Logic would dictate that Israel’s Arab citizens should come out in droves on
They can elect as many as 18 members of the Knesset –
nearly one-sixth of that body.
While currently only 11 MKs represent Arab
political parties – several others are with mainstream parties – a more active
Arab electorate could go a long way toward fulfilling their aspirations to
organize, influence national politics, and eventually partake in policy-making.
The prognosis, however, is grim, as revealed in two surveys of Arab
“One-third of Arab voters already walked out of the political
system,” says Mohammad Darawshe, referring to the dramatic drop in Arab voter
participation in national elections, from 75 percent in 1999 to 53% in 2009.
Darawshe, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and other activists among
Israel’s Arab minority are concerned that on January 22 more will decide to
“vote with their feet, not with their hands.”
An Abraham Fund survey
found that only 43% say they will definitely vote, while another 17% are
wavering. Haifa University’s poll projected that 51% of Arab voters will show
Any further drop in Arab voter participation would be welcomed by
extremists in both the Arab and Jewish communities, who, for different reasons,
concur that Arab citizens should not exercise their right to vote. Yet while the
Arab minority does face discrimination, it also has allies among the Jewish
majority and in the government who are working to improve their
Withdrawing from the political process, boycotting national
elections, will not serve their interests at all.
Voter turnout on the
local level remains high.
More than 80% voted in the 2008 municipal
elections, demonstrating “the community is engaged,” says Darawshe. Why the
dichotomy between national and local elections? “In municipal elections people
see the direct results of their engagement in the political process,” Darawshe
explains. Arab voters, in national elections, are “exhausted from doing
something over and over which does not bear enough fruit.”
disturbing, a majority lack confidence in major institutions of the state. Haifa
University found that 82% have little or no trust in the government, and 79%
have little or no trust in the Knesset. Such disenchantment among a population
that constitutes 20% of the population should concern both Jewish and Arab
leaders. Arab voters giving up would be a tragic stain on Israeli
The Haifa survey also revealed that 67% have little or no
trust in Arab political parties. Are they truly representative of their
constituencies? The rhetoric from Balad MK Haneen Zoabi that led the Central
Elections Committee to bar her from running does not mesh with the top concerns
of ordinary Arab citizens.
Issues of priority concern focus on what is
closest to home. Sixty-four percent of Arab voters cited socioeconomic issues,
such as education, unemployment, poverty and crime as their top concerns,
according to the Abraham Fund. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a much lower
priority for Arab voters in both surveys.
WHAT WOULD encourage more Arab
voters to show up on Election Day? A majority say participation would increase
if Arab candidates ran on one list.
Including an Arab party in the
government coalition and appointing an Arab to a ministerial position would also
boost confidence in a government that is supposed to be representative of all
Israeli citizens, and bring out the Arab vote. Of course, this would require a
huge boost in trust between Jews and Arabs, and between the Arab community and
Enhanced Jewish-Arab cooperation can motivate more
Arab voters to turn out. Full participation of all sectors in the political
process will strengthen the democratic system and governing
“A different discourse between the state and Jewish leaders
with the Arab community is needed,” Darawshe says. Emphasizing that his own
community has a responsibility to undergo significant change, too, he suggests
“it may be time for the emergence of new Arab leadership, which aims to bring
results.” That could be a goal for the next elections.
still must be done more immediately, over the next few weeks, to encourage Arab
voters to reverse the downward trend in their participation in Knesset
elections. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, expected to win reelection, should
consider appointing an Arab minister, and let that be known. Arab politicians
should assertively motivate their communities to express, by voting, a clear
message that they care and want to find ways to work with the Jewish political
In the end, the choice of whether to vote or not is with the
Arab voter. Yet absenteeism, over the long term, is a self-inflicted wound. The
sooner it is treated and healed, the better for all of Israel.
is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.