The end to parliamentary politics in Arab-Israeli society?
Why the drop in Arab voter turnout is not a good omen.
A WORKER puts up a campaign poster for Balad Photo: REUTERS
In this Knesset election campaign, as in all recent campaigns, the Israeli
political scene witnessed its regular ritual: intense efforts were exerted in an
attempt to unite the ranks and set up a joint Arab party bloc that could realize
the electoral potential of the Arabs in Israel and prevent a loss of votes due
to internal dissension.
As in the past, current attempts failed
miserably, and ended in a whimper.
Additionally, the Jewish public is
once again witnessing the Jewish Right-wing’s efforts to have the Arab parties
and MKs disqualified by the Central Elections Committee; once again, the Supreme
Court has intervened and reversed the Committee’s decision to disqualify
On the face of this election campaign, there is nothing new under
But that is not exactly true.
The 19th Knesset elections
are, in fact, a distinct, and possibly critical, milestone in the continued
withdrawal of Israeli Arabs from parliamentary politics in Israel. Voting
turnout is a reliable index of this trend: In the previous elections (in 2009),
only 53.4 percent of all eligible Arab voters cast a vote (compared to 64.7% of
all eligible Jewish voters).
The decline in turnout is clear: In 1996,
77% exercised their right to vote; in 2003, 62% did so; and in 2006, 56.3%
voted. Observers estimate that this trend will accelerate in the upcoming
elections; one survey predicted voter turnout of no more than 36%.
seems that the Arab public has lost its faith in Knesset elections. Such despair
has translated into increasing Arab withdrawal from Israeli politics. The
reasons are obvious, and most of them were also valid in the past.
abstention expresses the public’s deep abhorrence toward the Arab parties for
remaining internally divided for decades. In the upcoming elections, there will
be five Arab lists, one of which is composed of three factions.
parties once again refused to rise above their narrow personal interests and
considerations, despite the trifling ideological differences between
Inert and obsolete, the parties have become repugnant to young
voters who yearn for change.
Second, the Arab parties in the Knesset have
proven their inability to promote change through parliamentary politics. While
the politicians are proud of their legislative achievements and their defense of
Arab rights, their continued exclusion from the center of decision-making – the
government coalitions – limit their impact on the current situation, which,
Wadi’ Awawda says, is why they continue to put on circus shows and set off
fireworks in the Knesset.
The third reason for abstention and an election
boycott is the growing strength of the Jewish religious-national Right wing and
the collapse of the Zionist Left wing. The current Knesset outlined the general
direction: anti-Arab legislation that borders on blatant racism (the Naqba Law,
the amendment to the Citizenship Law, the Admissions Committee Law).
would anyone want to sit in a Knesset that represents encroaching
de-legitimization of the very presence of Arabs in Israel? Ideology, the fourth
reason for boycotting the elections is related to the previous reason.
election boycott has been the longstanding policy of the Sons of the Village and
the dogmatic faction of the Islamic Movement: The Zionist- Jewish parliament –
whose very existence is considered illegitimate – and has nothing to offer to
the Arabs in Israel.
Other factors that promote election boycotts and
voting abstention include the desire to cast a protest vote against the
stalemate in the negotiations with the Palestinians, the need to express
resentment against the financial crisis, and political laziness.
THEN, why do the Arab parties continue to fight for a seat in the Knesset? The
explanations they offer are unconvincing: We thwart discriminatory laws,
legislate laws that protect the rights of the Arab minority, lay bare the truth
about the Right wing, protect Palestinian interests, and expose the ugly
underside of Israel’s so-called democracy.
The forecasts that predict a
continued drop in Arab turnout may turn out to be correct. To date there is no
indication of any public conscious- raising activity designed to reverse this
trend, although the Arab parties will undoubtedly do everything possible to
bring voters to the polls.
In contrast to the apparent public apathy, the
political and ideological discourse in Arab society that has emerged in recent
years reveals a keen debate over the validity of the “1948 Paradigm,” which has
served as the foundation of Jewish- Arab relations in Israel since the
establishment of Israel.
The keystone of this model was the right to vote
and be elected to the Knesset.
This new thinking features in the works of
intellectuals, academics, and scholars who propose alternative models to the
relationship pattern that was established in 1948. The Future Vision Documents,
which were published in late 2006 and 2007, offer a detailed portent of what the
future may hold.
The revolutionary ideas contained in these documents,
and specifically their challenge to Israel’s definition as a Jewish-Zionist
state, served as a basis for further ideological elaboration.
Hunayda Ghanem added the dimension of liminality to the debate, defining the
status of Arabs in Israel as standing “at the threshold,” trapped between two
clashing existential planes that create a transient perception of
The definition of Arabs in Israel as “a native minority with
collective rights” has attracted extensive study and has inspired growing
support for a single bi-national state as an alternative model to the 1948
Paradigm. Arab spokespersons frequently emphasize what they view as an inherent,
irreconcilable contradiction between the Jewish nature of the state and its
democratic nature. The popularity of the bi-national concept also grew as the
two-state solution was pushed to the margins of the debate: After all, the
two-state solution leaves the Arabs in Israel in the lurch.
kind of political action to take is a major issue in the new worldview that is
emerging among the Arab elites. In light of the disappointment with
parliamentary politics, described above, talk of an alternative political system
– one that is exclusively for the Arabs – increasingly features in discussions
One idea is to establish a parliament that represents Arab
interests, which will be elected directly by Israel’s Arab citizens. Another
view calls for the establishment of a new Follow-Up Committee, to be elected by
a broad public base. In view of the implications of the Arab Spring, As’ad
Ghanem recently proposed the development of a “democratic national forum” and
election of a new, legitimate leadership in general national elections. The new
organ would be known as the Supreme National Council.
Thus, the emerging
trend is developing in two distinct directions: The appeal of the Arab parties
and the Knesset is diminishing, while interest in filling the void by
establishing alternative political organizations of a separatist nature is
growing. Such organizations would serve as a key element in reconceptualizing
the Arabs in Israel as a national minority.
The Arab parties failed to
develop a genuine understanding of the significance of the Arab Spring. They
have yet to master the language of the social media that has captivated millions
of young adults in the Arab world, and in Israel. These youngsters yearn for a
change “here and now.” But this does not mean that the fate of the Arab parties
is sealed. Several parties still have bands of faithful voters who will ensure
their continued representation in the Knesset.
The evident drop in Arab
turnout is not a good omen.
It opens up the field for separatist
organizations, and signals the decline of the 1948 model. This is a
disconcerting situation that should move the Zionist parties to dust themselves
off and courageously propose a credible alternative to the hundreds of thousands
of Arab voters who do not wish to separate from the state, but instead desire
genuine, effective integration.
The Non-Partisan Convention for Equality
between Jews and Arabs, initiated by the Jewish-Arab Center for Economic
Development, is a welcome step in this direction and deserves special
encouragement, as it signals a ray of sunlight at the end of a dark
The fact that Likud rejected this initiative out of hand is
distressing and a cause for consternation.
The writer is the Crown
Visiting Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University.