By Henriette Chacar
KUFR QASEM, Israel (Reuters) – 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.
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% sure of casting a ballot.
Other polls, meanwhile, indicate Palestinian turnout could rise slightly from last year’s 44.6% to as much as 50% – still well below the 67.4% 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 organised 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% 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.
The UAL’s tactics have elicited criticism from some Arab voters, especially its avoidance of the wider Palestinian question, Israel’s blockade of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank – which polls show is low on the list of concerns for Jewish voters.
Even within the same family, there are sometimes divisions.
“This concession is what Israel wants,” said Rami Amer, a 43-year-old restaurant owner and brother of Crami, referring to UAL’s decision to join the government.
“We used to advocate for two states for two peoples,” he said. “Now, we are fighting for the right to live in safety; for the right to keep our land. Look at how the (Israeli) state has managed to narrow our demands.”
In a recent radio interview, United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas said that – while he wants the creation of a Palestinian state and to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank – he believed that Arab society in Israel was best served by the party joining a future ruling coalition.
A relatively small group of eligible voters among Palestinians citizens in Israel, around 12% according to Makladeh, has actively boycotted general elections for years.
A social media campaign launched by some boycotters ahead of Tuesday’s election said Israel uses their participation to perpetuate its image as a democracy and to cover its policies of oppression.
In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month, centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid described Israel as a “strong liberal democracy” where Jews, Muslims and Christians share full civic equality.
Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher on Arab society at the Israel Democracy Institute, said recent events may have discouraged some Palestinians from participating.
Since May 2021, when an 11-day Gaza war with Hamas forces sparked unrest in so-called mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel, Arab citizens have increasingly identified with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Khalaily said.
The collapse of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab-led parties formed in 2015, diminished hopes of countering what some Palestinian citizens in Israel see as racist policies, he added, citing the 2018 Nation-State Law, which declares only Jews have a right to self-determination in the country.
Regional changes have also shifted priorities for Palestinian citizens in Israel, Khalaily said.
With some Arab countries recently forging ties with Israel and no longer conditioning peaceful relations on an end to the occupation, some Arab voters have turned inward, refocusing attention on everyday issues, which could explain the rise of the United Arab List, he said.
If Palestinian turnout hits record lows, all three Arab-led parties risk not crossing the 3.25% threshold needed to enter parliament.
That would leave Palestinian citizens in Israel without their own parties in parliament in an election that could usher the most far-right government in Israel’s history if Netanyahu forms a coalition with the Jewish Power party.
“Imagine parliament without Arabs,” said Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, a political sociology lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “These results could be critical.”
(Reporting by Henriette Chacar; Editing by James Mackenzie and Daniel Flynn)