Arab Politics in Israel: A Balance Sheet of Five Knesset Elections (2019–2022) and the Challenges of the Future

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Arab politics in Israel consists of two interconnected levels: One relates to the configuration of the parties ahead of the elections; the other – to Arab voting behavior on Election Day. Election results in Arab society depend on the interaction between these two levels.

Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Israel has witnessed five Knesset elections in less than four years (2019–2022)—a figure without precedent in other democratic regimes in developed countries. There were no large fluctuations in the national turnout during this period; the rate in Jewish localities and in mixed Arab- Jewish cities remained quite stable (an average of 72%). By contrast, turnout in Arab and Druze localities had significant ups and downs. At the same time Arab parties went back and forth between unity and division. In this brief period, Arab politics experienced sharp changes with regard to the organization of the Arab parties, as well as with regard to Arab voter turnout on Election Day. This situation further highlights the reciprocal relations between the two levels, mentioned above.

In the elections for the 25th Knesset, turnout by Arab and Druze voters stood at 53.2%— significantly higher than the low point recorded in the previous year's elections (44.6%). In a ten-year perspective (2013–2022), the recent elections mark a new development: this is the only time there was a significant rise in Arab turnout for Knesset elections, even though the parties were not running together as they had under the rubric of the Joint List. Over the past decade, turnout in one election exceeded that in the previous election only when the Arab parties were united, and dropped when they ran separately. This time, the trend was reversed.

Moreover, the increase in Arab turnout in the last election as compared to the year before (2021) is similar to that when the Joint List was founded (2015), and then when it was reconstituted after a campaign when the parties had split (September 2019). This indicates that the split among the Arab parties this year—with three different lists representing four parties (Ra’am, Hadash-Ta’al, and Balad) running—did not reduce Arab participation in the election, as had been the case in the not very distant past; quite the contrary.

Election Turnout, 1999-2022


The Factors behind the Higher Arab Turnout

Two main factors explain the increased turnout. First, despite somewhat discouraging opening conditions in the shadow of a new crisis within the Joint List, which resulted in Hadash and Ta’al running together and Balad on its own, all the Arab parties—including Ra'am which continued on its own —rallied to their campaigns. They launched the campaign in places considered to be bastions of their support: Ra’am, in Bedouin localities (in the Negev and northern Israel); Hadash-Ta’al, in the Nazareth region; and Balad, in the northern part of the Triangle. The broad public response to the parties’ first political rallies conveyed a message of success and created strong momentum to move ahead. From this point on, the party leaders invested major efforts in working on the ground and in face-to-face meetings with their potential voters. They did their very best to avoid negative messages about one another. Instead, they opted for a positive political discourse and highlighting what was special about each party’s platform, in order to encourage voters to support them.

Second, the period of the Joint List (2015–2021) was characterized by unity of the ranks on the Arab street, but there was no synergy among its components. Worse still, for much of the Arab sector it blurred the differences between the parties and left people disgruntled and frustrated by the parties’ failure to achieve unity. In the most recent campaign, Arab politics returned to the tripartite structure that had preceded the establishment of the Joint List. For the first time in a decade, Arab voters had three worthy alternatives to choose from.

The increase in turnout indicates that the Arab street was thirsty for political discourse, and this aroused new interest in going to the polls. It was precisely the split between the various lists which encouraged people to go out and vote. Some now felt more comfortable voting for a specific list that represents them—and only for this list, without its being bundled in a package deal with other political forces. Others, who had stayed home in 2021, finally found a ballot slip to their liking, even if they did not drop it in the box wholeheartedly, but only so as to exercise their right to vote. In addition, many who had used the social networks to announce their intention to boycott the election, changed their mind. Some of them voted for Balad, not necessarily out of ideological identification with its platform, but more out of respect for its chair, Sami Abu Shehadeh and a desire to help the list clear the electoral threshold.

Nevertheless, Arab turnout was still low (53.2%) and even slightly less than the average turnout over the last decade (2013–2022), 55.9%. Despite the increased turnout, the picture is clear: Half of the eligible Arab voters still do not go to the polls on Election Day.

An Evaluation of the Election Results in Arab Society

The results of the recent Knesset elections hold both good news and bad news for Arab politics in Israel. The good news is that a significant share of the Arab public once again showed an interest in elections. Arab turnout rose significantly over the all-time low of 2021. This development in fact took place after the dissolution (evidently permanent) of the Joint List, when the configuration of Arab politics returned to the tripartite structure that had characterized it for a rather long period, (1999–2013), until the original establishment of the Joint List in 2015.

The interesting point is that the significant increase in Arab turnout in the recent elections, precisely after the final dissolution of the Joint List, is in many respects reminiscent of the increase when the Joint List was formed in advance of the elections for the 20th Knesset (2015), and again before the elections for the 22nd Knesset (September 2019). This attests to Arab voters’ thirst for a political dialogue that highlights the differences between the different parties’ political views. Arab unity is the heartfelt desire of many in the Arab sector, but the differences among the Arab parties were swept under the rug when they joined together in the Joint List. It turns out that a focused and effective campaign by the parties and presentation of clear and distinct alternatives can stir the public into action.

It is still too early to know whether the 2022 elections mark a turning point, such that the Arab parties again lead their public, but they may herald a renewal of the direct ties between the parties and the voters. From this perspective, this may be the very best news resulting from the election.

