What's a Palestinian vote worth?

High-profile Arab engagement in the next Knesset can be a game-changer.

    Arab Israeli men pass posters calling on Arabs not to vote for the Zionist parties [EPA]
    Arab Israeli men pass posters calling on Arabs not to vote for the Zionist parties [EPA]

    Media speculation has focused on whether or not the forthcoming Israeli elections will help or hinder the quest for peace and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Personally, I don't expect Tuesday's ballot to have any profound effects on the status quo of the conflict. However, missing from this equation, as so often is the case, is what the elections mean for Israel's Arab minority, which constitutes a full fifth of the country's population.

    At first sight, their situation appears to be the very definition of a no-win situation.

    "I have yet to make a decision regarding which would be the best of two evils - a Zionist Camp government or a Netanyahu government," says Mimas Abdelhai, a young university student from al-Tirah, which lies in what is known as the "Arab triangle". "The more racist the Israeli government gets, the more the international arena understands Palestinian suffering."

    Israeli-Palestinian coalition of political parties seek big win in elections

    This reflects the widely held conviction among Palestinian-Israelis that, when it comes to Israel's Arab citizens, the main difference between the Israeli centre(-left) and the right is one of honesty. This broad-based anti-Arabism manifested itself in the recent witch hunt against Balad Knesset member Hanin Zoabi.

    Anti-normalisation rhetoric

    Many Palestinian citizens of Israel with whom I have spoken feel torn about the issue of casting a ballot.

    "I haven't decided if I'm going to vote or not, but previously my idea was that we all should boycott the elections, and stop giving Israel the image of being a 'democracy' it markets to the world," says Sahar Issawi, who is from the north but works for an NGO in Jerusalem.

    Drawing on traditional Arab anti-normalisation rhetoric, there are those who are urging Palestinians not to vote. Describing casting a ballot as "an effective stamp of approval for Israel's discriminatory regime", Haifa-based activist Waad Ghantous called for an Arab boycott of the election and the construction of "shadow institutions to relieve the suffering on the ground and provide the basis for a unified struggle against our oppression".

    With incendiary, rightwing anti-Arab racism at fever pitch - such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's recent suggestion that "disloyal" Arab citizens "deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe" - it is understandable that Palestinians in Israel should feel the urge to reject rejection.

    However, it is my conviction that the only thing worse than voting is not voting. While voting in elections for a Knesset which they feel actively isolates them may seem like folly, not voting is reckless because it would effectively involve Arab voters exiling themselves into self-imposed isolation, leaving the arena wide open for the far right to continue its campaign of creeping disenfranchisement.

    Instead, Israel's Palestinian minority should use its demographic strength to force Israel to sit up and take notice.

    "I intend to vote," insists Amir Ounallah, a Haifa-based IT entrepreneur. "I want Israelis to realise … that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East."

    Active political participation in the political process may help block the raft of discriminatory legislation which the Knesset has been passing recently, the latest of which is the draft "Jewish state" basic law.

    High-profile Arab engagement in the next Knesset carries the potential of being a game-changer. Effective Arab representation will not only act as a buffer against further discrimination, it could also help reduce the socio-economic marginalisation [of] Arabs ...


    Growing common threat

    In recognition of the growing common threat facing Palestinians, an otherwise unlikely alliance, known as the Joint Arab List, has emerged between Arab nationalist, communist and Islamist parties.

    "All we have to do is become determined to get involved in the political game and the right wing will be in big trouble," head of the Joint Arab List, Ayman Odeh of the communist-leaning Jewish-Arab Hadash party said in an interview. "The most important thing is that the Netanyahu government, which has been so bad for all parts of the Israeli population, must come to an end."

    Though such broad-based alliances are problematic on a number of levels, the Joint Arab List seems to be galvanising voters.

    "I want to vote for the Arab list because I know it was not easy for them to put aside so many differences in order to unite," says Abdelhai, echoing the view of others. "I hope it sticks as a symbol which would hopefully unite us Israeli-Palestinians."

    In Israel's notoriously fractured political landscape, the expected high Arab voter turnout, has currently placed the Joint List - which is also reaching out to disgruntled left-wing Jewish voters - in third place, according to the most recent polls.

    Though no Jewish party has ever invited an Arab party to join its coalition, it is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility. Regardless, such a showing would, at the very least, place the Joint Arab List in the unprecedented position of leading the opposition.

    But electoral success is unlikely to have any effect on the fundamentals of the situation, many fear.

    "Since the United List will have no impact, to my mind, whatsoever on Israeli politics, it will enhance and accelerate the search for an alternative strategy for the Palestinians," Ilan Pappe, the ground-breaking Israeli historian and activist, told me.

    High-profile Arab engagement

    Personally, I believe that high-profile Arab engagement in the next Knesset carries the potential of being a game-changer. Effective Arab representation will not only act as a buffer against further discrimination, it could also help reduce the socio-economic marginalisation Arabs, who are one of the poorest segments of society, endure in Israel.

    In addition, with the Oslo blueprint for a two-state solution looking more and more like an illusion or even a delusion, I believe that the struggle for equality being waged by Israel's Arab minority could point the way to the future.

    Like Pappe, I think the most effective, and perhaps only, path forward to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a civil rights struggle. In my book, I call this the "non-state" solution, in which talk of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a joint Arab-Jewish struggle for human rights and human dignity.

    This would involve Jerusalemite Palestinians, West Bankers and Gazans following the lead of their brethren in Israel, and joining forces with them, to demand full rights and equality under the Israeli system.

    Once this is achieved, then a popular peace process involving everyone can be launched with the aim of forging a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at www.chronikler.com

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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