The 2019 elections shed light on the schism between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab citizens, who constitute roughly 16% of all eligible voters (CBS 2019). A good starting point is the previous elections, held on March 15, 2015, which ended on a wry tone for Jewish-Arab relations. While the ruling Likud party said little about the Arab citizens during the campaign, its main strategy for increasing voter turnout on election day itself was to convince voters that a Likud loss was imminent, leading to the possible imminent appointment of Arab ministers. The most memorable act of the campaign led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a video in which he warned voters of a massive run on the ballots of Arab voters, allegedly sponsored by his leftist rivals. This message was broadcast to target audiences via over five million text messages—a staggering number in light of the fact that Israel’s eligible voter population is only six million. According to commentators, the video led to a large turnout of voters at the end of the day, winning the elections for the Likud and Netanyahu (Segal 2016). After the elections, the move was widely criticized as divisive. Netanyahu apologized and affirmed his commitment to all Israeli citizens—including Arabs (Azulay 2015). The success of the video and messages can be partly attributed to a widely held notion among right-wing voters (59%) that Arab citizens pose a threat to Israel’s security, Arab votes thus posing a risk to the state in their eyes (Hermann et al. 2018, p. 146).
While the event signified Jewish-Israeli apprehensions regarding the Arab vote, its roots go much deeper. As Haklai and Norowich (2016, pp. 273–80) have argued, democracies with perpetually excluded minority ethnonational parties tend to develop a political tradition that makes their inclusion inacceptable. The Israeli Democracy Index confirms this theory, indicating that, since 1993, only a third of the Jewish population, on average agree that Arab parties should join the government and form part of the cabinet (Arian et al. 2007, p. 58; Hermann et al. 2015, p. 80). Only one Arab minister (Raleb Majadleh) has in fact ever held office in Israel—and as a representative of the Labor Party rather than an Arab party. When asked about decisions crucial for Israel’s security and peace processes, on average 75% of Jewish citizens agree that such decisions should be made by Jews alone (Hermann et al. 2018, p. 87). Even when the Joint List Arab party gained 13 seats in the previous Knesset, entitling them to two seats on the prestigious and sensitive Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, the party leaders were quick to relinquish them in exchange for seats on other committees (Masalha 2019).
In the Knesset, Arab parties focus their activity on voicing opposition rather than taking an active part in ruling. According to the Parliamentary Work Index for Israel’s Political Parties, the Joint List—the only Arab party in the previous Knesset—ranked first in activities such as speaking in the plenary sessions and raising parliamentary queries regarding government activities and last in proposing and voting on bills (Shapira et al. 2018). The most active role Arab parties have played in the Israeli governing process was showing their support for Itzhak Rabin’s government (1992–1995). Here, too, they left him with a minority government by refusing to join the coalition, thereby enabling him to proceed with the Oslo Accords that eventually cost him his life (at Jewish not Arab hands!). Much of the controversy around this issue stemmed from the government’s reliance on the Arab parties, a dependency perceived by many Jewish citizens as illegitimate (Haklai & Norwich 2016, p.269).
The resentment the Jewish population displays towards Arab participation in the government and decision-making process, compounded by the Arab parties’ complicit abstention, raises a disturbing question regarding the actual value of Arab representation in the Knesset. It may be argued that, the Arab right to representation remaining intact, Arab MKs wielding power even in the opposition, and it being their choice not to partake in government, their absence from the government does not constitute a democratic deficit. Others contend that while Israel allows for ethnic minorities to participate in the electoral process, it does not accord them actual equality, thus making it an ethnic state rather than democracy (Ghanem 1998, p. 431). The last election campaign affords us an opportunity to examine the matter with fresh eyes, providing new and valuable information.
