A get-out-the-vote campaign by Israeli Arab mayors, combined with the creation of a united slate for Arab parties is likely to increase Israeli-Arab turnout by up to 10 percent and elect one of the Knesset’s largest electoral blocs, according to political observers.
The get-out-the-vote campaign goes against the tactic supported by some Israeli Arabs of boycotting Israeli elections in order to deprive the government from tacit approval. But a delegation of Arab mayors said during a visit to New York last week that they’re trying to get the message out to their constituents that voting is in their own self-interest.
“It’s very important [that they vote] — it’s not important for whom they vote,” said Walid abu Leil, the mayor of Ein Mahel, near Nazareth.
Despite anger caused by Israel’s costly war this summer against Hamas terrorists in Gaza, most of the Israeli Arab voters will cast their ballots because of local “bread-and-butter” concerns, not national issues like the Israeli-Arab peace process, said Abu Leil.
For example, in Ein Mahel, top concerns include gaining permission to build homes and establish industrial zones as well as increasing the number of Israeli Arabs admitted to Israeli universities, said Abu Leil.
Abu Leil discussed the issue with The Jewish Week after taking part in a session last week hosted at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side about micro-entrepreneurial opportunities for Israeli Arab women. He said working within Israel’s political system is one key to effecting change. “We can influence the Knesset,” he said.
Abu Leil was among 30 Israeli Arab mayors who participated in a study tour of New York City and Washington, D.C., that ended this week. Under the auspices of the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, the tour focused on minority-oriented municipal leadership, democratic civic engagement and economic empowerment. The itinerary included meetings with politicians, academics, religious leaders and representatives of U.S.-based Arab organizations.
The mayors represent communities with about 40 percent of Israel’s Arab population, a Givat Haviva spokesman said. Because of their day-to-day contact with citizens, the mayors have greater influence than national legislators, and can serve as an effective bridge between the Arab “street” and the national government, he added.
The mayors’ visit coincided with the campaign for Israel’s Knesset elections on March 17, in which the Arab vote has played a prominent role. The country’s 1.6 Israeli Arabs represent some 20 percent of the country’s population. Faced by a higher threshold to qualify for Knesset seats, disparate Israeli-Arab parties have decided to run on a unified slate composed of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party and the three Arab parties — the United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al. The joint ticket is composed of both secular Arabs and militant Muslims.
The right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Home, party has called for a ban of joint slate while the leader of the Labor Party-Hatnua slate reportedly broached the possibility of a coalition in the next government should he become the next prime minister.
One sign of a growing Israeli Arab influence during the current election campaign: President Reuven Rivlin last week called for the construction of a new Israeli Arab city during a meeting with 50 municipal and regional council leaders of the Arab community.
The Knesset has had Arab parliamentarians since it began in 1949. There are now 11 Israeli Arab members from six parties in the 120-member body. Political observers predicted an equal or greater number of Israeli Arab Knesset members following next month’s vote. But the joint slate, formed after the Knesset raised the qualification level for a Knesset seat from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, may rank as the fourth-largest, giving Israeli Arabs a stronger voice than in the past, observers said.
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About 56 percent of eligible Israeli Arab voters participated in the 2013 Knesset election; It was 53 percent in 2009. The figure this year may be as high as 70 percent, nearly equaling the Jewish voting level in Israel, said abu Leil, who, like his fellow Arab mayors, has stressed the importance of voting during meetings with citizens in public forums and in prospective voters’ homes.
While some Israeli Arabs traditionally vote for left-wing parties most will probably vote this year for the unified Israeli Arab ticket, abu Leil said.
Imad Dahala, mayor of Turan, a village in Israel’s northern Galilee area, said he tells citizens, “If you do not vote, your vote goes [by default] to Liberman,” referring to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman of Our Home, who is considered hostile to Israeli Arab interests. “That is the most effective [argument],” he said.
Based on his conversations with citizens of his village, Dahala said he thinks most people will vote.
But, he added, for the economic and civil rights issues most Israeli Arab voters care most about, Western “pressure” may still prove more effective than electoral strength in reaching those goals.