those calls Monday, urging “Arab citizens of Israel to turn out in droves for the elections so they are represented (in Parliament) and can oppose racist laws.”
In a bid to mobilize voters, activists and members of Parliament have been engaged in an intense campaign of house-to-house visits and meetings in Arab towns and villages.
The move appears to be bearing fruit in Nazareth. “I don’t want to vote because I am critical of all the Arab parties, but when I realized that would help the right, I changed my mind,” said 19-year-old Zaki Fakhuri.
“I was also against the elections but I am convinced that I don’t want to give my vote to Lieberman or Netanyahu,” Iman Abu Assaab, also 19, agreed.
Growing concern over the fate of the Arab Israeli vote has seen an array of figures urging people to go to the ballot box, among them President Shimon Peres and Central Elections Committee Chairman Elyakim Rubinstein.
Even the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper for the first time published an editorial in Arabic urging its Arab readers to get out and vote, saying it was “in the interests of Arabs, of Jews, of peace and of democracy.”
Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens, who make up more than 20 percent of the population, are Palestinians who remained in the country following the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, along with their descendants.