In my hometown of Tira, an Arab community in central Israel, word spread on election day last week of many residents deciding to vote at the last minute. During the campaign’s final weeks, families watched as the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu launched ferocious tirades about the threat of a “leftist-Arab government”. He told his followers the Arabs “want to annihilate us all”, and that they were “stealing” the elections through rampant voter fraud (his legislative attempts to place surveillance cameras at Arab polling stations failed to get through the Knesset).
Tira’s residents were no strangers to the prime minister’s history of racist incitement, but for many people his shocking escalations compelled a response. If they couldn’t stop him from winning, they thought, they would at least try to make his job as difficult as possible.
So far, they have succeeded. About 60% of eligible Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up a fifth of the state’s population, cast their ballots last week – a leap from 49% in the April elections, which failed to produce a governing coalition. The Joint List, a reunified alliance of four Arab-led political parties, restored its place as the third largest slate in the Knesset with 13 seats, aided in great part by its intensive campaign to regain public support. Opposition Jewish parties also received small shares of the Palestinian vote.
Traditionally, Arab parties have refused to nominate an Israeli prime minister – their last recommendation was for Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, who went on to sign the Oslo accords with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. But in a historic and controversial move on Sunday, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, formally recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that Benny Gantz, leader of the centre-right Blue and White party, be appointed to form the next government. Only one of the List’s factions, the nationalist party Balad, withheld its support. Had Odeh declined to nominate Gantz, the task was more likely to be assigned to Netanyahu again. (At Rivlin’s urging, the two leaders have now begun talks about forming a unity government.)
These surprising developments have been praised as major steps towards “integrating” Palestinian citizens into national politics and reigniting the opposition to increasingly hard-right rule. But such claims are seriously flawed. Like much of Israeli politics over the past decade, the value placed on Palestinian voting power has been centred almost exclusively on one issue: ousting Netanyahu. There has been little engagement in Israel or abroad with the community’s larger policy concerns, which include stopping home demolitions and land seizures, eradicating gun violence in Arab towns, revoking dozens of discriminatory laws and ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories. And yet as the Palestinian writer and feminist activist Samah Salaime put it, the Israeli centre-left now thinks that it is the responsibility of Palestinians “to take Bibi down – as second-class citizens, but first-class voters”.