The bad news is that for the first time since 1996, not all of the ideological streams active in Arab society made it into the Knesset. The two that cleared the threshold represent the Islamists (Ra’am), the Arab–non-Zionist Jewish stream (Hadash), and moderate Arab nationalism (Ta’al), but the principal representative of nationalism in Arab society, Balad, was left on the sidelines for the first time since its founding in the mid-1990s. Both Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al increased their support and together maintained Arab representation in the new Knesset (a total of 10 seats), from falling below the floor registered in recent years whenever the Arab political system was fragmented (April 2019 and March 2021). But this is only a slight consolation.

The fate of Balad in these elections is a classic example of the saying that “the operation succeeded, but the patient died.” There is no doubt that Balad energized the atmosphere in the Arab street by running alone, to which can be attributed the significant increase in Arab turnout this time. But “almost” isn’t enough, and Balad remained outside the Knesset. To the existing political divisions on the Arab street must now be added the fact that part of the Arab community are represented in the Knesset, but many others are not.

Future Challenges for the Arab Parties

The Arab parties represented in the new Knesset will have to deal not only with their status as an opposition to a right-wing coalition inside the house, but also with their nationalist opposition outside the parliament. This development may have ramifications for the operation of the Follow-up Committee, which is the umbrella organization of all Arab parliamentary parties and other non-parliamentary forces. In the wake of the last elections, the relative weight of the extra-parliamentary voices on the committee has increased significantly. One of the main impacts of this development may be a sharper debate about a question that has occupied the Arab leadership for years: should the Committee serve as the supreme leadership body of the Arab minority in Israel, and as a substitute for the parties that sit in the Knesset?

However, not the parties, and certainly not the Arab community will give up on the Knesset. The political issue on the Arab agenda is not whether to participate in the conventional parliamentary process —by forming parties and running in Knesset elections—but rather, how to make the process more effective for Arab citizens. The future direction of each of the Arab parties derives from this assumption.

The challenge facing Ra’am in the new Knesset lies in demonstrating its relevance and ability to influence Government policy even when it is sitting in the opposition. This is not a new situation for the party. For years its Knesset members, while in the opposition, knew how to cooperate quietly and effectively with right-wing governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu. This is the essence of the ‘new approach’ (al-nahj al-jadid in Arabic) announced by Mansour Abbas two years ago, an approach that paved the way for Ra’am, for the first time in its history, to join the Bennett-Lapid government. The fact that Ra’am does not rule out cooperation with any government, as long as the urgent problems of Arab society are addressed, should make it more relevant for collaboration with the new Netanyahu government on specific issues. If Ra’am is successful, it will fulfill its election slogan, “actions, not words,” and be rewarded for this in future elections.

Hadash-Ta’al knows the opposition benches only too well; now will have to decide whether to become an integral part of the opposition led by Yesh Atid or continue to adopt an independent line that is not necessarily compatible with that of the Jewish opposition parties. The election slogan of the alliance between Hadash and Ta’al was “influence with dignity” (ta’thir be-karama in Arabic); and now it will have to show that both words have a meaning. The question is to what extent the two parties will be willing to put their pride aside, in the pursuit of cooperation with the opposition parties, in anticipation of a future scenario in which these parties would again be part of the coalition. Precisely the fact that a new round of elections does not seem to be in the offing, will likely be especially beneficial to Hadash, which does not rule out cooperation with the bloc headed by Yair Lapid, but adopts a cautious and gradual approach to this.

Balad finds itself in a more complex situation. In the wake of its failure to clear the electoral threshold, its chair, Sami Abu Shehadeh, declared that the number of Knesset seats does not reflect the nationalist stream’s weight and importance in Arab society. Even before the last elections, and against the backdrop of its members’ prolonged disappointment with Balad’s insufficient representation on the Joint List, there were calls for the party to abandon parliamentary politics in order to regroup and consider its path. As fate would have it, Balad has now been left out of this arena in any case; we may assume, however, that its members will not be willing to forgo Knesset representation in the future. From a historical perspective, the nationalist stream’s success in the 1990s, when it established Balad and first won Knesset seats, came only after its leaders realized that a parliamentary presence was essential for strengthening the ties with the public. In addition, the nationalist stream’s parliamentary representation presents a real political alternative for many Arabs who do not identify with the platforms of Hadash or Ra’am. For this reason, we may assume that Balad will make use of its forced recess, and focus on revising its political message, and perhaps even on establishing new alliances with influential forces in Arab society. Although Balad did not win a place in the Knesset this time, the election results reveal that it has sufficient popular support to rebuild and prepare for the future.

The Arab parties, inside and outside the Knesset, can now take advantage of the interval to gear up for organized political action, on the reasonable assumption that there will not be new elections any time soon and they have four years for doing so. Each party faces its own challenge as a function of its political path, but they have one common challenge: Strengthening their ties with their constituency. The vast majority of Arab voters are influenced primarily by how the Arab parties conduct themselves, but the overall political context - that is, the composition of the Knesset and Government policy- also exerts significant influence on the political climate in Arab society. The right-wing parties’ dominance of the 25th Knesset is likely to pose considerable difficulties for the Arab parties; but the experience of the last few years, with the two five-year plans for Arab society #922 in 2015 and # 292 in 2021) demonstrate that effective political action can bear fruit.

Arab citizens attach great hopes to their elected representatives, whatever the composition of the Knesset. The preparations for the next elections have already taken off.