The end to parliamentary politics in Arab-Israeli society?

Why the drop in Arab voter turnout is not a good omen.

Balad campaign ad 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Balad campaign ad 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In this Knesset election campaign, as in all recent campaigns, the Israeli political scene witnessed its regular ritual: intense efforts were exerted in an attempt to unite the ranks and set up a joint Arab party bloc that could realize the electoral potential of the Arabs in Israel and prevent a loss of votes due to internal dissension.
As in the past, current attempts failed miserably, and ended in a whimper.
Additionally, the Jewish public is once again witnessing the Jewish Right-wing’s efforts to have the Arab parties and MKs disqualified by the Central Elections Committee; once again, the Supreme Court has intervened and reversed the Committee’s decision to disqualify them.
On the face of this election campaign, there is nothing new under the sun.
But that is not exactly true.
The 19th Knesset elections are, in fact, a distinct, and possibly critical, milestone in the continued withdrawal of Israeli Arabs from parliamentary politics in Israel. Voting turnout is a reliable index of this trend: In the previous elections (in 2009), only 53.4 percent of all eligible Arab voters cast a vote (compared to 64.7% of all eligible Jewish voters).
The decline in turnout is clear: In 1996, 77% exercised their right to vote; in 2003, 62% did so; and in 2006, 56.3% voted. Observers estimate that this trend will accelerate in the upcoming elections; one survey predicted voter turnout of no more than 36%.
It seems that the Arab public has lost its faith in Knesset elections. Such despair has translated into increasing Arab withdrawal from Israeli politics. The reasons are obvious, and most of them were also valid in the past.
First, abstention expresses the public’s deep abhorrence toward the Arab parties for remaining internally divided for decades. In the upcoming elections, there will be five Arab lists, one of which is composed of three factions.
The parties once again refused to rise above their narrow personal interests and considerations, despite the trifling ideological differences between them.
Inert and obsolete, the parties have become repugnant to young voters who yearn for change.
Second, the Arab parties in the Knesset have proven their inability to promote change through parliamentary politics. While the politicians are proud of their legislative achievements and their defense of Arab rights, their continued exclusion from the center of decision-making – the government coalitions – limit their impact on the current situation, which, Wadi’ Awawda says, is why they continue to put on circus shows and set off fireworks in the Knesset.
The third reason for abstention and an election boycott is the growing strength of the Jewish religious-national Right wing and the collapse of the Zionist Left wing. The current Knesset outlined the general direction: anti-Arab legislation that borders on blatant racism (the Naqba Law, the amendment to the Citizenship Law, the Admissions Committee Law).
Why would anyone want to sit in a Knesset that represents encroaching de-legitimization of the very presence of Arabs in Israel? Ideology, the fourth reason for boycotting the elections is related to the previous reason.
An election boycott has been the longstanding policy of the Sons of the Village and the dogmatic faction of the Islamic Movement: The Zionist- Jewish parliament – whose very existence is considered illegitimate – and has nothing to offer to the Arabs in Israel.
Other factors that promote election boycotts and voting abstention include the desire to cast a protest vote against the stalemate in the negotiations with the Palestinians, the need to express resentment against the financial crisis, and political laziness.
SO, THEN, why do the Arab parties continue to fight for a seat in the Knesset? The explanations they offer are unconvincing: We thwart discriminatory laws, legislate laws that protect the rights of the Arab minority, lay bare the truth about the Right wing, protect Palestinian interests, and expose the ugly underside of Israel’s so-called democracy.
The forecasts that predict a continued drop in Arab turnout may turn out to be correct. To date there is no indication of any public conscious- raising activity designed to reverse this trend, although the Arab parties will undoubtedly do everything possible to bring voters to the polls.
In contrast to the apparent public apathy, the political and ideological discourse in Arab society that has emerged in recent years reveals a keen debate over the validity of the “1948 Paradigm,” which has served as the foundation of Jewish- Arab relations in Israel since the establishment of Israel.
The keystone of this model was the right to vote and be elected to the Knesset.
This new thinking features in the works of intellectuals, academics, and scholars who propose alternative models to the relationship pattern that was established in 1948. The Future Vision Documents, which were published in late 2006 and 2007, offer a detailed portent of what the future may hold.
The revolutionary ideas contained in these documents, and specifically their challenge to Israel’s definition as a Jewish-Zionist state, served as a basis for further ideological elaboration.
For example, Hunayda Ghanem added the dimension of liminality to the debate, defining the status of Arabs in Israel as standing “at the threshold,” trapped between two clashing existential planes that create a transient perception of reality.
The definition of Arabs in Israel as “a native minority with collective rights” has attracted extensive study and has inspired growing support for a single bi-national state as an alternative model to the 1948 Paradigm. Arab spokespersons frequently emphasize what they view as an inherent, irreconcilable contradiction between the Jewish nature of the state and its democratic nature. The popularity of the bi-national concept also grew as the two-state solution was pushed to the margins of the debate: After all, the two-state solution leaves the Arabs in Israel in the lurch.
CHOOSING THE kind of political action to take is a major issue in the new worldview that is emerging among the Arab elites. In light of the disappointment with parliamentary politics, described above, talk of an alternative political system – one that is exclusively for the Arabs – increasingly features in discussions and debates.
One idea is to establish a parliament that represents Arab interests, which will be elected directly by Israel’s Arab citizens. Another view calls for the establishment of a new Follow-Up Committee, to be elected by a broad public base. In view of the implications of the Arab Spring, As’ad Ghanem recently proposed the development of a “democratic national forum” and election of a new, legitimate leadership in general national elections. The new organ would be known as the Supreme National Council.
Thus, the emerging trend is developing in two distinct directions: The appeal of the Arab parties and the Knesset is diminishing, while interest in filling the void by establishing alternative political organizations of a separatist nature is growing. Such organizations would serve as a key element in reconceptualizing the Arabs in Israel as a national minority.
The Arab parties failed to develop a genuine understanding of the significance of the Arab Spring. They have yet to master the language of the social media that has captivated millions of young adults in the Arab world, and in Israel. These youngsters yearn for a change “here and now.” But this does not mean that the fate of the Arab parties is sealed. Several parties still have bands of faithful voters who will ensure their continued representation in the Knesset.
The evident drop in Arab turnout is not a good omen.
It opens up the field for separatist organizations, and signals the decline of the 1948 model. This is a disconcerting situation that should move the Zionist parties to dust themselves off and courageously propose a credible alternative to the hundreds of thousands of Arab voters who do not wish to separate from the state, but instead desire genuine, effective integration.
The Non-Partisan Convention for Equality between Jews and Arabs, initiated by the Jewish-Arab Center for Economic Development, is a welcome step in this direction and deserves special encouragement, as it signals a ray of sunlight at the end of a dark tunnel.
The fact that Likud rejected this initiative out of hand is distressing and a cause for consternation.
The writer is the Crown Visiting Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University.