Palestinian-Israelis A No Show In April’s Election

During the run up to the April 9th election, how high the level of Palestinian-Israeli turnout would be was much discussed. Many commentators felt that if it was high, around 60%, it would be enough to push Benny Gantz’ Blue and White party over the top and give them the seats needed to form a coalition government including the Arab-Israeli parties.

Before the election it was felt that the prospect of a continued, even more, right-wing coalition and another term for Benjamin Netanyahu would motivate Palestinian-Israelis to go to the polls. Especially, since the alliances that Netanyahu sought and achieved were with some of the more extreme right-wing Israeli parties. Additionally, comments by the Prime Minister himself regarding the recently approved Nation-State law would make Palestinians feel like second class citizens. He said, “Israel is not a state for all its citizens, only for Jews”.i And finally his pronouncements concerning the annexation of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank would anger the Palestinian-Israelis enough to bring them out in high numbers.

Arab-Israeli Polling Place(The Times of

These factors, it was thought, coupled with Donald Trump’s pre-election gifts to Netanyahu, recognizing Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, moving the U.S embassy to Jerusalem and other pro-Netanyahu actions and statements, would motivate the Palestinian-Israelis to get out and vote. All of this, however, proved to be wishful thinking. The final turnout by Palestinian-Israeli voters was an abysmal 49% down from 63% in 2015, a full fourteen points. To add insult to injury for the Arab parties a full 28% of these votes went to Zionist parties. ii



Why they didn’t vote

There were several factors which mitigated against a high turnout. First among these was the high feeling of discontent with Arab/Palestinian Members of the
Knesset (MK). There is a noticeable crisis of confidence in the Palestinian community both towards the Israeli political system in general and their MKs in particular. In 2015 the Joint List of Palestinian parties combined for thirteen seats in the Knesset, making them the third largest party This was born out of the necessity of having to pass the minimal voter threshold, 3.25% of the votes, and proved to be unworkable from the start. The internal squabbling among the four parties that made up the Joint List, Hadash, Ra’am, Ta’al and Balad, further contributed to the loss of faith by many Palestinian voters.iii There were palatable feelings of anger, frustration and apathy throughout the Palestinian-Israeli population.

The result of the infighting was that when elections were announced for April 2019 Hadash and the Ta’al parties split off from the Joint List forming Hadash-Ta’al, led by MK Ayman Odeh and MK Ahmed Tibi. The party is in favor of working within the system to achieve their goals. On the other hand, Balad-Ra’am the other party says they are” … not part of the Israeli left”.iv

Further complicating matters was Gantz and Blue and White’s refusal to cooperate in any way with either of the Arab parties. Gantz’s comment that he would only form a coalition with Jewish parties and Zionists alienated many in the two parties and was a factor in their low turnout. In this Gantz was allowing Netanyahu to frame the debate about Palestinian-Israeli parties. Netanyahu’s slogan of “Bibi or Tibi” framed the issue as one where a vote for Gantz would be a vote for the Palestinian-Israeli parties. This was an attempt to keep moderate Likud voters in the ranks. Instead of reframing the message and going on the offensive, Gantz allowed the Prime Minister to put him on the defensive - an odd reaction from a former soldier.

Added to that was the perception that on the most important issue to Palestinian-Israelis– the conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories – there was little difference between Likud and Blue and White. Gantz’s boast that when he was IDF chief-of-staff, he “…bombed parts of Gaza back into the stone age” did very little to win the hearts and minds of the one block of voters he sorely needed. And in fact, it seemed as if he was running to the right in order to appeal to moderate Likud voters rather than the more liberal Jewish and Palestinian-Israelis. He either didn’t realize or didn’t care that there was little chance he could have formed a 61-member coalition necessary to form a government without the participation of the Palestinian-Israeli parties. v

Boycott the Elections?

