2020 Elections: Joint List Wins 15 Seats, Political Gaps Rem...

2020 Elections: Joint List Wins 15 Seats, Political Gaps Remain Wide

March 4, 2020

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The Arab-led Joint List party won an historic high 15 Knesset seats in Israel’s March 2 election, two more than it received in September’s vote. Preliminary estimates show that 64.7% of the electorate in Arab towns and cities (not including mixed Arab-Jewish towns and cities) turned out to vote, the highest in 20 years. There are preliminary estimates of a 71% national turnout.

Cartoon-Odeh-pulling-Netanyahu-away-from-61The Joint List received more than 530,000 votes, an estimated 12.9% of all ballots cast in Israel, netting at least 88% of the Arab vote and at least one seat attributed to a rise in left-wing Jewish support, as detailed below. Joint List Chair Ayman Odeh claimed that the party’s strong showing in this election, Israel’s third in less than a year, is preventing PM Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government (see image below and post in Arabic), with right-wing parties netting a total of 58 seats, three shy of the 61 needed to form a governing coalition.

A total of 17 Arab citizens will serve in the 23d Knessset, 14 with the Joint List (which includes one Jewish MK, Ofer Cassif of the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party), and Druze members of three Jewish-led parties, Gadeer Mreeh of Kahol Lavan, Fateen Mulla of Likud, and Hamad Amar of Yisrael Beiteinu. A record five Arab women will be in the next Knesset, four from the Joint List and MK Mreeh. Incoming Iman Khatib of the Ra’am party, who holds the #15 spot in the Joint List, will be the first MK to wear a hijab. Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, said he believes that the large female presence on the ticket motivated Arab women to vote.


Joint List MKsInsights into High Arab Voter Turnout and Joint List Support

Analysts are crediting two factors for the Joint List’s strong showing, the high Arab voter turnout and that 88% of the Arab vote went to the Joint List over the Jewish-led parties. This is compared to 82% of Arab votes in September's election. This time around “there was a general consensus” according to Arik Rudnitzky of the Israel Democracy Institute “that if you’re Arab, the only way to vote is for the Joint List.”

Support for the Joint List doubled among Druze citizens, who traditionally support right-wing Jewish-led parties, taking votes away from Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. As well in this cycle, Abu Rass said the Joint List received a “major and unprecedented boost” from local government leaders, who traditionally do not speak publicly about national elections. “This was the first time we have seen Arab mayors actually come out and call on residents to vote for the Arab parties. And it worked,” he said.

Rudnitzky said that Arab voters were motivated by opposition to the Trump administration’s peace plan, especially the clause suggesting the transfer of 10 Arab towns and cities in the Triangle region to a future Palestinian state. Daniel Gordis wrote that the transfer clause put forward by the U.S. “shocked Israeli Arabs in a way that no Arab-baiting Israeli politician who has proposed the same thing ever has.” Arab voters in Kfar Qasem, one of the towns named in the plan, spoke of voting for the Joint List out of feelings of anger and “betrayal.”  

Joint List Chair, MK Ayman Odeh’s spokesperson, Dean Issacharoff, said that Kahol Lavan Chair Benny Gantz’s campaign promises of forming a Jewish majority coalition—invoking rhetoric used by right-wing parties—convinced nearly all the Arab electorate that the Joint List was their only address for Knesset representation.

The increased showing for the Joint List was also in spite of Likud outreach toward the end of the campaign to Arab voters. PM Netanyahu tried to “drive a wedge between Knesset members for the Joint List and their electorate,” painting the list’s MKs as lazy and ineffective compared with “the Likud government [that] provided NIS 15 billion in funding for the Arab public.” Netanyahu gave interviews to Arab media and posted in Arabic to his Facebook page, promising direct flights to Mecca and to repeal the Kaminitz Law—a source of deep tensions in state-minority relations and a precondition the Joint List set for Kahol Lavan in talks after the September elections. 

