Israel’s Arabs, who represent roughly one-fifth of the population, or 950,000
eligible voters, have been retreating from national politics. The voter turnout
among Israeli Arabs has declined from 75 percent in 1999 to just 53% in 2009.
And a recent poll by the University of Haifa’s Asad Ghanem, which both Ma’ariv
and The Economist have quoted, is predicting that in the upcoming elections,
Arab voter turnouts will drop below 50%. This will be the lowest level in the 64
years since the state was established, except for 2001, when Israeli Arabs
boycotted elections as part of the second intifada. In contrast, average voter
turnout among the general population is about 65%.
The main factor in the
projected low turnout appears to be an increased sense of disenfranchisement.
Attorney Sawsan Zaher – who represented Balad MK Haneen Zoabi in her successful
appeal to the Supreme Court against the Central Elections Committee decision to
ban her from running in the elections – noted that the campaign against her
client was “the tip of the iceberg.” Zaher pointed to recent legislation such as
the “Nakba Law,” which prevents Arab municipalities and other state-funded
bodies from using taxpayers’ money to pay for commemorating Independence Day as
a nakba, or catastrophe.
Admittedly Arab citizens can easily see the
futility of politics.
In the history of Israeli politics, no Arab party
has ever been included in a ruling government coalition, though Arab and Druse
lawmakers belonging to Jewish parties have become ministers.
Israeli Arabs rightly feel discriminated against. They lack the same employment
opportunities as Jews; city planning and housing for them is dreadfully
inadequate; budgetary allocations for education and social services in their
communities lag behind those for the Jewish population.
BUT ISRAELI Arabs
cannot be absolved of their share of responsibility. As a sizable minority,
their potential political power has always been great. If they were to pool
their electoral resources and vote for a single party in percentages comparable
to the national average, they could bring into power the second-largest
political party in the Knesset.
Yet this potential has been squandered by
infighting and the radicalization of Arab politics to the point that demagogic
Israel-bashing and blind support for the Palestinian cause has taken precedence
over all attempts to work constructively with the Jewish political establishment
for the practical improvement of Israeli Arab life. Many of the country’s Arab
citizens rightfully see no point in casting a ballot for a party that has no
chance of obtaining real political clout because its members are more interested
in fighting for the Palestinian cause than for basic equality for its
Instead of being known for her battles for women’s rights,
Zoabi has chosen to make headlines by joining forces with Hamas and boarding the
Mavi Marmara to protest the maritime blockade against the Gaza Strip. And United
Arab List-Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi is known primarily for stunts such as accompanying
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the UN to receive recognition
for Palestine as a non-member state.
Zoabi, Tibi and other Arab MKs who
adopt radical positions that place them well outside the pale of mainstream
Israeli politics should heed more pragmatic voices, such as that of Haifa
attorney Sami Abu Warda. In an interview with Ma’ariv, Abu Warda advocated
unifying the three major Arab parties. The united list would then declare its
willingness to join any government that agreed to appoint an Arab minister “who
would not only worry about the Palestinians, but also about the welfare and
employment [of Israeli Arabs].”
Israeli Arabs must reconcile themselves
to minority status in a Jewish state – no easy task for a people that sees
itself as belonging to an Arab and Muslim majority in the region. But while Arab
citizens should not expect the Jewish majority to do away with what makes Israel
a Jewish state – the Law of Return, Hebrew as the official language, the
national anthem, holidays, heroes and the predominance of the Jewish religion –
they can and should fight for equality as individuals living in a democracy.
Adopting a more pragmatic approach to politics that focuses on bettering the lot
of Israeli Arabs – not as a collective with an anti-Zionist, nationalist agenda,
but as minority citizens of a Jewish democracy – would go a long way toward
making their politics more relevant.
Improved voter turnout is almost
sure to follow.