The General Elections of 2015 were historic for Arab citizens. A successful merger of Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al and Hadash (the two Arab and one Jewish-Arab political parties) into a Joint List raised the profile of Arab political domestic aspirations and concerns in Israel and inspired Arab voters to come out in higher numbers.
Over the last decade there had been a dramatic decline in Arab voter participation in general elections and only a slight rise after many efforts to get out the vote in 2013. Throughout the 80's and 90's, Arab voter turnout was consistently at 70-75%, while in 2009 and 2013 these numbers were 53% and 56% respectively. It is important to note that Arab voters comprise only 15% of all eligible voters in Israel, despite being 20.7% of the population. This is due to the lower average age of the Arab population and the fact that Arab residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights have residency rather than citizenship status—they can vote in local but not general elections.
Studies in 2013 found that many Arabs don’t vote because: (1) they feel powerless to affect decision making circles, since the Arab and Jewish-Arab parties have never been part of a ruling government coalition; (2) there are calls for separatism within Arab society asking Arab citizens to boycott elections and disassociate from Israel's governmental system; (3) disenchantment with Arab MKs; and (4) as protest in solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territories and against discrimination, inequality, and disregard of the Arab public.
Technically, the merger and creation of the Joint List in 2015 happened in response to a new law, the Governance Bill of March 2014, which raised the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%. This higher threshold made it nearly impossible for smaller parties to gain seats in the Knesset and incentivized the smaller Arab and Jewish-Arab parties to bridge their considerable ideological differences and run as a single list.
Still, Chairman of the the Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash), said the higher electoral threshold may have been a trigger, the that the merger was also a response to demands from the Arab street for greater unity among Arab leadership and greater focus on internal socio-economic concerns (rather than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). As a result of the Joint List’s size and messaging to both Arab and Jewish constituencies, more coverage was given to Arab aspirations both in Israeli media and abroad, with a lot of focus placed on the thoughtful and measured manner of Chairman Odeh.
Arab voter turnout reached 63.5% in 2015, an increase of 7% from 2013, and the Joint List received 80% of the Arab vote, almost 100,000 votes more than the three separate parties had in previous elections. The Joint List won 13 Knesset seats (including 12 Arab MKs and one Jewish MK.) This constitutes two seats more than the three separate lists had together in 2013.
Still, election campaign leading up to the March 17th vote was stormy for Jewish-Arab relations. Statements by Foregin Minister Lieberman, Foreign Minister Bennet, Joint List spokesperson Raja Zaetra and finally PM Netanyahu created controversy and led to criticism from within and without Israel. See the Task Force Post-Election Update for more details.
In total, the 20th Knesset, sworn in on March 31, 2015, includes 16 Arab (including Druze) MKs – 12 in the Joint List and one in each of four Jewish parties – Meretz, the Zionist Union, Likud and Israel Beitenu. This represents an increase from the 12 Arab MKs that served in the 19th Knesset and 13% representation (proportional representation of 20% would mean 24 Arab MKs out of the Knesset's 120 MKs).