Likud reportedly invested “tens of thousands of dollars in advertising” to Arab society (Hebrew). Political columnist Shlomi Eldar explains the effort as intended to “spread apathy among Arab voters, so that they don’t rush to vote for the Joint List – because they don’t have to.” The campaigning appears to have resulted in some additional Arab votes for Likud, which Arik Rudnitzky said was “the only Jewish party that managed to hold onto votes in the Arab community, and even win a bit more this time,” increasing its votes from Arab citizens to 8,800 from 8,000.

Additionally, Arab voters turned away from Jewish left-wing parties in this election. The Arab vote was credited in September with having pushed Meretz over the 3.25% threshold needed to win seats. However, in this campaign cycle, Labor-Gesher and Meretz merged, eliminating Arab party members from realistic spots on the slate. Rudnitzky said that the new left-wing party lost half their votes in Arab cities and towns.

Discourse on Jewish-Arab Political Partnership

Consistent with surveys about voter interests throughout the three campaign cycles, the high Arab voter turnout on March 2 is seen as reflective of the desire of Arab citizens to more fully integrate into Israeli society and have representation in government that advances their interests.

However, campaign discourse towards the March 2 elections veered away from Jewish-Arab political partnership when Benny Gantz made it clear he would not form a coalition with the Joint List. Activist Samah Salaime wrote this “spared” the Joint List of the need “to decide whether or not to recommend him as prime minister.” But Shlomi Eldar expressed the disappointment felt by many in Arab society that in achieving 15 seats “the Joint List won the battle [but] lost the war, as it was left without partners." More than that, Haaretz columnist Jack Khoury expressed concerns that increased representation “will not go hand in hand with its chances of integration and influence. In fact, the opposite is true — it actually leads to more extremism among Jewish Israelis…”

There is some speculation that a coalition between Kahol Lavan, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor-Gesher-Meretz and the Joint List could form around the shared interest of displacing Netanyahu, if MK Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu decides that “he despises Netanyahu more than the Arabs.” Labor MK Merav Michaeli wrote a public letter to MK Gantz, calling on such a coalition as it would represent a “majority who wants [to have] a Jewish and democratic state, with full equality for all its citizens, a welfare state that strives for peace. It is time to exercise the majority we have and form a functioning government."

When it has been floated in the past, Arab parties have said they are not willing to sit in a coalition with long-time hawk Lieberman. In the meantime, suggestions that such a left-wing coalition and its inclusion of Arab citizens especially are anti-Israeli remains a strong element in right-wing discourse.

Jewish Votes for Joint List Increase

As well, the number of Jewish voters for the Joint List is estimated to have doubled from September, with the Joint List crediting the Jewish vote for one of its 15 seats. Following the election, Odeh issued a Hebrew statement to the press that the Joint List needed to become “the principled alternative for the entire Israeli political map.”

During the campaign, some mainstream Jewish voices called for votes for the Joint List as a statement against racism and to support a diverse and representative government following the merger of Labor-Gesher and Meretz that eliminated Arabs from realistic spots in the left-wing slate. The Joint List tripled its budget for outreach to Jewish voters following the merger, and Arab candidates received unprecedented exposure in mainstream Israeli media.

One Jewish voter posted on Facebook on election day that he had previously supported left-wing parties “and today I completed the change and gave my voice to partnership, I have a lot of Arab friends in Israel and the territories. And I return my voice to them and there are many Jews like me, may there be more” (Hebrew).

In the three largest cities in the country, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, the number of Arab voters increased over September (Hebrew) and there is speculation that some Jewish voters in those cities also supported the Joint List. As well, the Joint List received an increased number of votes in a number of all-Jewish towns and cities. In Givatayim, the Joint List received 316 votes, about 1% of the electorate, compared to 137 in September. Votes for the Joint List doubled in Ramat Gan, from 289 to 562.

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