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There is evidence of a gradual decline in the participation rate of the Arab public in elections in recent years. Between 1996 and 2006, there was a 21 percent drop in election participation, from 77% to 56%, the lowest participation rate ever recorded for Arab voters in Knesset elections.
There are many different reasons for this retreat from the voting booths: disappointment with the achievements of Arab MKs; mistrust of the parliamentary political process or its effectiveness; ideological, religious or Islamist ban on participation; protest against the government establishment; a stronger orientation toward NGOs as an alternative to parliamentary politics.
The succession of events in the past three years, since elections were last held, portends a continued rise in abstention from voting. From the perspective of internal Arab politics, the first critical event, and especially notable, was the publication of four "Future Vision" documents in late 2006 and early 2007. These documents, which were the first attempt of their kind to formulate a coherent ideological conceptualization of the status of the Arab minority, proposed an ideological-political alternative to the current system. While the Future Vision documents contain no explicit ban on Knesset elections, their call to establish a consensual democracy (a binational state) certainly does little to encourage Arabs to cast their ballot in this year's elections.
In terms of external influences, the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and Operation Cast Lead of early 2009 sharply accentuated the issue of the national identity of Arabs in Israel. The incompatibility between the Israeli-civic element of their identity and the national-Arab-Palestinian element intensified, resulting in a reinforced sense of national Arab belonging. In addition, the war in Gaza caused deep wounds that are not expected to heal quickly: The Arabs accused Israel of committing "war crimes" and "genocide" in Gaza. This adversarial position further discourages Arabs from performing their civic duty of participating in the upcoming democratic election process.
Finally, there has been no significant improvement in the relations between the Arab community and the establishment since the previous elections. True, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has recognized the continued discrimination of the Arab population on several public occasions in the last year, and has frequently spoken of the need for a change. Still, there is a difference between words and actions. In practice, little has changed.
THE COMBINED EFFECT of these developments is the growing polarization in Jewish-Arab relations. In recent years, mutual alienation and distrust have grown substantially. The eruption of violence in Acre in early October of last year is the latest indication of the fragility of these relations, and of their volatility.
The radical Jewish right-wing grows stronger as Avigdor Lieberman's anti-Arab propaganda gathers steam. Balad and United Arab List-Ta'al were temporarily disqualified by the Central Election Committee. Together with the aggressive and emotional response of Arab MKs to the war in Gaza and to government policy, these developments promise to feed the vicious cycle in which Arab-Jewish relations are trapped: As the ouroboros of Greek symbolism, the head swallows the tail in desperate symbiosis.
The Arab parties, whose future is paradoxically contingent on voters' participation in Knesset elections, are investing supreme efforts to ensure that their voters cast a ballot. Their zeal is understandable: Once again, the Arab parties failed to form a united Arab bloc that might have won enough votes to meet minimum representation requirements with relative ease, and to establish a substantial Arab presence in the Knesset. As a result, the parties and lists are now fighting individually for their political future, by demonstrating their loyalty to the Palestinian-Arab cause (or "national-Islamist" cause in the case of UAL-Ta'al), forcefully rejecting the Zionist worldview, harshly criticizing government policy and conducting a campaign aimed to punish the Zionist parties competing for the Arab vote.
In view of the current situation, there is little chance that their attempt will succeed, although the Arab parties may manage to transform the upcoming elections into a mass protest of the Arab public. If, as surveys predict, the participation rate of Arabs in the elections does indeed continue to drop, representation of Arabs in the Knesset will also shrink, and the public debate on alternatives to parliamentary politics can be expected to focus intensely on three potential levels: developing the concept of an all-Arab parliament, reinforcing civil society organizations and increasing support for the Islamist stream that advocates the establishment of independent institutions.
The author is director of the Adenauer Program at Tel Aviv University and is currently the Crown Visiting Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University.
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