September 19, 2019


A surprised right discovers the rising cost of making Arabs their punching bag: Likud may long rue the day it turned on the Arab electorate, just as the left still laments its mistreatment of Mizrahim; plus, the limits of annexation and of the campaign chiefs (Haviv Rettig Gur, 9/19/19, Times of Israel)

Arab Israelis defied expectations, withstood Likud's active and unabashed suppression campaign, and came to the polls demanding their due.

Indeed, the narrative now crystallizing in the Arab community contends that Likud's anti-Arab campaign caused the roughly 10-point spike in turnout (based on still-unofficial vote counts).

Hamad Khalailah, a 28-year-old lawyer in the large Galilee town of Sakhnin, told The Times of Israel on election day that he'd made the effort to go and vote -- for the Arab party the Joint List, to be sure -- in order to prove he could not be cowed by Likud's efforts, which included an attempt to install cameras in Arab polling stations (successful in April; banned on Tuesday) and campaign rhetoric focused on the "danger" of Arab citizens turning out to cast their ballots.
"I wasn't scared to come here," Khalailah said. "It is my right to vote and Netanyahu will not stop me from doing that."

As Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi put it on Wednesday, "Two weeks ago, our campaign was asleep, weak, limping. Then, a week ago, someone, a magician, set off alarm clocks at the entrances to all of our towns. That was Benjamin Netanyahu with his [polling-station] cameras bill. Then the Arabs rushed to the polls in droves."

Likud believed it had found a formula, immoral but effective, to maximize its advantage on election day. It worked, too -- until it didn't. As some Likud lawmakers have admitted, the anti-Arab campaign appears to have helped galvanize the very voters it was trying to dissuade.

But Likud's mistake could turn out to be costlier than the results of Tuesday's race, as the history of Israeli ethnic politics reveals.

The Labor party, once called Mapai, has long been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. In the early years of Israel's existence, the party engaged in willful and systematic neglect and marginalization of newly arrived Mizrahi Jews from Arab and Muslim lands, largely excluding them from party membership and positions of influence in the young state.

The strategy worked -- until it didn't. A narrow Ashkenazi elite kept its hold on power for 29 long years. But once the spell broke, Labor and the broader Israeli left spent the next four decades (and counting) struggling to overcome the almost axiomatic Mizrahi identification with the right.

The marginalization of Mizrahim, like Likud's browbeating of the Arab community, was a deliberate effort, as the political debates of the state's early years reveal. One newspaper editor, Yehiel Halpern of Davar, Mapai's main outlet, warned his readers in a January 1951 op-ed that the deliberate marginalization of the Mizrahi newcomers could have disastrous consequences.

"They don't see the value to be gained from democratic rights and freedoms," he wrote of the Mizrahim, but blamed Mapai for that fact. By excluding them from membership and access to the ruling party's ranks, and thus to national leadership in those years, Mapai was denying the newcomers the experience of "real ownership" of their new country and "mastery over their own fate" that could transform those who had never experienced democracy into lifelong democrats.

By the 1970s, this marginalization had driven Mizrahim decisively into Likud's camp, paving the way for decades of mostly right-wing ascendance. Even in 2019, in the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi gap between Blue and White and Likud, the political reverberations of that old bigotry still echo.

Arabs make up roughly 21 percent of the Israeli population, but only 16% of the electorate. That large gap has two sources. About half the gap is due to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics classifying over 200,000 East Jerusalemites as part of the Arab Israeli population, though most are not Israeli citizens and are unable to vote in Knesset elections. The rest of the gap is due to the young age of the Arab population.

It seems safe to assume that both those demographic realities will eventually swell the Arab portion of the electorate. Since Israel is unlikely to surrender East Jerusalem anytime soon, it is likely to eventually see those residents ask for and receive voting rights to the Knesset. Similarly, barring drastic and sudden changes to human biology, those Arab children will soon grow up to be voting-age adults.

A third election now would be optimal.

Posted by at September 19, 2019 1:38 PM