Arab voters feel more Israeli than Palestinian

When Israel’s Arab voters went to the polls last week, they sent a message: We want to integrate. Now the Zionist parties must step up to the plate.

An Arab-Israeli woman casts her ballot at a voting station during municipal elections on Oct. 30, 2018, in Kafr Qasim. Photo by Roy Alima/Flash90.
An Arab-Israeli woman casts her ballot at a voting station during municipal elections on Oct. 30, 2018, in Kafr Qasim. Photo by Roy Alima/Flash90.
Eyal Zisser
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

Arab voters flocked to the polls during last week’s general election in Israel, defying expectations of a low turnout.

Arab turnout skyrocketed compared to the April 9 election, reaching 59 percent, almost as high as the Jewish turnout. This could suggest that the Israeli Arabs are no longer trying to distance themselves from the state’s institutions.

Although Arab voters voted for the Joint Arab List, the only Arab list on the ballot, their high turnout sent a message to the Jewish public. The Arab voters essentially said that they viewed themselves as Israelis and want to take part in the Israeli experience.

Likewise, during the campaign Arab candidates put aside their solidarity with the Palestinian Authority in its struggle against Israel and scaled back their rhetoric on changing Israel’s Jewish character.

Instead, the Arab politicians campaigned on better education, employment, housing, education and so forth, highlighting the need to address the festering problems in the Arab sector.

Arab candidates realized that their attempts to drive a wedge between Arabs and Jews and refusal to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jews were turning off voters. Consequently, they figured they could only win back the Arab street if they changed the discourse and promised a course correction.

This reboot is what allowed Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh to break from the past: He told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday that most of his list was endorsing Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for prime minister.

Considering that Arab parties have almost never endorsed a Zionist Knesset member for prime minister, this move was designed to show his constituents that the Arab parties were not going to engage in the same politics of division as before.

Israel’s Arabs are hungry for full integration, regardless of what transpires in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is why they decided to make their voice heard at the polling booth.

In fact, the spike in Arab participation was noticeable a year ago during the municipal elections, when Arab voters sided with candidates who focused on bread-and-butter issues, not anti-Israel rhetoric.

Arab MKs will now have to spend their political capital wisely. This means they must stop their infighting and abandon the anti-Israel agenda they have promoted in past Knessets.

Perhaps this transformation will only take place once a new generation of Arab politicians emerges, or only when a new Arab movement comes forward and asks for equality in every aspect—not just in civil rights, but also in civic duties.

But the Jewish public and its leaders face an even greater challenge, and must step up to the plate. The state is now duty-bound to seize this golden opportunity and tap into this Arab thirst for integration.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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