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Identity Politics in Israel and Peace Building - Reflecting on September 2019 Elections

Friends of Mossawa
February 17, 2022

The September 2019 repeat elections resulted in another stalemate. This surprised no one. There were, however, some movements within the blocs that point to the possibility of building a centre left pro-peace coalition. The most significant development was the increase in voter turnout among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who overwhelmingly voted for the reunited Joint List. With thirteen seats, the Joint List (made up of the Arab Jewish Hadash party, Balad, Ta’al,and Ra’am) is now the third largest party.  This highlights the role that the Arab community can play as a gamechanger. It is time to invite the Arab citizens of Israel to take its place at the decision-making table and to assume its role in building peace and ending the occupation.


Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party won 32 seats. The centrist Kahol Lavan(Blue and White), led by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, won 33 seats. The Likud, however, received the most recommendations to the President from the other parties, and therefore received the mandate to form a government. Unable to form a government, Prime Minister Netanyahu returned his mandate to the President on 21 October. The President will now hand the mandate to Kahol Lavanwho will try to form a government. If Benny Gantz fails to form a government, Israel will once again go to the polls in March 2020.

Behind the Numbers

Rather than delving into Kahol Lavan’s possible coalition scenarios, let us look more deeply into the election results. The April 2019 elections had already shown the continued strengthening of identity politics in Israeli society. This is a trend that began in 1977 when Likud successfully won over the Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) votes from their traditional allegiance to the Labour Alignment. Likud has since continued to exploit identity politics which in turn has deepened divisions– both intra-Jewish and Jewish-Arab – in Israeli society.

Political allegiances have consequently revolved around descent – Ashkenazi (European descent), Mizrahi, Ethiopian, post-Soviet Russian speakers – or religious affiliation, which is divided into national religious and ultra-orthodox groups with Ashkenazi and Mizrahi factions. All of these groups have historically been pitted against the secular Ashkenazi elite. This has enabled the Likud to maintain its dominant position in Israeli politics and to ensure the continuation of the occupation and to scuttle any chance of building peace.

If a solution is to be found to the crisis afflicting Israel and Palestine, which also impacts the region at large, the negative influence of identity politics must be tackled. The pro-peace forces need to overcome the alienation felt towards them by the majority of Israel’s marginalised communities. The unique place of the Arab citizens in Israel gives them the ability to take on this key role.

The increase in voter participation, which rose from 68.5% in April 2019 to 69.8% in September 2019, was in large part due to the huge increase in Arab voter participation which rose from 49.2% in April 2019 to 60% in September 2019. Netanyahu’s scare tactics – of installing cameras in Arab locality polling stations – and his unrelenting racist incitement during the election campaign seemed to galvanize the Arab citizens of Israel voters at the polling station. Anger about the Jewish Nation State undoubtedly also played a role.

The September 2019 elections also showed a return of the Arab voter to the Arab parties which many had abandoned in the April 2019 elections. The return was in great part due to the renewal of the Joint List whose break up into separate parties angered the Arab voters. Many of these disaffected voters had voted for Meretz and are in fact credited with saving the party from falling below the threshold. For the September 2019 elections, Meretz merged with Ehud Barak’s new Democratic Union party. Barak is a red flag for the Arab minority since the October 2000 killing of 12 Arab citizens which took place under his premiership.

Furthermore, Issawie Freij,the MK responsible for bringing the large number of Arab voters to Meretz in April 2019, was pushed down the new party’s list.  As a result, Arab voter support for Meretz dropped by over 60%. Support for Kahol Lavan increased slightly as did support for Yisrael Beitenu. Both these parties had Arab candidates in realistic places. Gadeer Mreeh of Kahol Lavan and Hamad Amar of Yisrael Beitenu are now the only Arab members of the new Knesset. Support for the Likud dropped by over 45%. This is probably the result of a number of factors: Netanyahu’s racist campaign, the Jewish Nation State law and the fact that MK Ayoub Kara was not granted a reserved spot on the Likud list.

With its thirteen seats, the Joint List became the third largest party. The higher voter turnout shows that the Arab community wants to be part of and to influence the political arena. In the weeks before the elections, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, expressed the List’s willingness to join a center-left coalition under certain conditions including the establishment of a Palestinian state, ending the occupation, and repealing the Jewish Nation-State Law. The offer was quickly rebuffed by the Kahol Lavanparty.

Nevertheless, following the elections, the Joint List recommended to the President that the mandate to form a government be given to Kahol Lavan.  However, since the Balad party, which is part of the Joint List and won three seats, refused to be included in this recommendation, the Joint List recommendation was not sufficient to grant Kahol Lavanthe mandate. The Joint List made it clear that their recommendation of Gantz was not an endorsement, but a strategic move aimed at ousting Benjamin Netanyahu. The recommendation should not be underestimated as it was given in spite of Benny Gantz’s boasts during the election campaign about the number of Gazans who had been killed during the Gaza wars under his command.

