If Arab Israelis come out in force, they have the potential to block a right-wing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and prevent smaller right-wing parties from getting into the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s electorate but historically have turned out at significantly lower rates than the majority Jewish population.
Turnout in the 2015 election, energized in part by majority Arab parties joining a single parliamentary list, hit a record 63.5 percent. But on Tuesday, it’s expected to crash — some polls show that just over half of Arab Israelis plan to cast ballots.
Frustration is high: The joint list has split, crime and poverty riddle Arab Israeli communities, and some say they’ve seen few results from their elected representatives.
Meanwhile, a law that many Arabs complain codifies their status as second-class citizens has bolstered calls for a boycott.
Odeh, head of the Arab-dominated Hadash party, hopes the right-wing campaign waged by Netanyahu backfires by galvanizing Arab Israelis to vote.
“Our vote is crucial,” he said. “It’s the way we can stop Netanyahu.”
His first stop in a rush of campaigning Friday night was the small northern town of Arraba, population 27,000. A hundred people gathered on plastic chairs laid out in the street for his visit. Organizers asked those sitting near the back to move forward to fill empty seats.
Arab Israelis are angered by last year’s nation-state law, which made most of Israel’s declaration of independence the law — except for a clause that stipulated the equality of all citizens. It also elevated the status of Hebrew over Arabic and said that only Jews have a right to self-determination in the Jewish state of Israel.
In February, Netanyahu cut a deal with the extreme right-wing Jewish Power party, which has called for the expulsion of Arab citizens. He argued that the move was necessary to hold on to right-wing votes.
Responding last month to criticism that his government was sending a message of inequality, he said Israel is not a “state for all its citizens.”
“Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and only them,” Netanyahu wrote on social media. He added that Arab citizens enjoy “equal rights” and that the Likud government had invested more in Arab communities than any before it.
On Saturday, he said he planned to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
As Odeh stood on the podium in Arraba, signs behind him read “Our roots are stronger than fascism.”
He reminded his audience that a U.S. peace plan is expected soon and that Netanyahu holds influence in the Trump White House.
“We are witnessing a very dangerous era,” he warned.
The message resonates. Amira Khatif, 63, bouncing her granddaughter on her knee, said her main reason to vote is “to get rid of the stink.”
She used the Arabic word “nitin” for “stink.” Some here call the prime minister “Nitin-yahu.”
But the fracture in the joint list has hurt. Two recent polls predict that just 51 percent of Arab Israelis plan to vote, though an outlier by the University of Maryland indicated a rise. The Konrad Adenauer Program at Tel Aviv University said 12.4 percent of respondents who didn’t intend to vote cited the split in the joint list. It predicted 70 percent turnout among Jewish Israelis.
“It seems this time we will have the lowest level of turnout ever, and that’s because of the collapse in the joint list,” said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at the University of Haifa. “That means the collapse of the joint list could be the main reason behind a victory for Netanyahu and those who didn’t work to repair it are responsible.”
If the Arab-led parties get their act together, Ghanem said, they should be able to win 16 or 17 seats.
In the Israeli system, who becomes prime minister is a matter of math. No party is expected to win an outright majority, so party leaders will try to assemble a coalition.
The joint list of Arab-led parties holds 13 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. If the parties win more seats on Tuesday, they could reduce the chance of smaller right-wing parties reaching the four-seat threshold to get into the Knesset.
Netanyahu’s campaign has warned repeatedly that his main rival, former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz, would team up with Arab parties to form a coalition.
In 2015, Netanyahu was widely criticized for his election day warning that Arab Israelis were flocking to the polls in “droves,” an appeal to the fears of his right-wing base.
“We are worried about what bunny he’s going to pull out of the hat” this time, Odeh said.
During the high-speed car ride to Odeh’s second event, an aide told him Netanyahu had posted a new Facebook video he should watch. The candidate pulled out his phone.
“The right-wing government is in danger,” Netanyahu tells his supporters in the video. A left-wing government is not “fantasy,” he warns.
“He’s crazy,” he said. “He incites us every hour.”
After the election, Israel’s president will meet with the head of each bloc for recommendations on who will form a government, and then decide who is best placed to proceed. The leader with the most votes does not automatically win.
Odeh said he would recommend Gantz only if he meets certain demands — including a promise to change the nation-state law.
Odeh and other Arab politicians call it the apartheid law. It has given fuel to Arab Israelis who are calling for a boycott of the vote Tuesday.
To vote or not to vote is a difficult choice for some Arab Israelis. Many wrestle with the complexities of being Israeli citizens but still Palestinian at heart.
Arab Israeli rapper Tamer Nafar released a music video last week pushing back against a boycott.
“Hey, you said my vote isn’t worthy,” he raps. “The majority is racist, we’ve lost, this war isn’t mine. Voting might not mean we will liberate Palestine. But if our vote will erase Liberman, imprison Bibi, then we are ready.”
The right-wing party of Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s defense minister before he quit last year, is one that risks falling short of the threshold if Arab Israelis vote in force on Tuesday.
But the breakup of the joint list also means that smaller Arab parties face the same risk.
Odeh called the breakup regrettable. He blamed “seats and personalities.”
But the people of Arraba have other complaints, and they say their representatives aren’t doing enough about them.
Their communities are rife with crime, and spending in Arab municipalities lags behind spending in Jewish ones. People say they are not being granted enough building permits to expand as the population grows.
In Kafr Yasif, Odeh’s second stop of the night, he addressed potential voters in a schoolyard.
Mohammed Kahlili and two friends stayed in the cafe next door. They didn’t plan to vote.
“I voted before,” said Khalili, 23. “It’s not achieved anything. What has anyone done for us?”
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.