Arab Vote May Determine Fate of Next Israeli Government

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Final election results have again revealed Israel’s deeply polarized electorate. Last week, Israelis went to the polls for the fourth time in two years, perhaps to bring to an end the current political stalemate. However, based on the latest tallies, PM Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was able to secure 30 seats in the Knesset, bringing the number of seats under the control of the pro-Netanyahu bloc to 52. The anti-Netanyahu bloc was only able to garner 57, thus falling short of the 61 needed to form a government. An ad-hoc coalition led by, among others, a number of close Netanyahu associates-turned-adversaries, the anti-Netanyahu bloc is seen by many as an unwieldy alliance unlikely to produce a stable governing coalition.  Meanwhile, Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party, which split from the Arab Joint List, has found itself in the unexpected position of kingmaker.

Once again, PM Netanyahu has put himself in the driver’s seat by leading Likud to an electoral tally almost double that of the closest competitor. Since 1996, when Netanyahu was first elected prime minister, he has been able to find ways to outwit and outmaneuver his political foes.  There is a sense, however, that he may be reaching the end of the road. Alluding to recent developments in a nearby international waterway, Haaretz News’s Amos Harel points out, Netanyahu Is the political equivalent of the ship blocking the Suez Canal… .The nearly final results of Tuesday’s Knesset election, which are due to be formally announced on Friday, make it clear that this was the fourth round of elections in two years without a decisive outcome. Ostensibly anything is still possible, but the near tie between the blocs will apparently make it difficult to form a new stable government.”

The prospect of yet another political deadlock has Ashley Perry calling in a recent op-ed for the Jerusalem Post for a return to a battle over big ideas and governance models rather than personalities, in particular, about the political future of Mr. Netanyahu: “For anyone seeking change and a better future for our country, Israel’s politicians, present and future, need to find a compelling communications strategy to break the deadlock. The deadlock is not good for governability, which severely impacts on our leaders’ ability to make long-term strategic decisions, rather than worrying about staving off coalition crises and the threat of another round of impending elections. To end this cycle of perpetual elections and political statis, we require new and big ideas. We need parties to return to fighting about the issues and less about personalities or selling us their brands, and little else.”

One of those groups trying to move beyond the current status quo is the so-called anti-Netanyahu bloc, a collection of his disaffected associates as well as traditional parties like the once-powerful Labor Party. Yet, judging by this Times of Israel report, the alliance faces “huge obstacles…. As the weekend after the election arrived, the so-called ‘change bloc’ in the incoming Knesset was holding intensive discussions as it attempts to create a blueprint for an alternative government to one led by Benjamin Netanyahu — but such efforts were marred by fighting over who should lead the bloc, as well as radically differing ideologies and political red lines that could doom any such effort from the onset…. Such a plan requires parties to jump through many hoops, some of them potentially insurmountable — chiefly the need for right-wing parties Yamina and New Hope to agree to form a government with the tacit support of the Arab non-Zionist parties, a move that could be political suicide for those parties’ leaders among their right-wing base.”


Still, few believe such a coalition is even possible, while others, including Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchtfeld, have actively discouraged it, on the basis that such a coalition would be unstable and unlikely to yield a strong governing consensus: “Unlike the right-wing bloc, headed by Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the change-touting Center-Left is not really a ‘bloc.’ It may be bigger – 61 Knesset seats to the Right’s 59 – but it has nothing really holding it together, other than their shared animosity for Netanyahu. It is very clear that once it achieves its goal of removing Netanyahu from power, the Center-Left bloc will disintegrate back into a group of parties with ideologies stretching from the conservative Right, through the liberal Left, to Ra’am and the Joint Arab List – a group bonded by nothing tangible.”

