As Israel Votes Again (and Again), Arabs See an Opportunity

ABU QUEIDER, Israel — This was no ordinary Israeli politician’s campaign stop.

Some 40 Bedouin women sat on plastic chairs in an open-air living room, a muddy desert village of flimsy shacks, tin roofs, wandering chickens and pitted dirt roads providing the backdrop.

Before them, as modestly dressed as her audience, stood Iman Khatib Yasin, a social worker running for a seat in Israel’s Parliament on the predominantly Arab slate known as the Joint List.

Voter turnout among Arab women has always been poor, she reminded them, before describing how things could change if they made their voices heard — and if they helped her make history as Israel’s first hijab-wearing lawmaker.

“If we’re a big number,” she said, “we’re a strength that cannot be ignored.”

Israeli Jews generally seem dispirited about having to vote for a third straight time in a year, but for Arab voters and their candidates, Monday’s three-peat election is full of hope and promise. Buoyed by a strong showing in September, leaders of the combined slate of predominantly Arab parties known as the Joint List are hoping to improve on the 13 seats they won in the 120-seat Parliament, when they helped to nearly topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

This time, they are hoping to finish the job — and also to apply their growing clout in Parliament to practical concerns like crime, housing shortages and getting dozens of unauthorized Arab villages in the Negev Desert like Abu Queider added to the government’s map.

Sensing they have momentum, Arab activists are leaving no stone unturned, no ramshackle community ignored, in a bid to play a decisive role in determining Israel’s next government.

Arab voters have no shortage of grievances against Mr. Netanyahu: his support for settlement and annexation of West Bank land, after years of opposing the Oslo peace process; his enactment of a 2018 law that demoted the status of the Arabic language and said only Jews had national self-determination rights in Israel; and his race-baiting over the past year, including claiming that Arabs wanted to “annihilate us all — women, children and men.”

A well-financed door-to-door canvassing operation has more than quadrupled in size, with 600 workers visiting 140,000 homes, or about 40 percent of the voting Arab population, according to its director, Samer Swaid. He would not disclose the campaign’s funders beyond saying that they included wealthy American philanthropists.

Arab turnout had generally been on the decline since Israel’s early days, under martial law, when historians say Arab citizens felt pressured to vote. But in September, it reached nearly 60 percent. This time, Mr. Swaid says he is confident it will top 65 percent. “That’s potentially 18 or 19 seats,” he said.

The canvassers are not affiliated with any party, and Mr. Swaid said two or three new seats might go to non-Arab parties like Blue and White, whose leader, Benny Gantz, nearly defeated Mr. Netanyahu in both previous elections. But Parliamentary elections are a zero-sum game. Each additional seat the Joint List wins puts a 61-seat majority farther out of Mr. Netanyahu’s reach.

That mobilization has not gone unnoticed by Mr. Netanyahu, who has attempted a high-speed U-turn over the past week. He posted a verse from the Quran on his Facebook page. He granted an Arab website a video interview, in which he spoke of arranging direct flights to Saudi Arabia so Israeli citizens could save thousands on their pilgrimages to Mecca.

He tried to mollify Arab voters outraged by his embrace of the Trump peace plan, which suggested redrawing the borders to give a proposed new Palestinian state sovereignty over the so-called Arab Triangle, a predominantly Arab part of Israel. No Arabs would be “uprooted,” Mr. Netanyahu said, though some might find themselves in another country.

And he has started arguing to Arabs that he has made their lives better, while the Joint List’s leaders, he says, do little more than drink coffee and express support for terrorists.

In one Triangle town, Qalansawe, the Joint List’s leader, Ayman Odeh, told voters Tuesday night that Mr. Netanyahu was running scared. The premier’s softened tone and empty promises, Mr. Odeh argued, amounted to nothing more than a more benign-sounding form of voter suppression. This was the same Mr. Netanyahu, after all, who tried to silence the nighttime Muslim call to prayer a few years ago because he could hear it from his beach house in Caesaria, Mr. Odeh reminded a mostly male crowd.