Past voting patterns show that there is a potential for an even higher Arab voter turn out – see the table below. The major drop in Arab voting came in the 2001 elections which took place shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada, and the October 2000 killing of twelve Arab citizens by the Israeli police. There was a massive call to boycott the elections. Ultimately, only 18% of the Arab community voted. The rift between the Arab community and the State has not yet healed. The voting rate has not yet returned to earlier levels. Studies carried out over the last two decades, however, place Arab voter potential at 75% as the 1999 elections showed. If the Arab voter turnout reached this figure, the Arab voters could bring at least three more seats to the centre left bloc

The other big winner in the September 2019 elections was Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu which received eight seats, three more than in the April 2019 elections. No longer the openly racist politician advocating the removal of citizenship of Arab citizens, Liberman rebranded himself as the champion of liberal secular rights. He successfully wagered that he would thereby increase his share of the Russian speaking vote and bring in new center-leaning voters. It is estimated that there are three to four “Russian” mandates that could potentially move to a center, peace-supporting bloc. Right now they are aligned with Liberman.

The Mizrahim have for decades traditionally voted for right-wing parties, whether for the Likud or the ultra-orthodox Shas party. The September 2019 elections also showed interesting developments in this community’s voting. The Gesher (Bridge) party led by the right-wing Orly Levy merged with the Labor party led by Amir Peretz, a bona fide representative of Israel’s marginalised development towns. This has helped shed the Labour party’s historic association with an Ashkenazi secular elite and increased their vote share in traditionally right-wing towns. This gain, however, was cancelled out by a decrease in votes from more established - i.e. predominantly Ashkenazi – towns and cities. Nevertheless, the votes for Labor in the more marginalised communities reveal potential for support for a center, peace-supporting coalition.

The short lived Kulanu(All of Us) party established by former Likud member Moshe Kahlon was a centrist party which focused on economic and social issues and targeted the Mizrahi community. Following a poor showing in the April 2019 elections, Kulanumerged with Likud for the September 2019 elections. This merge, however, did not increase votes for the Likud. It is possible that among the former Kulanu voters there are also potential supporters of a center peace coalition.  It has been estimated that together some of the former Gesherand Kulanuvoters could create an independent Mizrahi alternative equal to about five seats.  

The addition of these potential mandates to those gained by Kahol Lavanin the September elections would bring a center-left bloc to at least 68 seats and enable it to form a majority government. This is the first step necessary to bring Israel and Palestine out of the current crisis.

It is a step that can be led by the Arab community.

A New Vision for Peace

An entirely new approach is needed. The two-state solution based on the Oslo track has failed. The vision needs to be updated and reframed before it can be rebranded and promoted to the Israeli and Palestinian publics.

Rather than promoting reconciliation, the Israeli vision for peace focused on metaphorical and physical separation. Walls have been built on the 1967 lines around the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza and the north of the West Bank. But this failed to bring peace or security. The Israeli blockade of Gaza created a humanitarian crisis which led to the firing of rockets and the digging of tunnels, rather than civil resistance. Both sides have given up on a peace settlement, resigning themselves instead to a succession of ceasefires. No one can predict the next descent into violence. But it is clear that will come about as a result of the separation and settlement policies. This conflict management is Netanyahu's strategy. It is clear to both sides that this strategy is not sustainable. The last five years in the Gaza Strip are a testament to this.

The Oslo Accords failed to deal with core issues such as self-determination, refugees, access to holy sites, economic growth and free movement.  The isolation of the Jewish people in the Middle East is one of the obstacles to peace in the region, and any future solution needs to consider Israel’s role in the Middle East. It is necessary to develop a bottom-up vision of peace as the basis for future reconciliation based on truth, open borders, accessibility to holy sites, rights of refugees, minority rights protection, self-determination, human rights, multi-cultural systems and social justice.

The Arab community in Israel contributed significantly to peace building before 1993. The idea of ‘two states for two nations’ has been promoted by the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party since 1948. Recognising the limitations of the Accords, the community was also the first group to disengage from Oslo after 1993. The unique status of the Arab community in Israel gives it the ability to promote trust building and peace. They are the only community with the necessary physical, psychological, cultural, and linguistic access to both nations. Yet, this community has been marginalized by international actors and even the Palestinian leadership for the last two decades.

Peace and democracy in the region can and must start with the inclusion of minority rights in any bottom-up peace initiative. As we have seen in this election, Arab citizens of Israel refuse to be passive agents in the political process. Building on this foundation, the Arab community has the capability to build proactive initiatives to promote peace, social justice, minority rights, multi-culturalism and democracy.

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