Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCIs) are primed to play a larger than usual role in Israel’s March 17 parliamentary election. The implications of their changing role could have a big impact on coalition formation as well, for reasons that may not be obvious. Until now, most attention, in Israel and internationally, has focused on the tight race between Israel’s two largest parties: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union. But PCIs offer a particularly useful window into the potential effects of the elevated threshold in new electoral rules, the structure of the electorate and potential changes in voter turnout.
Electoral turnout among PCIs has declined over the past 20 years. The turnout in the last election for Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 2013 was approximately 64 percent of the total electorate, but the average turnout among Arab voters was notably lower, at closer to 54 percent. In 1999 Arab voter turnout was 75 percent. My research suggests that this decline is in large part due to great dissatisfaction among PCIs with an Israeli state-society system that discriminates against its Palestinian citizens and increasingly defines itself in ethno-religious terms (i.e., as a Jewish state). The extent of divisions between parties that aspire to represent Palestinian citizens also contributes to the demobilization of the PCI vote. These divisions and infighting have led to a great deal of apathy among Palestinian citizens over the lack of influence and strength that their representatives have in the state system.
Today, however, this is changing. This election will be the first test of a higher threshold that political parties must cross to receive any seats in the Knesset. Previously, this threshold was at 2 percent of the electorate. Now, parties getting less than 3.25 percent of the vote will not get any seats within the parliament, while parties that get 3.25 percent or just above will receive four of the 120 seats. In other words, a swing of .01 percent of the electorate can result in a four-seat swing. Moreover, the chance of parties falling off the threshold has bigger implications. Since the 120-seat Knesset pie doesn’t change size and only those who have passed the threshold will get a seat at the table, the slice each party at the table gets could grow beyond what was predicted by the polls if parties on the edge drop below the threshold. If this scenario plays out, a number of seats could be reapportioned to the parties that made it past the threshold.
In the 2013 election, some 8 percent of the electorate’s ballots went to parties below the threshold. When the reapportioning was done, the Netanyahu-led list, which got 23.34 percent of the ballots cast (28 seats), received an additional three seats for a total of 31. In an election where the two main parties are running close and each will have to wheel-and-deal with other parties to get to a 61-seat coalition, this reapportionment could play a key role in reconfiguring the dynamics into something the polls are not capturing.
The main proponent of reforming the threshold was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader the Yisrael Beiteinu party. This party, whose name translates to “Israel is our home,” has often focused on verbally attacking PCIs. At a recent election conference Lieberman called for the beheading of Arab citizens who are disloyal to Israel. By advocating for raising the threshold, it was widely understood that Lieberman aimed to effectively eliminate at least two of the three Arab parties from the Knesset that had barely achieved the 2 percent threshold in 2013. Ironically, in recent polls it is Lieberman’s party and a few others are teetering very close to the threshold. Some polls show Yisrael Beiteinu winning only five seats, other parties like Meretz on the left and the Yachad party on the far right have polled as low as four seats.
The announcement of the higher threshold created new incentives for the Arab parties on the threshold chopping block to form a unified list. This was not an easy process, and Arab parties – which include secular nationalists, communists and Islamists – had to make difficult compromises to join a shared platform. Due to this effort to unify the smaller parties, the new Joint List now polls as the third or fourth largest party in the Israeli political system. This newfound political clout undoubtedly energizes and mobilizes those voters who had long grown apathetic within this community over the divisions that existed. As a result, higher PCI voter turnout can be expected in this election.
Such success could have unexpected implications for coalition formation. A growing and more unified PCI voting bloc undergirds a party which is not only unlikely to sit in a right-wing government but is also unlikely to sit in any government at all. This is likely to shrink the opportunities to combine parties and create stable, workable coalitions, especially non-right-wing coalitions. If the seats won by Arab parties are not available for coalition forming, where else can would-be governments look? For one, they can look to voters in Israeli settlements, where in 2013 electoral turnout was upwards of 75 percent.
Between the 2009 and 2013 elections, voters in the settlements shifted in significant numbers from the Likud party to the Jewish Home party. That shift, which will likely carry over into this election, has solidified a party that is far less likely to sit in a non-right-wing coalition. All of this suggests strongly that the structure at play within the Israeli electorate is geared toward producing right-wing governments, and in the event that a non-right-wing government should be able to form a coalition, it certainly would not have the mandate or the stability with which to move forward in any significant way on the question of peace.
There is a real possibility that the Joint List representing PCIs might get even more than the 12 seats that it is expected to win based on a series of recent and consistent polls. The implications of this are significant. Although the Joint List has expressed unwillingness to join a coalition, it could become key to forming a non-Netanyahu government and it could play a bigger role in opposition. At a minimum, a bigger Joint List that stays out of a coalition means a more difficult path to 61 for a non-Netanyahu government simply because fewer seats are available to combine with that are not Netanyahu’s natural allies. Also, it could unify a long-divided Palestinian constituency. Palestinian leaders might then be able to speak with a more assertive voice in the broader Palestinian geographic realm and political spectrum. At a time when divisions between Palestinian political parties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are deep, Palestinian representative structures are in tatters, and PCIs are excluded from meaningful participation in political life, the rise of a unified Palestinian party could introduce a very new dynamic into Israeli politics — giving some Palestinians a stronger voice in a system that rules over the vast majority of them who are kept voiceless.
This probably will not mean a renewed interest in peace between Israel and Palestine, however. One of the grave dangers in the lead-up to this election is operating on the assumption that a defeat for Netanyahu and his replacement with a Herzog-led government would in fact improve the prospects for a renewed and successful peace process. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most effective challenges to the recent right-wing governments from within this portion of the electorate focus on economic issues and not on the question of peace or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The foundational problem is that the Israeli electorate is simply not there, and there are no signs of internal change on the horizon. Catalysts for change will likely have to come from the outside. Both practically and normatively speaking U.S. policymakers with peace on the agenda should not weigh the outcome of the Israeli election, whatever direction it goes, in terms of peace and Palestinian rights.
Yousef Munayyer is the executive director of U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and a doctoral candidate in government and politics at the University of Maryland. He is the former executive director of the Jerusalem Fund