It turns out, though, that the creation of the next government may not be beyond the grasp of only the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Yaakov Katz, writing for the Jerusalem Post, suggests that, once the dust has settled, PM Netanyahu may actually find himself, perhaps for the first time in 25 years, in an unfamiliar position: “Benjamin Netanyahu has a clear modus operandi when forming coalitions – he always tries to place himself in the middle…. The thinking behind this is that, with ideologues on both sides, Netanyahu benefits from greater maneuverability…. That is until now. If his fantasy comes true and he succeeds in establishing what he called throughout the campaign a ‘true right-wing government,’ this will no longer be the case…. In such a coalition, Netanyahu would be the most left-wing member, constantly being tested not only on matters of religion and state but also on issues with far-reaching diplomatic consequences: West Bank annexation, settlement construction, Jewish terrorism, and more.”

In an op-ed for Israel Hayom, Yossi Beilin argues that what makes the political calculations in the aftermath of the election somewhat unpredictable and unlike the preceding ones, was the resurgence, albeit limited, of the traditional Left and Center-left parties, along with the emergence of the “Arab factor“: “The emerging picture is one of a significantly bolstered Left and center-left. The majority of those that stuck with New Hope and Yamina are right-wingers who aren’t interested in having a prime minister with a criminal record, while those on the Left who thought otherwise went back to their political roots…. It may be that this election was a landmark in the more effective integration of Arab representatives in non-Arab parties that put an end to the artificial state in which communist Arabs voted for a list that included religious figures who oppose various aspects of equality just to ensure their vote didn’t go to waste. It may also be that the elections held this week are the final chapter in the saga we witnessed over the last four election campaigns in which people cast their vote either for or against Netanyahu.”

For some, the emergence of the Arab vote as an important factor in this year’s elections comes down to the decision taken by Mansour Abbas to leave the Joint List and create his own Ra’am party, winning six and four seats, respectively. In a recent interview with Globes’ Danny Zaken, Abbas noted that, generally, “Arab citizens of Israel are not really in the Israeli political game, but on the outside. We’re not on the left, and not poodles of the left. Identifying with the left has been a great mistake for years, and kept us entirely on the outside.… My approach is to say that we’re in no-one’s pocket, but for the Arab community we also don’t rule anyone out, no one. There’s no doubt that we have managed to put the main question on the table, the role of Arab politics within the Israeli political system, and the role of Arab politicians in the Knesset and the government.”

Yaron Druckman and Hassan Shaalan writing for Yedioth Ahronoth offer additional explanations for the emergence of the Arab factor in the March 2021 elections, including, ironically, “poor voter turnout in the sector coupled with anger over rampant violence, a split in the Joint List alliance and a party leader’s open flirtation with Likud before the vote…. Six years after he engaged in electoral scaremongering with dire warnings of Arab voters flooding the polling stations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to boost his right-wing party’s showing by schmoozing Israeli Arabs who traditionally veer away from Likud. It appears he was successful in his efforts…. This sudden popularity may have been due to the perceived failure of Arab politicians to effectively fight a violent crime wave that has been plaguing their communities for years and the split by Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am from the Joint List alliance of predominately Arab parties. The sudden stellar performance by Likud could also be attributed to a downturn in voter turnout in the Arab sector, which itself might be a symptom of anger over the rampant violence.”

Whatever the reasons, the possibility that the Arab vote may turn out to be consequential for the creation of the next government has led Afif Abu Much to conclude, in another op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, that Israeli Arabs and their concerns must become more visible in the Israeli discourse: “Mansour Abbas’ Islamist party Ra’am was predicted to fall short of the threshold needed to enter the Knesset,… but] Abbas emerged victorious…. Ra’am not only defied expectations, it changed the political map.  In an historic first, Abbas wrested the role of Knesset kingmaker from Naftali Bennett, head of the hawkish right-wing Yamina party. Now it seems an Arab party could determine who will be Israel’s next prime minister…. Ra’am’s success in the elections came as no surprise to Arabs who were paying attention. The time has come to include Arab panelists on Israel’s political talk shows. In fact, they should be part of the conversation on all matters pertaining to citizens of the country – not just the problems within the Arab community.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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