NAZARETH — Arab residents of Umm al-Fahm, a large town in central Israel, trickled into a small elementary school Tuesday morning to cast ballots in the country’s national elections, amid expectations that voter turnout in the Arab Israeli community would be significantly lower than in the last elections in 2015.
Forty-five minutes after the voting booths in Umm al-Fahm opened at 8 a.m., only six voters had arrived to cast ballots at the Ibn Khaldoun Elementary School in the center of the town. The city is home to some 55,000 people.
Khaled Mahajne, 62, a restaurant owner who said he voted for one of the two Arab-majority slates — namely, either Hadash-Ta’al or Ra’am-Balad — said many Arab Israelis didn’t think their votes mattered. Hadash-Ta’al is an alliance of a socialist party (Hadash) that emphasizes Jewish-Arab cooperation with an exclusively Arab faction (Ta’al); Ra’am-Balad is a coalition of a Islamist party (Ra’am) with a nationalist faction (Balad).
“People are very fed up with the situation. The government passed the nation-state law and the Arab representatives in the Knesset were not able to do anything about it,” he said, standing outside the voting booth. “Some are now asking what difference their votes makes.”
The law, which the Knesset passed in a 62-55 vote on July 19, said Israel was “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, and declared Hebrew the state’s sole national language.
The legislation included no reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens akin to the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which pledged that the nascent state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
According to Hadash-Ta’al, voter turnout as of 2:30 p.m. was at 15 percent, slightly lower than past years and well below the national average. But spokesperson Kamila Tayoon said the party was optimistic.
“We believe a large number of people will vote in the late afternoon,” she said in a phone call.
The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nongovernmental organization that follows political and social issues in Arab communities, said a recent poll it conducted indicated 51.2% of the Arab public was expected to cast ballots on Tuesday. In 2015, 63.7% of Arabs voted.
In contrast, a Brookings Institution survey suggested a substantially higher Arab voter turnout. When its pollsters asked a group of 713 Arab Israelis whether they intended to cast ballots, 73.5% said yes.
Mahajne, contended that Arabs choosing not to vote in the elections were making a mistake.
“I understand the concerns, but we need to remain hopeful and realize that increasing our representation in the Knesset can lead to change,” he said, adding that he would support the Arab-majority parties joining a governing coalition “because it will increase our ability to influence policies.”
No Arab-majority party has ever joined a governing coalition. But a recent Brookings Institution survey found that 73 percent of Arab Israelis would support the Arab factions entering one, if the opportunity to do so arose.
Neither Likud nor Blue and White, the two parties vying to lead the next government, has expressed interest in forming a coalition with Arab-majority parties. Likud has even suggested that a coalition that includes Arab-majority parties in some form would lack legitimacy.
Some 20 kilometers north of Umm al-Fahm in Iksal, another Arab town, voters slowly made their way into the Razi School adjacent to a street of shops and restaurants. Polling worker Osama Masalha said he expected most voters to arrive in the afternoon and evening.
Ahmad Darawshe, a 29-year-old assistant to Hadash-Ta’al candidate MK Ahmad Tibi, also expressed concern about a possible low Arab turnout.
“Today, we are confronting indifference to voting in the Arab community,” he said outside of the school. “The situation is worrying, but party activists are doing extra work to encourage people to vote.”
Fayez Ishtawi, 45, the editor of Arabic news site Kul al-Arab, said he voted for one of the two Arab-majority lists and argued that the breakup of the Joint List has also convinced some Arabs to forgo casting a ballot.
“There is a real disappointment among many Arab citizens that the Joint List did not stay together,” he said.
Following several rounds of negotiations in February, the Joint List, a coalition of the four largest Arab-majority parties, failed to come to an agreement to run together in Tuesday’s elections.
The Joint List was formed in January 2015 after the Knesset raised the electoral threshold for entry to the 120-seat Knesset from 2 to 3.25 percent, sparking fears that running alone, the smaller parties wouldn’t get in. It won 13 seats in the March 2015 Knesset elections, becoming one of the largest factions in the opposition.
Danny, a bakery owner in Iksal, said he did not plan to vote because the Joint List’s dissolution shows that the “Arab parties care more about their own interests than our community’s interests.”
Around 11 a.m. at a polling station near Nazareth’s old city, larger number of voters started to arrive at the polls. Nazareth is one of the largest Arab cities in Israel.
Theres said she had originally planned to boycott the elections, but changed her mind when she realized that not voting would benefit right-wing parties.
“My son explained to me that I would essentially be giving a vote to Likud,” she said. “So I changed my mind and decided to make sure I am not aiding the right.”
A low turnout of Arab voters could significantly benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing parties. It could allow right-wing factions to pass the threshold to enter the Knesset that would fail to do so if more Arabs cast ballots and drove up turnout numbers.
Nazareth resident Issa said he had been convinced to cast a ballot to thwart Netanyahu’s plans for a fifth term.
“I originally planned not to vote in this election because I feel that our parliamentarians aren’t doing enough for us, but I now intend to do so,” he said. “My friends and family have been pressuring me to vote because they think not voting will help the right and I think they are correct.”