Expert Q&A: On the 2021 Israeli Election

March 16, 2021
Expert Q&A: On the 2021 Israeli Election

Expert: Diana Buttu, Political analyst, former advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators, and Palestinian citizen of Israel.

Q: In the 2020 election, the Joint List alliance of parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel and non-Zionist Jews won 15 Knesset seats (out of 120), a record for non-Zionist parties, making them one of the largest factions in the last Knesset. This time around, one of its four parties, the United Arab List, broke away to run alone. How do you think the Joint List’s split will affect its showing this time around, and what impact will it have on Palestinians citizens of Israel in general?

Diana Buttu: The breakup of the Joint List will undoubtedly lead to Palestinians having fewer seats in the next Knesset. Both lists must now separately pass the threshold of 3.25% of the vote to enter the Knesset, which the United Arab List may not do, and without a surplus vote sharing agreement between them, many votes cast by Palestinian citizens of Israel will probably be lost.  Many people who previously cast their ballots for the Joint List also say they’re not voting this time, as a means of expressing their dismay at the split.

This likely drop in Knesset seats held by the Joint List will be felt harshly by Palestinians in Israel. The Joint List is the de facto opposition to Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and Israel’s powerful right-wing. It is the only party that supports equality among all of Israel’s citizens. A weakened Joint List will ensure little opposition to the flood of racist legislation passed in recent years, like the Jewish Nation-State Law, or to Israel’s brutal, more than half-century-old military rule over Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and cruel siege on Palestinians in Gaza. 


Q: After repeatedly race-baiting against Palestinian citizens of Israel during the last several election campaigns, Netanyahu tried to court their votes during the 2021 campaign. Meanwhile, the leader of the United Arab List, the Islamist party that broke away from the Joint List, has said if it wins enough votes to enter the Knesset they might support Netanyahu for prime minister. What do you make of all this?

DB: This is just the latest Netanyahu attempt to stop Palestinians from voting for non-Zionist parties by suppressing or co-opting their votes, albeit a particular shameless one given his long history of blatant race-baiting and incitement against Palestinians in Israel. Just last year, the same Netanyahu who is now courting Arab voters ran on the slogan “Bibi or Tibi,” referring to his own nickname and a prominent Palestinian member of the Knesset, exploiting racist fears of Israelis that centrist Jewish parties might form a government with parties representing Arabs. During the April 2019 campaign, he declared on Instagram: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People - and them alone.” His Likud party also placed cameras in polling stations in Arab communities to try and suppress the vote. And of course in 2015, he notoriously tried to get right-wing voters to support him by warning Arabs were going out to vote “in droves.” 

In 2019 and again this year, he even made electoral pacts with the Jewish Power party, which openly calls for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine/Israel and is made up of followers of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party and Jewish Defense League are outlawed as terrorist organizations by Israel and the US government.

As for the United Arab List, they have expressed support for Netanyahu but have stopped short of openly endorsing him. They’re doing so in the false hope that Netanyahu will provide jobs, address violence in Arab communities, and repeal racist legislation. The fallacy in this approach is that the problems that Palestinians in Israel face are systemic and have been further exacerbated by successive Netanyahu governments over the past decade. Netanyahu is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He has had the power to improve the lives of Palestinians citizens of Israel and to combat the systemic racism they face, but he has chosen to do the opposite up until now. To believe he has suddenly turned over a new leaf is foolish. It’s akin to allowing the fox to guard the henhouse. 


Q: Do you think the results of Tuesday’s vote will change anything substantial for Palestinians, inside Israel or the occupied territories?

DB: According to the polls, racist, right-wing, parties will win big once again in this election. Most alarming, polls project Jewish Power will win seats for the first time. If they do, it will be in large measure thanks to Netanyahu, who engineered an electoral pact to help maximize their vote and chances of entering the Knesset in exchange for their support. Regardless of whether Jewish Power enters the Knesset, that Netanyahu would dare make such a deal with fascist Kahanists, the second in two years, demonstrates how far-right Israeli society has become. Just a decade ago such a development would have been unthinkable, with Kahane’s virulently racist, violent followers on the margins of Israeli politics. 

As for supposedly more “moderate” opposition parties like Yesh Atid and Blue and White, they support the continued marginalization and exclusion of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Israel’s construction of illegal Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, and denial of Palestinian rights. Even supposedly left-wing Zionist parties like Labor and Meretz have supported Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and Labor was a major proponent of Israel’s settlement enterprise. When it comes to the Palestinians, at least, there’s very little difference between the official opposition and Netanyahu’s Likud party.


Q: This election is the fourth Israel has had in two years. Do you think there will be a clear winner after Tuesday or will there be another deadlock and yet another vote a few months down the road?

DB: Yes, there will be a clear winner: the extreme right-wing. We will likely see the almost complete transformation of the Knesset into a right-wing, often fascist space. Whether a governing coalition can be formed by Netanyahu or anyone else is a different matter, mostly boiling down to personality politics rather than ideology. On issues relating to settlements, further annexation of occupied Palestinian land, home demolitions and racist legislation, there is no substantial difference between the major parties. The only real distinction is who they support for prime minister. On this, we will need to wait and see, as no one wants to be blamed for causing yet another election.