Acknowledge and move forward

Israel allows Arabs to vote, Arab leaders do not

AHMAD TIBI – since Israel’s very first election in 1949, Arabs have voted and served as members in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset (photo credit: REUTERS)
AHMAD TIBI – since Israel’s very first election in 1949, Arabs have voted and served as members in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday, Israelis voted in an election that received immense public scrutiny in the international press – and not just in anticipation over who the next prime minister would be. Israel’s detractors also seized on the opportunity to point a finger at the alleged hypocrisy of Israeli democracy in which Israel “denies Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the right to vote.” This disingenuous attack is misleading because it completely ignores the existence of the Palestinian Authority (which just installed a new unelected cabinet over the weekend) and discounts Israel’s electoral history, the history of the conflict and the regional context.
The first fact often missing from the narrative of Palestinian disenfranchisement is that when Israel came into being, it offered citizenship to all Palestinian Arabs within its borders. Elections in Israel have been held consistently at least once every four years, depending on the durability of each governing coalition. They typically have a voter turnout rate of around 70%, and have always been inclusive of Israel’s Arab citizens, numbering roughly two million today. In fact, since Israel’s very first election in 1949, Arabs have voted and served as members in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Israel’s first Knesset included three Arab members: Seif el-Din el-Zoubi, Amin-Salim Jarjora, and Tawfik Toubi. El-Zoubi was reelected for 30 years, from 1949 to 1979. In 1973, he was appointed speaker of the Knesset. El-Zoubi and Jarjora also served as mayors of the Israeli city of Nazareth. Meanwhile, Tawfik Toubi was reelected for 41 years, from 1949 until he retired in 1990.
In the second Israeli election, the number of elected Arab legislators more than doubled to eight, and Arab representation in the Knesset has continued to increase over the past seven decades. Perhaps most notable among Israel’s Arab legislators is Majalli Wahabi, who even served as interim acting president in 2007 during a Supreme Court investigation of the sitting president. 
Another inconvenient truth for those who demonize Israel is that while Israel has maintained routine and inclusive democratic elections since its inception, their neighbors in Palestine have not. The 1993 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority and transferred civil jurisdiction over Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank to that elected body. Yet kleptocrats in the both of those places consistently deny their own people’s right to vote – without much protest from their apparent supporters in the United States.
PA PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas was elected to a four-year term in 2005. Since then, he has canceled every election, remaining in power and amassing an estimated net worth of $10 million. Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, ruled for 35 years, interrupted by only a few elections until his death in 2004, when he had an estimated worth of over $1 billion.
In Gaza, Hamas was voted to power in 2007 in the aftermath of a deadly civil war. They haven’t held a free election since. While Hamas leader Khaled Mashal resides in Qatar with an estimated net worth of $3 billion, Gazans suffering from high living costs and inflation have been protesting corruption by Hamas leaders. Hamas responded to these demonstrations with brutal, deadly force, arresting journalists and imprisoning political dissidents. 
Moreover, Arab disenfranchisement is not a phenomenon unique to Israel’s next-door neighbors. In fact, autocrats who enrich themselves while disenfranchising their own people are extraordinarily commonplace across the Arab world. For example, Muammar Gaddafi – whose net worth was estimated at more than $200 billion – ruled Libya for 42 years, until his assassination in the 2011 Libyan Revolution. Former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika remained in power for the last 20 years by enacting constitutional amendments, despite protests by his people. The Sultan of Brunei, who recently made headlines for enacting the death penalty for LGBTQ people, has held his position since 1967, and is worth an estimated $20 billion. To top it off, the Qatari royal family is estimated to be worth $335 billion, and Saudi royals are worth an estimated $1.4 trillion.
This sort of unchecked government corruption – which denies hundreds of millions of Arab citizens the basic human right to vote and allows leaders to profit exponentially while impoverishing their people – is precisely what led to the Arab Spring in 2010. In nearly a decade since, little progress has been made. While Tunisians successfully ousted their president of 23 years, Syria and others have spiraled into civil wars.
Despite varying outcomes of the Arab Spring, regular citizens made their voices clear: They want the democratic right to vote – a right that would not be denied to them were they citizens of Israel. Those who want to see real change in the region must reject the impulse to solely condemn Israel on these grounds, and instead lobby for Palestinian and Arab leaders to grant basic voting rights to their citizens. Pointing the finger at the Israeli electoral process and not at the historical disenfranchisement by tyrants is not only insincere, it will do nothing to bring voting rights to much of the Arab world.
The writer is editor-at-large of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice.