‘One seat could make the difference’: Palestinian parties rally for votes in Israeli election

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Israeli-Palestinian Hadash party, on a news programme last week (Gil Cohen-Magen - AFP)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  October 25, 2022

Disillusioned Palestinian voters key to stopping Benjamin Netanyahu’s return at head of far-right coalition.

With just a week to go until Israel holds its fifth election in less than four years, voters are tired of the seemingly endless political wrangling – but for the country’s Palestinian minority, the stakes are higher than ever.

Polls consistently show that the rightwing religious bloc led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has joined forces with anti-Palestinian extremists, will fall short of a majority in the next Knesset by one or two seats. But if turnout in the Palestinian 20% of the population is low, it’s possible that the most far-right government in Israeli history will come to power.

The list of racist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, once shunned by the political mainstream, has been tapped as a likely coalition partner by Netanyahu, and is currently expected to become the third largest bloc in parliament.

But many Palestinian citizens of Israel, frustrated with being used by the political class as a tool against the return of Netanyahu, and disillusioned with government failure to address systemic racism, may not go to the voting booth at all. Analysis in the run-up to the 1 November election suggests the community’s voter turnout could be as low as 40%.

“We are not desperate yet, but this election is very important. Just one seat, just 35,000 votes, could make the difference,” said Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Palestinian nationalist party Ta’al, ahead of a campaign event in the village of Kfar Uzier near Nazareth last week.

“It is a huge challenge to convince people that anything can change, but we have a lot to fight for yet.”

His audiences in Kfar Uzier, and later that night in Kfar Manda, snacking on fruit and kunefe pastries, nodded in agreement during Tibi’s speeches about tackling soaring crime in the Palestinian community, dismantling the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and protecting the status quo at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa compound.

Appeals that Palestinian citizens of Israel once again exercise their democratic rights, however, were met with weariness. All four elections since 2019 have been fought over a single issue: whether Netanyahu, mired in corruption trials, is fit for office. Three ended inconclusively, and a fragile coalition government that managed to oust the prime minister after 12 years in office last summer fell apart after a year.

“Things stay the same, or they get worse,” said one attendee, who gave his name as Hamad.

The 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, also referred to as Arab Israelis, have been discriminated against since Israel’s creation: the 2018 nation state law, which specified that the right to exercise national self-determination is “unique to the Jewish people”, was widely seen as codifying their status as second-class citizens.

Turnout in municipality elections in Palestinian-majority towns and villages can reach 90%, but fluctuates in Knesset elections. In 2020, when the nationalist Ta’al, the communist Hadash, Balad, which advocates for a bi-national state, and Ra’am, an Islamist party, ran together on a ticket known as the Joint List, Palestinian participation soared to 70%.

In June 2021, Ra’am became the first ever independent Palestinian party to join an Israeli governing coalition, led first by right-winger Naftali Bennett and latterly by centrist Yair Lapid. It promised its supporters funding to close the gaps between Jewish and Palestinian society in education, infrastructure and employment, but the “government of change” collapsed before any noticeable improvement could be felt.

Palestinian voters are also angry with the latest Joint List split, reportedly caused by a disagreement over seat rotations. Balad declared just an hour before the final deadline for candidate lists in September that it would run on its own: the party is now unlikely to clear the threshold of 3.25% of votes for a Knesset seat, and Hadash-Ta’al may struggle to win just four seats. Any dilution of Israel’s Palestinian minority in parliament is likely to help Netanyahu and his extremist allies eke out a victory.

“All politicians care about is their own egos. I’m not sure my generation really cares about politics at all, but we need new blood,” said Nadia Khadar, a 22-year-old student sitting with friends at a cafe in the northern city of Haifa. The group of four all said they were not sure yet whether they would vote, but if they did, it would probably be for Balad, the only Knesset party that campaigns for a bi-national state.

“People have a right to be disappointed. They feel like we’ve lost an opportunity to have more representation in the Knesset,” said Aida Touma-Sliman, a Hadash member of the Knesset and prominent feminist campaigner.

Touma-Sliman, like the other members of the Hadash-Ta’al slate, has been visiting several Palestinian towns and villages a day for weeks on the campaign trail.

Aware of the threat posed to democratic norms by the growing popularity of Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionist ticket, the caretaker prime minister, Lapid, has also reached out to the Palestinian community to encourage people to help keep Netanyahu out of office.

“Those who would claim to be a government of change need to show us that they really mean it. You can’t just campaign on fear, there has to be hope too,” said Touma-Sliman.

“The Lapid camp will need us in the next Knesset, so our influence could be bigger than the number of seats we have. If they truly understand the future depends on us, they will have to radically shift towards our positions, such as stopping the occupation and giving Palestinian citizens equality. We need to use this opportunity wisely.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian