July 25th, 2024

Reality Check

Will Arab Votes Decide Israel's Election?

Jonathan Tobin

By Jonathan Tobin

Published March 16, 2015

  Will Arab Votes Decide Israel's Election?

One of the sidebars attracting attention from the international media's coverage of the Israeli election has been the rise of the Joint List, the coalition of three Israeli Arab parties that is currently sitting at third place in the polls that predict it will hold either 12 or 13 seats in the next Knesset.

But while that total is impressive, the assumptions that this represents a genuine breakthrough for Israeli Arab citizens or will aid the efforts of the Jewish left to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu both may be mistaken.

While it would be a positive development if Israeli Arabs felt more invested in their government, the impact of a boost in the Arab vote or the chances that their ballots will make the difference between victory and defeat for Netanyahu's Likud Party are being greatly exaggerated.

First, it's important to understand what a result of 12 or 13 seats for the Arab coalition will mean. Contrary to some of the excited coverage of this development, it will not be a huge gain for these parties. The Join List is a coalition of three parties: the Communist Hadash Party, the Islamist Raam Party, and the secular Arab nationalist Balad Party.

Those three parties received four, four, and three seats respectively in the 2009 and 2013 elections. Forced to unite by a new law that would have doomed any party that received less than the votes needed to gain four seats, the combined effort of the trio will net them one or two extra seats. That's not inconsiderable but it is by no means a revolution. Unless they get an unexpectedly large showing of Arab voters who traditionally turn out a rate of about 50 percent, as opposed to the approximately 70 percent of Jews, their influence in the Knesset may not be much greater it has been in the past.

Nor will these gains be likely to materially benefit Arab citizens who rightly complain about the lack of resources directed to their municipalities. That's due in part to the problematic nature of the Israeli political system and partly to the fact that Israeli Arab politicians from these parties are often a big part of the problem on the local level.

Nor will the vastly different political points of view within the Arab coalition help them operate effectively in the Knesset. While all can be counted on to oppose the Zionist agenda of either a Likud or Labor-led coalition and to push for greater support for Arab communities, the vast gap between those who would like to transform the country into an Islamic state and the radical leftists who want a secular socialist government that is neither Jewish nor Arab will prevent them from achieving much once they're done pushing for votes together.

But more important than these considerations is the question of whether the Joint List will help determine whether Netanyahu or his Labor Party rival Isaac Herzog leads the next government.

Some supporters of the Arab list as well as Netanyahu foes abroad are saying that the 12 or 13 seats they win will be combined with those of Labor's supporters and potential centrist allies to give Herzog the 61-seat majority he needs to govern. Being in the minority in a parliamentary system is to be marginalized in a way that no member of a minority in the U.S. Congress could experience. But if they were the kingmakers for Herzog, they would be very powerful indeed.

In theory, that is possible. Even if Herzog and his new partner Tzipi Livni were not to include the Joint List as part of their Cabinet, the Arabs could still vote for Herzog from outside the coalition in order to allow him to lead the country at the head of a minority government.

The Wall Street Journal cites the precedent of 1992 when the late Yitzhak Rabin formed a government with the support of five Arab anti-Zionist Knesset members who were not formally part of this government. But Rabin had a majority without the Arab votes, though it was a shaky one since it included the leftist secular Meretz and the fervently-Orthodox Shas parties. If, as the polls seem to be telling us, Herzog would need the 12 or 13 Arab votes to get to 61, that would be unprecedented and would put him at the mercy of the whims of his three Arab anti-Zionist partners in a way that no one leading a party that dubs itself a Zionist Union would want.

This makes it highly unlikely that Herzog would choose to form such a government or that Israel's President Ruby Rivlin would even give him the chance to do so after the elections. But that does not mean the possibility won't have an influence on the outcome.

In the last weekend of campaigning with no more polls to be published, Netanyahu is seeking to influence center-right Israeli voters to stop spreading out their votes among several parties and to support Likud so as to prevent the possibility of a government led by the left. If he is successful it would reverse the outcomes of the last two elections when Israeli voters were sure he would be the prime minister and thus gave Likud fewer votes than anticipated because they felt free to vote for smaller parties with specific agendas they liked.

But in addition to trying to scare them with the prospect of a win for Herzog and Livni, he's saying that such a government would be dependent on Arab votes for its majority. He made that point in this interview in English with the Voice of Israel in which he labeled a Herzog victory as leading to an anti-Zionist government.

Though Labor supporters will dismiss this as mere campaign rhetoric of a desperate candidate, the more the media in Israel and elsewhere hypes the chances of a big win for the Arab parties, the more credible his charge must be considered.

It would be ironic if the supposedly historic win for Israeli Arab voters were to return the man they most dislike to the prime minister's office. But if enough undecided Israeli voters think Herzog really does need Arab votes to govern, that may be what will happen.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine, in whose blog "Contentions" this first appeared.