Avigdor Lieberman (photo: Reuters/Mary F. Calvert)
Knesset Elections in Israel

Giving Away Their Votes

Many Arab Israelis have lost faith in the political system and won't be casting their votes in Tuesday's poll. But their election boycott will only serve to boost prospects for the rightwing nationalists. Inge Günther reports from Jaffa

Hanna Farah last voted 12 years ago. He mentions it in the same tone as people who say they've given up smoking. In any case, the architect and artist who lives between Tel Aviv and the old Arab port city of Jaffa, says that back then he still lived under the illusion that every vote counted for something.

"It was all a lot of hot air," he says dismissively. "The Knesset will never recognise our rights." Farah strokes his thick, white beard. It's a view he holds for very personal reasons. He originates from Kufr Birim, which was once an Arab-Christian village close to the border with Lebanon. The Israelis cleared it in 1948 but promised residents they would later be allowed to return.

To this day, that oft-repeated promise has not been fulfilled. "We've tried everything, my father and many others. But whether we vote or not, it makes no difference. We can expect nothing from the Zionists," says Farah. When he did vote, it was for Balad, the party founded by exiled leftwing intellectual Azmi Bishara – but it changed nothing.

Faith in political change

Wadie Abunassar has much in common with Hanna Farah. He is also an Arab Christian and takes a critical view of the situation, but he believes he can effect change. Even if it means his jaw aches from all the talking. A Catholic from Nazareth, although he is not a politician, Farah has been running a tireless election campaign. Not for a particular party, but to persuade fellow Arab Israelis to exercise their voting rights in elections to the Knesset on Tuesday (22 January).

Campaign advertising of the Labour party (photo: Eliran Rubin/DW)
Lost popularity: Many Arab Israelis used to be loyal supporters of "Avoda", but withdrew that support when 12 Arab Israelis were shot dead during an unarmed protest in October 2000, when the government of Ehud Barak was in power

​​The political scientist has just been trying to convince his two brothers to vote. A tough challenge. Wadie Abunassar sighs. Levels of voter apathy among Arab Israelis are higher than ever. A study conducted by the University of Haifa claims less than half of those entitled to vote plan to do so.

"People have lost faith in the political system and parties in general, including Arab parties," says Abunassar. This leaves easy pickings for those calling for an election boycott – dogmatic Islamists for example, or members of Abnaa el-Balad, the "Sons of the Land", who stubbornly maintain that the only thing linking them to Israel, a country defining itself as a Jewish state, is their passport.

There is no doubt that the sense of frustration within the minority Israeli-Arab community has grown. The ailing infrastructure of local authority districts is apparent. The refuse trucks pass through less frequently than in Jewish-Israeli areas. Schools are more crowded and tax revenues lower. There is not a single Arab region in Israel with an industrial park.

Cities such as Nazareth and Umm al-Fahim are also notable for their overcrowding and housing shortages. The Arab sector makes up more than 20 percent of the total population of Israel. But it has no more than three percent of the territory at its disposal.

"We don't care" is a phrase Wadie Abunassar has come to hear all too often. The elections won't change anything. People say that on polling day, when all the shops and offices will be closed, they'd rather do something with the children instead of queuing outside a polling station. Abunassar counters this by saying: "By not voting, you forfeit the right to complain about bad policies."

Worse still, he says, this attitude plays into the hands of Israel's rightwing. A boycott will essentially give away five, if not ten seats, which could dramatically alter the balance of power between leftist parties and the rightwing religious bloc in Israel.

Things were different in the 1990s. Voter participation among Arab-Israelis was higher than the national average. Many of them were staunch supporters of Avoda, the leftwing Zionist Labour Party. All that changed in October 2000, when the government of Ehud Barak was in power and 12 Arab-Israelis were shot dead as they took part in vehement but unarmed protests.

