With a close race predicted in Israel’s national elections today, and incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing defeat, the vote of Israeli Arabs is expected to play a crucial role in the final result.
According to early reports, the Arab vote, for the first time behind a single unified Arab party instead of disparate feuding parties, will be bigger than in past years — which apparently has worried Netanyahu.
A statement by his Likud party urged supporters to turn out, warning that “Arab voters are going to the polling stations in droves. Right-wing rule is in danger.”
That declaration, attributed to the prime minister, who on Monday said he would block the creation of a Palestinian state should he remain in office, drew immediate criticism from competing Israeli parties.
“A prime minister who campaigns against voting by citizens belonging to an ethnic minority is crossing a red line of incitement and racism,” said Knesset member Dov Khenin of the Hadash party.
“No Western leader would dare utter such a racist comment,” said Shelly Yachimovich, No. 2 on the Zionist Union list, Likud’s main competition.
“Netanyahu is panicking, inciting against Arab voters who are fulfilling their natural and democratic right like any other citizen,” said Ahmed Tibi, a veteran Israeli politician who is running on the joint Arab list.
Netanyahu later said that the problem is not Arab voting, but the massive funding from foreign governments that encourages the Arab vote and “thus distorts the true will of most Israeli voters in favor of the left.”
The Arab-voter turnout was reported as ten percent, three times the figure of the 2013 election.
About 20 percent of Israel is Arab.
In Haifa, Arab-Israeli Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh said he was excited “to become part of the history and turning point that will significantly change the reality of life of Arab and other citizens of the country,” according to the Times of Israel.
Poll watchers across the country reported a heavy turnout early in the morning — the highest at a comparable time since 1999, when the Labor Party defeated a Netanyahu-led government.
“Israelis are flocking to the polls, and flocking to the parks,” JTA reported. Election day is a day off for most Israelis.