The Knesset elected in 2015 was disbanded in December 2018, a few months before its legal termination, due to a coalitional crisis over an enlistment law. All the coalition parties nonetheless stated that they intended to form a coalition with the same members after the elections. The initial focus of the elections was the ongoing investigations of alleged bribery on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Likud party, led by Netanyahu, tried to divert the focus, claiming that a government led by their opponents would include Arab parties. This charge was promptly denied (Baruch 2019). Hereby, the central-left once again confirmed Haklai and Norowich’s (2016, p. 281) theory that even when powerful political actors make significant gains from the inclusion of the minority—in this case by establishing a potential coalition with Arab parties in order to replace the Likud party’s government—the strong political tradition of exclusion will prevail.
As the campaign progressed, the three central-left parties united, the Likud stating that any government formed by their rivals would thus have to rely on Arab parties as part of an obstructive voting bloc—an act they portrayed as illegitimate (Shalev & Adamker 2019). This claim was based on the fact the announcement by the Haredi parties—crucial for both factions of the political map for forming an all-Jewish government—that they would support the right wing led by Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, could therefore only form a government by blocking a right-Haredi government from joining forces with the Arab parties. The outcome of such a move would not be an Arab-left government, both sides declaring they would not sit together, but an all-Jewish government led by the left and other Jewish parties—either Haredi or right-wing factions. In response to the Likud’s attack, Gantz’s party asserted that it would not actively form an obstructive bloc with the Arab parties, the Arab parties’ refusal to support the right de facto committing them to negotiating only with Jewish parties (Srugim 2019).
The portrayal of a political alliance with Arab parties, even if not in a coalition, as illegitimate is a new and significant development within Israeli politics, especially when issuing from the strong ruling Likud party. Unlike resentment towards Arab participation in the government, a boycott of the Arab parties as partners for any sort of political move renders their role ineffective. If the only political action available to Arab members is the voicing of opposition, they are a mere fig leaf for an allegedly inclusive democracy. This in turn may lead to even greater Arab alienation from the State of Israel than currently exists, possibly encouraging the community to look for alternate methods for gaining influence outside democratic procedures. It is nevertheless important to note Arab parties did participate in the political game in the latest Knesset, even collaborating with the coalition on several occasions (Liel 2018).
The second development in the Jewish attitude towards Arab participation in the democratic process was on election day itself—April 9, 2019. Early in the morning, reports spread that over 1,200 Likud observers had stationed themselves in Arab ballots, carrying hidden cameras and microphones. This act—of dubious legal standing—transpired to be organized by the Likud party. Likud representatives, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, claimed that it was to counter the possibility of fraud in the Arab ballots, which they regarded as a likely outcome. The Central Elections Committee ruled that the cameras should be removed from the ballots, permitting recording only under “extraordinary circumstances” (Pileggi 2019). The day after the elections, a Likud-employed PR agency took credit for the operation on a Facebook post, claiming it as a great achievement for the right because it succeeded in reducing Arab participation in the elections to 50%, the lowest level in decades (Staff 2019; Rudnitzky 2019).
While the operation’s true intent may have been to highlight the threat of the Arab vote to Likud voters in order to increase turnout—like the millions of text messages in the 2015 elections—it could also have led to voter suppression, being celebrated as a success by the Likud’s PR agency. This concern is reinforced by the fact that nearly half of all Jewish citizens believe that anyone who does not accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jews should not have the right to vote. If put into law, this would affect most Israeli Arabs (Hermann et al. 2018, p. 84). Suppressing the crucial democratic right of Arab citizens to vote undermines the validity of the most latitudinarian model of Israel as a democracy—namely, Sammy Samooha’s (1997, pp. 199–207) “ethnic democracy,” based upon the principle that, to be a democracy, a country’s ethnic minorities must possess full electoral rights.
The 2019 elections may prove to be a watershed in the relationship between Israeli democracy and Israeli Arabs, turning the situation from one in which the Arabs do not take an active part in government to one in which their participation in the political process is portrayed as illegitimate by a significant part of the political landscape. This prompts the question: can Israel be defined as a democracy if it excludes 16% of its population from any kind of political life?