On the outskirts of the Israeli Arab town of Shefa Amr there are no posters advertising the meeting being held at an open-air restaurant deep in an orchard. Only inside the town do Hebrew-and-Arabic-language campaign billboards provide any visible evidence of the looming showdown between supporters and opponents of veteran Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tuesday’s general election.
On this summer evening in the northern Israeli town, candidates of the centrist Blue and White alliance led by former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz are seeking the votes of the Arab minority who make up nearly a fifth of Israel’s population.
In Israel, voting largely follows ethnic lines, with Arabs voting for Arab candidates and Jews supporting the Zionist parties but in this election some are considering casting their ballot across the traditional community lines.
In the restaurant, around 300 people are taking their seats as the sun goes down. Sitting near the stage, Jouma Masri is filming the proceedings for a live videocast on social media.
‘Only Gantz can do it’
He says he intends to vote for Blue and White — the main challenger to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party — for a second time, following inconclusive April elections which failed to produce a viable government.
He believes that a vote for the predominantly Arab Joint List, which polls see winning around 12 of the 120 seats in parliament, is a vote wasted in the bid to unseat Netanyahu after more than 10 years in office.
“Only Gantz can do it,” he said.
His online video is attracting some negative comments from friends, including “What’s happening with you?” and “The head of Blue and White shed Palestinian blood,” a reference to the 2014 Gaza war when Gantz was Israel’s armed forces chief.
The Blue and White candidates on the stage attack Netanyahu or promise more development funding for Arab communities in Israel, while staying off the subject of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
There is little applause. The audience listens but does not really participate. “I didn’t vote in the previous election,” says Rabab Hajaj, 26, in a pale pink hijab, matching her floral shirt.
“But I needed to come and hear what they had to say.” “We’ll try, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll send them home!”, says Naame Waleed, 51. His vote will go “for more equality” between Arabs and Jews.
Despite having citizenship, Israel’s 1.8 million or so Arabs report discrimination in areas such as housing, public services and employment.
They are descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the Israel’s creation in 1948 and they largely support the Palestinian cause.
Many do not vote, but some believe that Netanyahu poses such a threat to the community’s interests that they are ready to set aside their misgivings to vote for his Zionist challenger.
‘Vote with the minority’
In Tel Aviv, Jewish resident Meron Rapoport thinks that, on the contrary, it is necessary to increase Arab representation in the Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in order to go “against the antidemocratic current and against apartheid”.
In his city-centre apartment he is hosting a small number of voters to meet Ofer Cassif, the sole Jewish candidate standing with the Joint List.
Cassif is an MP for the mainly-Arab Hadash party which emerged from the former Communist party and is part of the Joint List. Rapoport says that about 5,000 Jewish voters cast their ballots for Arab parties in the April poll, a tiny number.
“The least I can do is vote with the minority to end the occupation and create a Palestinian state,” he says.
Speaking to the handful of the curious who have come to hear him out, Cassif defends the Arab-led alliance’s record. “Thirty-eight per cent of bills drafted on social issues were submitted by the Joint List,” he said.
Yael Agmon voted for him in April but is uncomfortable with Hadash’s alliance this time with some Arab parties whose beliefs she rejects. “I am for the left, not nationalists and Islamists,” the pink-haired 21-year old says.
“Nevertheless, I shall vote for them again this time, but with less enthusiasm.”
Guli Dolev says voting according to cultural identity is harmful to society. “I am not voting for them because they are Arabs,” he said referring to the Joint List.
“I am giving them my vote to shake up the country because in recent years things in Israel have taken a really bad turn.”