Seated at a restaurant, (L-R) Abraham Initiatives Co-executive Director Thabet Abu Rass, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, and Deputy School Principal Mohammad Kashkosh, Qalansawe, Israel, February 24, 2020. (Mohammad Al-Kassim)

Israel’s Arab Citizens See Opportunity to Be Election Kingmakers (with VIDEO REPORT)

Minority voters hope to decide Netanyahu’s political fate

Israelis have another date with the ballot box on Monday, in an unprecedented third general election in less than a year. The previous two rounds ended in deadlock between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing/religious bloc and a cluster of center-left and left-wing parties led by challenger Benny Gantz.

Arab citizens make up about a fifth of the electorate. While only 49% of them turned out for last April’s election, that figure rose to 59% in September’s round, propelling the Joint List to become the third-largest bloc in the parliament (Knesset), with 13 seats out of the total of 120.

As they prepare to cast their ballots once again, there are many issues on their minds.

Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, said previous governments had failed to pay attention to the needs of his community.

“[On] the topic of violence and crime; the government is responsible for the existence of organized criminal gangs and for the presence of illegal weapons. Also, [there is] the issue of unrecognized villages in the Negev,” he said.

According to several polls, the Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, will gain at least one more seat this time around, raising its representation to 14 and possibly even 15 legislators. That would make it the largest opposition grouping in the Israeli parliament if a unity government is formed.

Odeh said this came as a result of decades of being marginalized.

“Past governments ignored our desperate need for housing, planning approvals and infrastructure,” he said.

Many Arab citizens of Israel identify as Palestinians, and Arab politicians have consistently called for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and supported the creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

This past Monday, Odeh, Mtanes Shehadeh, Walid Taha and Osama Saadi, all Joint List members of the outgoing Knesset and candidates in next week’s elections, were hopping from one Arab town to another, in a last-minute attempt to win over undecided voters.

The politicians spoke during a stop in Qalansawe, a town of about 25,000 that is one of a cluster of 19 villages and towns in an area southeast of Haifa and bordering the West Bank known as “The Triangle.” The Triangle is home to about 300,000 Arab citizens of Israel. It became an issue when US President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan, released in January, raised the possibility of transferring the area to a future state of Palestine.

The announcement infuriated many Arab Israelis. Odeh said they have to stand together against the proposal.

“The main concern,” says Odeh, “is the ‘deal of the century,’ including the special section on the Triangle region. People watched with their own eyes the prime minister standing beside Trump and talking about how he would strip citizenship from some of his citizens. People say that the prime minister is hostile to them.”

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh distributes campaign flyers, Qalansawe, Israel, February 24, 2020. (Mohammad Al-Kassim)

Saadi told The Media Line his list was the only one that can be called the “genuine voice” of the Arabs.

“We have no competitors. The Zionist parties are not a competitor this time.

“We see the miserable attempts by Binyamin Netanyahu and Likud, their advertisements in Arabic, and their media interviews in Arabic and their sad attempts to cater to Arabs as a desperation move. The Arab citizen feels that the genuine voice representing them is the Joint List,” Saadi said.

Moayed Tayeh, a restaurant owner in Qalansawe, told The Media Line they have lots of needs and that the Joint List is the only one that can deliver.

“The Joint List supports the rights of Arab citizens. We are facing fascist and racist parties that incite against the Arabs and work only for the Jewish citizen. We want the Joint List because it works for Arabs. God willing, there will be a change this time.”

In the Northern Triangle village of Ar’ara, Ahmad Melhem, a former municipal council member turned activist, told The Media Line that the Zionist, mostly Jewish parties had failed to deliver on their promises to Arab citizens.

“Meretz today has shifted to the right, partnering with a former defense minister [Labor head Amir Peretz, in the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list]; that’s not a leftist party that is interested in our vote or our voice,” Melhem said.

He mocked a billboard showing Amir Peretz. It read, in Arabic and Hebrew, “The fate of Umm al-Fahm is the same as the fate of Afula,” Umm al-Fahm is an Arab city in the Northern Triangle area, while Afula is a Jewish city 10 miles away. The message is that Arab citizens of Israel in the area aren’t going anywhere.

Melhem looks at a billboard featuring Labor-Gesher-Meretz Chairman Amir Peretz on February 24, 2020. The billboard reads in Arabic and Hebrew “The fate of Umm al-Fahm is the same as the fate of Afula.” (Mohammad Al-Kassim)

“Where were they before [the election]?” wondered Melhem. “We have a housing crisis, poverty is high, and we lack job opportunities. There’s a lack of adequate planning to meet the needs of residents. For more than 70 years the State of Israel has treated us as outsiders, not as citizens with rights.”

School Deputy Principal Mohammad Kashkosh told The Media Line he will be voting for the Joint List. “We feel we have a voice with them and they understand our needs.”

He said increased Arab voter turnout could be the key to preventing Netanyahu from forming the next government.

“These elections are very important for the Arab citizen of Israel for several reasons, the most important of which is to overthrow Binyamin Netanyahu,” Kashkosh said.

Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, told The Media Line, “We believe that the turnout in the Arab community will increase this time. They feel they are stronger than ever. Last April the Arabs got 10 seats, last September it increased to 13, and this time they believe they can reach up to 16.”

Abu Rass argues that Arabs will play a major role in deciding who will lead the next government.

“This time the Arabs are going to be the kingmakers of the election,” he said.

No Arab party has ever been part of an Israeli governing coalition, but Odeh didn’t shut the door on working with Gantz, the retired general and former military chief of staff who is leading the center-left Blue and White party. Odeh said it was up to Gantz.

“If Gantz wants to pursue the deal [proposed by Trump] and unilaterally annex the area [parts of the West Bank] and stick to the position of a Jewish majority and not the majority of citizens [in building a governing coalition], then we have nothing to talk about with Gantz,” Odeh said. “If he comes to us after the elections and says he supports negotiations [with the Palestine Liberation Organization], the abolition of racist laws and the fight against and prohibition of violence, we are ready to sit together and think about how to go forward.”

There is no love lost between most Arab Israelis and Netanyahu. On more than one occasion in past election campaigns, Netanyahu has employed fear tactics concerning Arab voters to rally his right-wing Jewish base.

Odeh said he is confident his list will improve on its earlier success.

“We say to Netanyahu: You will not form a government due to the presence of the Joint List. I feel that our people are more aware than ever. Our people support their national list. We got 13 seats last time. Mark my words, we will surpass that, and we will have more influence than before.”

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