TEL AVIV – A State Department-financed non-profit based in Israel is currently engaged in a major effort to get young Arab citizens to the voting booths in the upcoming Israeli elections.
In an interview with WND, Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund, maintained that his group’s voter participation activities are entirely nonpartisan and that his organization does not endorse any political party.
Israeli election trends, however, have long demonstrated that Arab citizen’s vote overwhelmingly for left-wing and Arab parties. Any increase in the Arab vote would clearly come at the expense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party as well as other right-wing parties.
Following the country’s most recent parliamentary election in 2013, Arab lawmakers complained that a higher Arab voter turnout could have tipped the election toward the left and defeated Netanyahu.
The Abraham Fund works to encourage Arab participation in the Israeli economic, cultural and civic arenas. Its slogan is “Building a shared future for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.”
In 2010, the State Department provided the Abraham Fund a $999,715 three-year grant for an education initiative in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Education. Another part of the grant was designated to a project with the Israeli security services aimed at fostering closer Arab-Jewish ties.
Beeri-Sulitzeanu told WND the U.S. government funds are not being utilized for the voter-participation drive.
“The initiative is being paid for by private donations from donors interested in Arab participation,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that “some (money for the project) comes from our core funding at the Abraham Fund.”
“Since our workers are getting paid anyway, some of their job is dedicated to the vote project,” he said.
A source close to the Abraham Fund said the financing for the voter participation project came in large part from private wealthy American donors.
The same source told WND the voter-participation drive was encouraged by staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Asked if there was truth to the claim of U.S. Embassy encouragement, Beeri-Sulitzeanu simply responded, “No.”
The Abraham Fund is the second State Department-financed non-profit to engage in voter-organizing activities.
The other group, V15, short for Victory 2015, attracted U.S. media attention after it hired 270 Strategies, a consulting firm whose senior leadership is comprised mostly of former top staffers for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
The V15 organization has partnered with OneVoice, a U.S.-U.K. non-profit, for its get-out-the-vote-organizing drive aimed at replacing Netanyahu’s government with a center-left coalition.
V15′s headquarters is actually the offices of “OneVoice,” which bills itself as an “international grassroots movement that amplifies the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians.”
OneVoice is reportedly sponsored by scores of nonprofits and received two grants in the past year from the U.S. State Department. The State Department is also listed as a partner of OneVoice on the group’s website.
OneVoice development and grants officer Christina Taler told reporters “no government funding” has gone toward the V15 voter mobilization effort.
Young Arab vote to defeat Netanyahu?
Meanwhile, the Abraham Fund last week put out a press release announcing the launch of a “Broad-Based Action Plan to Increase the Participation of Arab Citizens in upcoming Elections for Knesset.”
Continued the release: “The Abraham Fund focuses its plans on a number of areas including running conferences for Arab students in colleges and launching a media and advertising campaign to persuade the Arab public to participate in the democratic process and vote in the elections.”
The fund’s co-executive director, Beeri-Sulitzeanu, told WND much of his group’s activities are aimed at younger Arab voters.
“Young, first-time voters are more than others tending to refrain from voting,” he said. “We’re targeting them the most.”
“We don’t push any political agenda and don’t work with any party or ideology,” he said.
However, partisan electioneering among the Arab Israeli sector is not needed to influence the outcome of the next election. Any increase in the Arab vote would clearly bolster Netanyahu’s rivals.
According to data provided by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, as of 2013 about 15 percent of Israel’s 5.1 million eligible voters were Arabs. This figure included Muslim and Christian Arabs as well as Druze.
Arab voting trends have changed over the years. From the 1950s to 1999, Arab voter turnout in Israeli elections ranged from a staggering 90 percent to about 75 percent. However, following the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks and the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, voter turnout reached a low point of just 18 percent.
The last three elections saw the eligible Arab vote come out at 56.3, 53.4 and 56 percent respectively.
The Abraham Fund was a central player in getting Arabs to vote in the 2013 parliamentary election, which saw a nearly 3 percent rise in Arab voting numbers.
Beeri-Sulitzeanu told The Jerusalem Post that year that his group had contributed to the higher voter turnout.
“We have been working hard to get out the Arab vote regardless of who they were voting for, just as long as they would use their civic right to vote,” he said.
Much of the Arab vote in 2013 went to Arab parties, as well as to the leftist Labor Party and the far-left Meretz Party, which that year featured an Arab on its parliamentary ballot list. Still, the Jerusalem Post documented that year that a tiny fraction of the vote surprisingly went to religious Zionist and far-right parties.
Following the 2013 election, which had a 56 percent Arab voter turnout, several Arab Knesset members complained that a higher rate of Arab voters could have defeated Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition.
UAL-Taal leader Ahmed Tibi told Ynet, “I have no doubt that we will continue to lead the Arab sector,” but if the turnout had “gone up by 10% we could have toppled the Right’s rule and pushed Netanyahu and Liberman from leadership. This was a missed opportunity.”