This election was the strongest Arab showing in the Knesset

Nathan Jeffay spent the morning of election day speaking to residents in Kafr Qara



Donald Trump suggested that Arabs in this region do not belong in Israel. They answered by streaming to polling stations to exercise their civic rights.

72 per cent of adults voted in Kafr Qara, a town which the White House’s new peace plan suggests moving to a future Palestinian state. The share was seven per cent higher than the national average and 10 per cent higher than Tel Aviv.

Some even felt that voting in the Jewish state’s third election in a year was the desire of Allah.

“The third time is a sign from God,” said Zakary Atama, 22, a butcher and security guard who was a no-show in the last election but keen voter this time around. Standing near a mosque on election day, he said he voted for the Arab-run Joint List, which he considers “fearless” in advocating on issues that are important for the Arab public.

It is turnouts like these in the Arab sector that led to major successes for Joint List, which looks set to become the third biggest party, with one out of every eight seats. The alliance’s leader Ayman Odeh called the results “an amazing achievement, the greatest parliamentary victory since 1949.”

The Trump plan surmised that moving Kfar Qara to Palestine, along with surrounding towns of the so-called Triangle region that are home to around a quarter of a million people, would be workable as people there “largely self-identify as Palestinian.”

Arabs across Israel were outraged and said they suspected that the idea was included at Benjamin Netanyahu’s request. Arab politicians tapped into the anger to help their already-buoyant party grow by two seats.

Ironically, Mr Trump’s assessment of identity politics around here has given Arabs more strength than they could have dreamed in Israel’s parliament. Joint List is now up to 15 seats, compared to 13 at the last election and 10 in the previous poll.

To add to the sense of irony, the Joint List only exists because of an attempt to keep its members out of Knesset. In 2014, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman spearheaded an increase in the threshold for parties to enter Knesset from 2 per cent to 3.25 per cent of the vote. He seemingly thought it could kill off the small Arab parties — instead they united and grew.

“He changed the percentages and it smacked him in the face,” said Ahmed Assaw, a 61-year-old Kfar Qara businessman. “The Lord wanted it this way.”

Analysts and experts say that the Joint List’s strong showing will change Israeli politics.

“The dramatic increase in Arab voter turnout makes the Arab Israeli citizens a player whose rights and demands cannot be put aside,” said Thabet Abu Rass, executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, an NGO that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Joint List won almost 97 per cent of votes in Kafr Qara, and Mr Assaw said its success is vital. “We need our representatives in Knesset to speak for us,” he said. He pointed at a wonky road with building materials seemingly abandoned, and said this would not happen in Jewish-majority areas. The level of investment in infrastructure in Arab areas is too low, and needs remedying by Arab politicians, he said.

Identity here is complex, and connections to Jewish Israelis permeate many aspects of local life, including the lexicon. Travel agent Hassan Masawa sat in his office — and closed the back door so the sheep bleating in a nearby yard could not be heard. He called election day a “chag”, the Hebrew word for festival.

“People get up early, go to vote, and then go to have fun,” he said. Unlike many others, Mr Masawa, 41, said it was not criticism of contemporary Israel but rather optimism that prompted him to vote Joint List.

“In recent years there is more equality between Jews and Arabs and if we don’t have representation some of that could be lost,” he said.

Anti-Bibi sentiment was strong in the town, both because of the prime minister’s support for the Trump Plan and because of his stances in general. Karim Atama, 21, said: “Bibi incites against Arabs. And why does he do this? Because of elections.”

Shukina Mahamid, a 30-year-old mother of two, was not only bitter about Bibi, but also full of hope about Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. She said she was torn between voting for the sake of her community and voting for the wider country.

Standing at the checkout of the supermarket where she works, Ms Mahamid said: “I’m thinking to myself that I want laws and conditions that are good for Arabs, but in a way I want Blue and White for an organised and better state.” The decision between Joint List and Blue and White was agonising her, and she was “constantly thinking whether to go this way or that.”

But some voters said that they did not care who becomes Prime Minister so long as the Joint List is strong. Hassan Kanani, 55, felt the best thing for Arabs would be a unity government that left the Joint List leading the opposition, as he suspects that Jewish politicians in power will always tend to be antagonistic to Arabs.

“Bibi and Gantz are the same thing,” he said.

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