Arab votes matter

It is time for all Israeli parties to bridge the gap and dare to treat Arab voters like adults and citizens in our ongoing search for democracy.

Rivlin with Arab mayors, February 5, 2015 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Rivlin with Arab mayors, February 5, 2015
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Last Saturday night, thousands gathered in Nazareth for the launch of the Joint Arab List that is running in the general election. It is poised to receive as many as 15 seats in the Knesset, making it perhaps the third or fourth largest party, especially if the sector’s turnout is high. Yet the media were largely absent from the event.
What are the main issues affecting Arab voters, who make up about a fifth of the electorate? Most of their demands and their voice is missing from this election, as they have been from almost every one since the foundation of the state seven decades ago. It is time that the other 25 lists running take seriously the large minority. A litany of problems associated with ignoring this voting bloc is hampering the state’s development.
In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2011 speech to the US Congress, he discussed how proud Israel was of the Arab minority’s participation in its democracy. “Of 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. Now I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of the 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of 1 percent are truly free, and they’re all citizens of Israel,” he said.
His comments were met with applause. But it is time for our political parties to go further toward realizing this assertion.
Arab citizens do enjoy democratic rights, but they are often shunted aside in elections and treated as if the proper place for their votes are Arab parties that do not serve in coalition governments.
In the early years of the state there were several Mapai-affiliated Arab parties that elected members to the Knesset, including the Nazareth Democratic Party, the Agricultural and Development Party and the Democratic List for Israeli Arabs. Seif E-Din E-Zoubi from Nazareth served as deputy speaker of the Knesset from 1969 to 1974. Since 1977, Hadash, a communist party, has attracted many Arab voters. Beginning in the 1990s, Arab voters began to shift their support to Balad, the United Arab List and the Islamic Movement in Israel’s Ra’am – parties that emphasized either Palestinian rights or Islamic values.
The Knesset has been a welcoming place for the 150,000 Druse in Israel. In the 18th Knesset (2009 to 2013), there were no fewer than five Druse MKs in five different political parties. In contrast, only a few Arabs run as candidates for “Jewish” parties, such as Esawi Frej in Meretz, Zuhair Bahlul in the Zionist Union, and Annet Haskia for Bayit Yehudi.
But when it comes to campaigning, election debates and discussions of issues, there is little interest from the Arab community. Over the years voter turnout has declined, so that only 56 percent of Arabs vote. There is massive disillusionment with the political process. The current decision to form a united list was only taken due to the raising of the electoral threshold. Many voters feel that they have been lumped together – communists sitting with Islamists, for example.
On Wednesday, the High Court of Justice overturned a decision by the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Haneen Zoabi from running. In a post online, she thanked supporters and said she would “continue the ongoing battle against the occupation, racism and injustice.” As distasteful as many Israelis find her words or actions they should not ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of citizens have voted for her in the past. It would be better to vociferously debate these supporters than discount them.
Besides contentious issues relating to Palestinian identity, equality or anger over the recent Gaza war, the Jewish and Arab communities have much in common in terms of economic issues. In some Arab communities, support for Jewish parties is surprisingly high. In the small town of Tirabin al-Sana in the Negev, more than 60 percent voted Shas in 2013. In other Arab communities, voters cast their ballots for parties that represent their economic interests; or parties that support greater funding for education or large families.
It is time for all Israeli parties to bridge the gap and dare to treat Arab voters like adults and citizens in our ongoing search for democracy. It may not be an easy process – there is a great deal of hostility for some parties to overcome – but it is essential for the country’s future. The Arab minority is not going to disappear, no matter how much it is ignored. Parties that can articulate solid positions on equal rights, investment in infrastructure, access to land and the purchase of land for homes may find wellsprings of voters ready to listen.