In the run up to the election the boycott movement gained new momentum. There were calls on social media mainly by 18-30-year-old Palestinians for voters to respect the boycott. Alif Sabbag, a researcher and activist, identifies three classes of non-voters: those who have always refused to vote because they see Israel as an “occupying and colonial state”; those who decry the lack of achievements by Palestinian MKs; and those frustrated by recent laws they view as

A youth walks past an Israeli election campaign banner
 depicting Ahmad Tibi, of the Hadash-Ta’al party 
in Taibe (Reuters )

Those opposed to the boycott, such as MK Ayman Odeh of Hadash, strongly advocate for the Palestinian-Israelis to stay involved in the electoral process. They believe it is the only way to fight the growing right-wing extremism of Netanyahu’s allies. If Palestinian-Israelis want changes in the system that benefit them involvement in elections is necessary. The majority of Palestinians, according to recent data, feel that having Palestinians sitting in the Knesset is of practical value. As the Palestinian-Israeli hip-hop star, Tamer Nafar, believes, “either we vote, or we end up being expelled from our homeland”.vii

The pro-boycott forces countered with the slogan “I will vote when martyrs vote” which has been printed on many banners and leaflets, especially in the Haifa area. The Popular Campaign to Boycott the Zionist Knesset Elections, made up primarily of young activists, feels that the Knesset actively tries to erase Palestinian identity. They cite the Nation-State law as the most recent example of this.

There are many Palestinian-Israelis who feel that grassroots activism is the best way to effect the changes they want to see. Some have left the existing Palestinian parties and joined the boycott out of frustration with the political divisions in the face of what they see as Israel’s racist policies. They feel frustrated by the internal bickering and the perceived failure of the parties to work for the people. Their anger stems from their belief that the Palestinian MKs are more concerned with keeping their seats and their power than fighting for the entire community’s rights.
They question whether any real benefits have been won by having seats in the Knesset.

Its unclear exactly how big an impact the boycott had on turnout, but it certainly was a factor. Combined with all the other factors it was enough to override the possible dangers of a continued Netanyahu led government. As'ad Ghanem, a professor of political science at the University of Haifa was correct when he predicted, "This time, with the collapse of the Joint List and frustration with discriminatory practices, voter turnout will be low."viii


The Netanyahu/Right-Wing coalition that will form the next government is opposed to the Two-State Solution. Netanyahu promised his extreme allies that he will continue building settlements and will start annexing parts of the West Bank. In this he will have the full support of the current U.S administration. He even promised recently to name a town in the Golan Heights after Trump. By staying home from the polls, the Palestinian-Israelis may just have put the final nail in the coffin of the Two-State formula. While Blue and White may not have been an ideal choice for many Palestinians, in this case it was certainly the lesser of two evils.

The Palestinian-Israelis now must face the choice of withdrawing from all participation in Israeli politics and becoming mere observers, being reactive instead of proactive in lawmaking. The other alternative is that they take stock of where they are now and work to become a single and cohesive party, with leaders that their voters can enthusiastically follow, enabling them to have more seats in the Knesset. The current leadership must either learn to work together toward a common goal and end the bickering and infighting, or step aside to make way for new leaders who will be more united. An unorganized, splintered and disunited Palestinian-Israeli polity only serves the interests of the current right-wing government.

There are roughly 1.9 million Palestinian-Israelis. They make up about 17% of the total population of Israel. A group of people this large and as potentially strong as the Palestinian-Israelis should not self-relegate themselves to the sidelines and become powerless in Israeli politics. This is self-defeating. If nothing else these people owe it to their brothers and sisters in the occupied territories to be their voice and speak out in the Knesset against the repressive policies of the current government. They most likely would have had a voice in a Blue and White coalition, and even a small voice is louder than no voice.


i Israel’s Young Palestinian Citizens Call for Election Boycott”, 5 April 2019, Reuters
ii “How Israel Marginalizes Its Palestinian Citizens”, Joshua Mitnick, 15 April 2019, Foreign Affairs Magazine.
iii “Israel Election: Poor Results Show Its Time for Palestinian Parties to do some Soul Searching”, Jack Khoury, 10 April 2019, Haaretz.
iv “Palestinian Parties Aren’t All the Same”, Evan Gottesman, 3 April 2019, Foreign Policy Magazine.
v “Why I am Glad Netanyahu Won”, James Zogby, 22 April 2019, Mondoweiss.
vi “As Vote Nears, Palestinian-Israelis Push for Stronger Knesset Voice Amid Boycott Calls”, Maieda El Batsh, 5 April 2019, Times of Israel.
vii Ibid.
viii Ibid, Reuters.


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