Logic would dictate that Israel’s Arab citizens should come out in droves on Election Day.

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 voters.

“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 up.

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 conditions.

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.”

Most 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 democracy.

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 government leaders.

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 institutions.

“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.

But something 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 leadership.

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.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.


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