Between a loss of faith and political apathy

Things have gone steadily downhill since then. In 2009, less than five percent of the Arab minority voted for Avoda. Today, voter disaffection is being felt by the population group's own parties such as the ex-Communists of Hadash, the rather more centrist United Arab List or the national Balad party. Many people accuse the representatives of these parties of doing too much talking and not enough to address urgent problems such as unemployment, health and education.

Hanan Soabi (photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)
In the crossfire of criticism: "Balad" deputy Hanan Soabi took part in the Free Gaza flotilla protest of 2010. In parliament, she accused the government of committing an act of piracy when it ordered commandos to storm the Turkish passenger ship the "Mavi Marmara"

​​"People just want Arab deputies to address concrete concerns," says Asad Ghanam, who conducted the study by the University of Haifa. "They want to see action being taken, for example to stop the demolition of houses or the planned forced relocation of Negev Bedouins," he says.

This does not really do justice to Arab Knesset deputies. For example, Ahmed Tibi has collated data showing that he and his colleagues devote 80 percent of their time to domestic and socio-political matters. The only problem is, he says, people only notice when a story hits the headlines, for example when Balad deputy Hanan Soabi sailed on the Turkish flagship Marmara as part of the Free Gaza flotilla.

Limited scope for manoeuvre

Furthermore, the opposition has limited scope to influence policy. To date, no Israeli coalition government has ever included an Arab party. On the contrary. The political establishment has frequently cast general suspicion upon the Arab minority, implying that it represents a kind of "fifth column" that tacitly sympathises with the enemy.

People still have bad memories of the campaign launched by rightwing populist Avigdor Lieberman and his party Yisrael Beiteinu ("Our Home Israel"), which demanded proof of loyalty from Arab Israelis as a prerequisite for full civil rights. Now, any group that uses state funds to mark the Nakba as a day of mourning – or anything deemed to be tantamount to denying the existence of Israel – can face financial sanctions. The Nakba Law is just one of numerous legislative advances used by Liebermann and Co. to sour the mood against the Arab minority during the last Knesset.

The leftwing liberal camp is meanwhile appealing to people to cast their votes. The newspaper Haaretz even published a lead article on the issue in Arabic. But this will have a limited impact on voters in Jaffa, Nazareth and Haifa. There is little interest among Arab voters to salvage Israel's established leftwing. "Meretz and Labour," says Abunassar "only ever had an Arab candidate for show."

The political dynamic of the younger generation

But there is some movement, primarily within the younger generation. Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka, a 39-year-old Arab trade union activist from Jaffa, embodies a totally new self-confidence. She is the leader of Daam ("Solidarity") – a socialist party. She attracted attention during the tent protests on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard in the summer of 2011 for her unusual charisma and her ability to win the trust of Arabs and Jews in equal measure.

Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, Daam party (photo: Dan Balilty/AP/dapd)
Rebellion of the young generation: During the tent protests on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard in the summer of 2011, Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka attracted attention for her unusual charisma and her ability to win the trust of both Arabs and Jews

​​"I invite you not to perceive me as your enemy," she said at the time. This won her many supporters, although it may not be enough to help the party clear the two percent hurdle on this occasion.

An Israeli-Palestinian initiative called Real Democracy is calling for a different kind of civil society rebellion. Israelis wanting to cede their vote to the Palestinians register themselves on a Facebook page.

"Israeli citizens elect a government that controls the Palestinians, but the Palestinians cannot vote," reads the explanation for the initiative. It aims to address this inequality by asking Israeli voters to essentially place their cross where Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank or East Jerusalem – who unlike the "Arabs of 1948" are not Israeli citizens – would if they were able to vote.

Statistically speaking, this new phenomenon can expect to have a marginal impact at best. But it could serve as a forerunner for future campaigns lobbying for a South African style one-state solution: "One man, one vote." Hanna Farah, the architect from Jaffa, says that if such a system were in place, he would definitely vote again.

Inge Günther

© Qantara.de 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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