“He treats us like we’re five years old,” he said. “He’s mocking us. And mockery is the worst form of racism.”

Only when Arab protesters closed a major highway last fall did the government finally assign hundreds of police officers to crack down on violence and organized crime in Arab areas, Mr. Odeh said, adding: “On whom else can we depend?”

A moment later he asked for new volunteers to knock on doors. A dozen hands shot up.

The Joint List is not only courting Arab voters, however. With cheeky Yiddish-language appeals to the ultra-Orthodox and Amharic-language ads to Ethiopian-Israelis, the Arab parties ask for solidarity in fighting racism and discrimination.

And with house parties and town halls catering to liberal Jews, the Joint List is offering itself up as a more vital alternative to the traditional left-wing Jewish parties, Labor and Meretz, which lost so much support over the past year that they had to merge to survive.

In Israeli elections, each party submits an ordered list of candidates, and the seats won by each party are allocated to the candidates in that order. Outside of the Joint List, it is unlikely any Arab candidate — aside from members of the Druze religious sect, who are viewed more approvingly by Jewish Israelis — will win a seat in Parliament.

From Qalansawe, Mr. Odeh drove 25 minutes to Kfar Saba, a Jewish city of 110,000, where the crowd was bigger and the venue, an apartment living room, too small. There, he appealed to the consciences of Jewish liberals.

“We all need to feel a sense of belonging as citizens,” he said. Arab schoolchildren were having to learn about the nation-state law, he noted.

“Imagine the teacher telling an Arab student, you’re worth less in this country,” he said.

“Jews around the world have stood behind just causes,” he added, pointing to the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Now, he said, it was time for that at home — for Israeli Jews to “stand by the minority, and strengthen it.”

Merely reaching out to Jewish voters is a significant change for Arab politicians, said Shibley Telhami, an expert on Middle East public opinion at the University of Maryland.

“They’re normalizing themselves as part of the body politic in a way that makes Jews more accepting of them, even if they don’t vote for them,” he said. “As you look down the road, could Jews accept them? A slight majority says no, but there are a lot of undecideds. They can help themselves move the needle in the right direction.”

For Ms. Yasin, it was tough enough to get her own Islamic party, known as Raam, to accept her as a serious candidate.

“They said no women wanted to be in leadership,” she recalled in an interview. “I said, ‘Have you asked them?’ ”

Raised in an observant farming family in the Galilee town of Arabba, where a cousin was killed in bloody protests in 1976 that Palestinians commemorate each year, Ms. Yasin said she was “always political.” She just did not know it.

Only after an Israeli leadership program sent her to Morocco, where she met women lawmakers who were also religious Muslims, did she think of entering politics herself.

She is number 15 on the Joint List, so she will only enter Parliament if the list wins at least that many seats. If elected, she said, she hopes above all to fix Israel’s Arab schools. Rather than teaching critical-thinking skills, she said, “They’re training children to be passive and oppressed.”

But first, there’s the matter of turning out the vote.

In Abu Queider, she invoked Islamic teaching to make her case. “Your voice is like a treasure, like a diamond around your neck,” she told the women who gathered to see her. “God asks us to take care of our treasures.”

Voting in Abu Queider is not easy: It requires as much as an hour’s drive to the nearest ballot box, residents said. That’s because the village is unrecognized: Along with polling places, it lacks electricity, running water and the possibility of obtaining building permits. Which means officials come around every few weeks and stick demolition notices on people’s homes; once or twice a year, residents say, bulldozers tear a few of them down.

“They do not consider us citizens,” she said of the Israeli government, as women nodded their heads. “They treat us like enemies.”

“Like prisoners!” someone shouted.

“You know that, you live this situation,” Ms. Yasin said. “This is your reality. This should make you run to the ballot boxes. It’s the only way to get our rights.”

David M. Halbfinger reported from Abu Queider, and Allison McCann from London.

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