Mar 17 1:17 PM

‘Arabs voting in droves’: Elephant in room now part of Israeli election

A woman casts her vote at a polling station in the Israeli coastal city of Haifa.
Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

Tuesday was a big day for the country, whose leaders like to proclaim it “the only democracy in the Middle East.” But as Israel went to the polls, two comments from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed the limits of that democracy.

Trying to generate urgency among his base, Netanyahu warned that “the Arabs are voting in droves.” His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, seeking to rescue his party from potential electoral oblivion, tweeted that  “Netanyahu also knows that if the Arabs are voting in droves, only a strong Lieberman can stop them.” That comment was darkly comical, of course, not only because Lieberman’s previous career as a nightclub bouncer in his native Moldova would have given him experience in keeping out “undesirable” elements but also because it was a law championed by his party that accounted for the surge in participation by Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

Lieberman’s faction initiated the law that raised the threshold for representation in the Knesset from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of the vote, or a four-seat minimum. That would have excluded the parties supported by Palestinian-Arab voters, none of which cleared that threshold in the previous election. Instead, it prompted an unprecedented decision to put aside their differences and create the Joint List, which looks set to win as many as 14 seats.

“The announcement of the higher threshold created new incentives for the Arab parties on the threshold chopping block to form a unified list,” wrote Palestinian analyst Yousef Munayyer. “This was not an easy process, and Arab parties — which include secular nationalists, communists and Islamists — had to make difficult compromises to join a shared platform. Because of this effort to unify the smaller parties, the new Joint List now polls as the third- or fourth-largest party in the Israeli political system. This newfound political clout undoubtedly energizes and mobilizes those voters who had long grown apathetic within this community over the divisions that existed.”

And the resulting surge in political energy explains the higher turnout by Palestinian-Arab voters.

It may seem odd that national leaders of a democracy would openly express alarm over the fact that a segment of voters accounting for one-fifth of the citizenry is going to the polls. But Israel is no ordinary democracy.

To whit, Netanyahu’s other key election eve statement, promising that if he is re-elected, there will be no Palestinian state. (And many skeptics warn that would be the case even if Netanyahu is ousted by a government led by the center-left coalition of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, whose style is markedly different but who haven’t taken a stance different from Netanyahu on the issues that divide Israel and the Palestinian leadership.)

Netanyahu’s Palestinian statehood reference does, however, offer a reminder that some 4 million Palestinians in the occupied territories live under the sovereign control of the state of Israel.

“Four million people, in the besieged Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, can perhaps vote for their ‘community council,’ the Palestinian Authority, but they can’t participate in the real game, the one that seals their fate,” wrote Israeli journalist Gideon Levy. “For decades, their fate has been determined much more in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than it has in Ramallah or Gaza. Their freedom, livelihoods, health, education, lives and deaths are determined in a place in which they have no status or rights.”

Nor is the occupation temporary: It began almost 48 years ago and has been a feature of the state of Israel’s political life for most of its history. And as Netanyahu made clear, it’s not going to end in the foreseeable future.

Wrote Levy, “Israel in 2015 considers itself a democracy while ruling over the lives of 4 million people who lack the right to vote.” That’s a condition reminiscent of the colonial era or apartheid South Africa, where millions were ruled by a state that denied them the democratic rights of citizenship.

It was Netanyahu’s erstwhile Defense Minister Ehud Barak who pointed out the implications of this situation in a speech in February 2010. "As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or nondemocratic," he told a security conference at Herzliya. "If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."

With Israel and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas no longer even bothering with the sporadic observance of the rituals of the “peace process”, Western powers are becoming less inclined to avoid confronting the question of the occupation. Israel’s election is unlikely to reverse the growing trend in Europe to adopt punitive measures in response to ongoing illegal settlement activity.  

And the showing of the Joint List could also have a wider significance among those Palestinians currently under Israeli rule but still denied the right to vote.

“At a time when divisions between Palestinian political parties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are deep, Palestinian representative structures are in tatters and Palestinian citizens of Israel are excluded from meaningful participation in political life,” wrote Munayyer, “the rise of a unified Palestinian party could introduce a very new dynamic into Israeli politics — giving some Palestinians a stronger voice in a system that rules over the vast majority of them who are kept voiceless.”

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