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Will Arab Voters Appoint the Prime Minister of Israel?

The speech given by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the UN General Assembly revolved around the two-state solution. Whereas the Israeli right, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, has opposed the Palestinians’ right to establish a state of their own, a new camp, led by the likes of Lapid, supports such a move. For Lapid to speak about the two-state solution just weeks before Israel’s next election – the fifth Israeli parliamentary election in three and a half years – is a huge bet. It is true that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged Lapid’s speech with skepticism. But Lapid’s position is an important one in the Israeli political scene. His announcement of support for the two-state solution seems to have been a calculated move aimed at highlighting his distinction from Netanyahu. Publicly supporting the two-state solution may also be a way for Lapid to woo over the Democratic administration in the White House, which is also concerned with Netanyahu’s potential return to power. Meanwhile, the Israeli public has grudgingly grown used to the idea that the Arab vote in the election will determine the identity of the next coalition. The Arabs in Israel make up about 21% of the total population. However, the percentage of those eligible to vote, due to the age structure, stands at about 17 percent. Nevertheless, this percentage is supposed to allow the Arabs to obtain more than 20, out of the total 120, Knesset seats. But division, the multiplicity of parties, and low voter turnout all have prevented this from happening. Some reports in 2019 spoke of right-wing settler parties financing the Arab boycott of the election, and Arab MP Aida Touma raised the matter at one time. On the other hand, reports these days speak of foreign funds, some of them American, aimed at encouraging Arabs to participate in the election. But what caught my eye was the eagerness shown by Jordan towards the Arab political parties in Israel, in an attempt to push them toward unity that would grow their parliamentary presence. Whereas Washington is hiding its historical “hatred” of Netanyahu, Jordan is publicly working to avoid his return to office. In the 2020 election, the Arabs ran under one party, the Joint List, achieving their highest-ever representative power by obtaining 15 seats. This number was reduced to 10 seats in the 2021 election following the split of the bloc into smaller parties. Mansour Abbas, whose list won four seats, allowed for the establishment of a government by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. He joined the government coalition, which sparked an Israeli debate on the issue of the Arabs determining the fate of a government and sparked an Arab debate about Abbas’s choice to formally join an Israeli government. If the Abbas phenomenon emerged from a bilateral Arab division in the last election, this time the Arab candidates are even more fragmented. The split will lead to more dispersal of the Arab voice. Polls suggest that the voter turnout will drop to 40% after it reaches 70% in 2020. However, other pundits believe that this pluralism of parties will strengthen the vitality of the electoral campaign in the Arab community. In the polls, Netanyahu’s bloc will get 59 seats compared to 56 for his opponents. This means, once again, that whoever will rule Israel will need a few seats that must be found among one of the Arab lists. Indeed, Arab voters will play a pivotal role in the Israeli election. Within the Arab community, there are those who fear that this fact will lead to more extremism against the Arabs in Israel. –Mohamed Kawas (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)