In support of the new election threshold

Among the Arab citizens of Israel who are qualified to vote for the Knesset elections, only half exercise their right to do so.

By MOHAMMED WATTAD
February 9, 2015 23:12
AN EMPTY KNESSET.

AN EMPTY KNESSET. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Not without difficulty, I ended up supporting the Supreme Court’s majority ruling against the petitions regarding the constitutionality of the recent amendment of the Knesset Election Law, insofar it concerns setting a higher election threshold.

Given the pressing timetable for submitting the list of candidates for the 20th Knesset elections, the court delivered only its ruling, leaving publication of judgment’s reasoning to be delivered at a later stage.

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However, the court gave more than one hint as to the legal grounds for its judgment.

I contend that the majority were of the view that the petitioners had not proved the certainty of the alleged infringement of the constitutionally protected political rights of the Arab minority of the State of Israel.

Among the Arab citizens of Israel who are qualified to vote for the Knesset elections, only half exercise their right to do so. It is not by chance then that the court noted that its judgment does not bring to an end the possibility of challenging the constitutionality of the above-mentioned amendment following the 20th Knesset elections. This becomes evident in light of the comments made by several judges, especially Justice Esther Chayot, to the effect that a higher percentage of Arab participation in the elections could forestall the alleged fear of certain Arab political parties of not being represented in the 20th Knesset.

It might be (correctly) contended that should the political leadership of the Arab minority in Israel encourage a higher number of Arab citizens to exercise their right to vote, it is plausible that contemporary Arab political parties, including the Jewish-Arab party Hadash, will remain represented in the 20th Knesset.

However, it is worthwhile mentioning that 10 percent of those Arab citizens who do vote, vote for what they name “Zionist parties.” In addition, as mentioned above, typically 50% of Arabs choose not to vote, either as a matter of religious belief, holding the liberal notion of democracy to contradict their monotheistic belief, or as a matter of national ideology, thus denying Israel’s Jewish identity. If this pattern holds true, it is clear that the existing election threshold jeopardizes the chances of contemporary Arab political parties to be represented in the 20th Knesset.

Practically speaking, the only way to avoid the above-mentioned political risk is to unify the Arab political parties within one faction. However, assertions have been made that this forced solution does an injustice to Arab voters, who might find themselves incapable of voting in accord with their ideological desires. At the end of the day, like other, Jewish political parties, Arab political parties differ on the basis of their ideological party platforms. However, I cannot agree with such assertions.

First, in this context, all surveys have shown that a large consensus exists among the Arab citizens surrounding the need to unify existing Arab political parties within one faction, regardless of the election threshold issue.

Second, the urgent need to establish a single political faction does not eliminate the parties’ power to fulfill their ideological platforms. Ultimately, at stake is a political utilitarian need, that may empower the ultimate good of all participating particular Arab parties, compared with the lesser good that each of them might gain had they participated in the elections independently. Obviously, establishing a higher election threshold is a relevant factor in this cost-benefit analysis, but it is not an exclusive one.

Regardless of the amendment concerning the election threshold, surveys have shown that among the 50% of potential Arab voters that do not typically exercise their right to vote, there are a remarkable number that would be willing to vote for a unified Arab political faction, should such a faction exist.

Their reluctance to vote in the absence of such a unified Arab faction is driven by their belief that the multiple Arab factions in the Knesset do not have sufficient political power to initiate changes on their favor.

Third, the manifest political desire of all Arab political parties joining the political scene is identical, namely protecting the civil and political rights of the Arab minority in Israel. Honestly, I do not believe that any of the Arab political parties truly believes that overnight Israel will become a communist state, an Islamic republic or a national Arab country.

On the one hand, we must not ignore the political motive behind amending the Election Law, as presented by the individual who initiated this legislation: weakening the political power of the Arab minority in the Knesset. But at the same time, it should be considered that the election threshold in Israel is among the lowest worldwide, and this reflects on Israel’s unstable political governance. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the complexity of Israel’s civil and national texture. The latter matter is of the utmost significance for the court in deciding on the constitutionality of the amendment. But a potential threat to constitutional political rights is insufficient to establish legitimate grounds for judicial review. It is the result of the elections for the 20th Knesset that can increase our understanding of the constitutional question.

In the meantime, it is to the benefit of the Arab minority to focus their political struggle around protecting their civil and national rights. This issue is not in dispute among all Arab political parties.

In doing so, they must remember that the era in which the mukhtars (heads of Arab villages) governed has long passed, and that the forthcoming Knesset elections have brought before them a historical, irreversible and golden opportunity to demonstrate an enlightened ideology and political leadership. While composing their list for a unified faction, they must aspire to guarantee equal representation, not just fair representation, first and foremost to women, young leaders and the disabled. This faction must convey the existence of common grounds concerning the urgent need to be heard of the voices of the weakest groups in Israeli society in general, and in Arab Israeli society in particular.

It must broadcast innovation and political initiative, as well as open its doors to new faces. The unified faction must encourage new discourse, concerned not only with national-level issues but also, and in particular, civic ones. It must become an integral part of the decision-making process in Israel, and if the latter rejects such efforts, then it is for this unified faction to force its influence by exerting its meaningful political power.

Recently the Arab parties already represented in the Knesset did establish a joint faction, the United Arab List. However, this faction did not include the Arab Democratic Party (ADP) or the Arab National Party (ANP); nor did it include other non-represented political groups in Arab society. The ADP and the ANP have decided to participate independently, within one faction, in the forthcoming elections, and the non-represented political groups are not guaranteed to be supporters of the United Arab List. To the extent that they fail to support the united list, I believe that the list has failed to fulfill the expectations of the Arab minority as a society, and therefore that its future collective political power in the Knesset will resemble, at best, the current Arab parties’ individual electoral power.

At the end of the day, I do not choose to reveal my political orientation, which concerns solely my private sphere. However, I honestly believe that the arguments set forth here reflect the views of the Arab layman in Israel, and it gives me great honor to belong to this group. It is for time then to prove whether I am right or wrong.

The author is Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California at Irvine’s Department of Political Science.


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