Nazareth, Israel – Though just over one week remains before Israel votes for a new parliament, there’s not much of an election buzz here in Nazareth, the biggest majority-Arab city in Israel.
In Mary’s Well Square – where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to the Virgin Mary – four Arab Israeli men are chatting about the election, sitting around a small table on white plastic chairs.
Rasi Abu Amni, a 64-year-old who runs a fish restaurant in the square, said he thinks it is important to vote “to show we are here, and that we exist”. But others at the table said they would not participate in the election.
That is despite the fact that for this election, four Arab-dominated parties – Hadash, Balad, Taal and the Islamic Movement – have joined forces to create a unified list. The four parties in the Joint List have starkly different ideologies, ranging from the far-left Hadash to the Islamic Movement, which identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Joint List was formed after Israel’s electoral threshold was increased from 2 percent to 3.25 percent last March – meaning that parties failing to garner more than this share of the vote will not be represented in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Many suspect that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman viewed the raising of the threshold as a way to reduce Arab representation in the Knesset. The Arab parties currently hold 11 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
So far, the Joint List has been light on policy, announcing that it is united on tackling racism and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, reducing violence in Arab communities, boosting the employment of women, recognising unregistered Bedouin communities in the Negev region, and providing public transport to all Arab towns.
Unity is really good, but it's too late. We needed this 20 years ago. We've been calling for the political parties to unite for a long time, and if they had united earlier, we could have less problems now.
Abu Amni said he is frustrated with the Joint List, but would vote for it nevertheless. “Unity is really good, but it’s too late. We needed this 20 years ago. We’ve been calling for the political parties to unite for a long time, and if they had united earlier, we could have less problems now.”
Voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel has historically been lower than that of Jewish Israelis – sometimes because of boycotts, at other times because of disinterest.
Eligible Palestinian voters make up about 20 percent of Israel’s 8.2 million citizens. The 350,000 Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel, and thus cannot vote in national elections. Israeli settlers who live in occupied East Jerusalem, as well as in the occupied West Bank, can vote in Israeli elections.
Yafa Research Institute, a marketing company in Nazareth that polls Palestinian citizens of Israel, found that electoral participation among them has declined over the past 15 years – from 75 percent in 1999 to 53 percent in 2009 (though their participation rates plunged far lower during the second Intifada, which began in September 2000).
This year, Yafa predicted that nearly 67 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel would vote in this election – up from 57 percent in 2013 – partly as a result of the Joint List.
“Something deep is happening within the Arab society,” said Thabet Abu Rass, the co-director of the Abraham Fund, an organisation that promotes coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel. “This time, Arabs are knocking on the door of the Knesset. We want to vote, we want to participate. If the Arab unified party is going to have 15 or 16 seats in the Knesset, it’s a huge, unprecedented force.”
The latest poll conducted by Haaretz showed that the Joint List is likely to win 14 seats in the Knesset, with almost 12 percent of the total vote.
That said, some Palestinian groups are opposing participation in the upcoming election. Abna al-Balad, a secular activist movement (not to be confused with the Balad political party), is calling for a boycott. “Participating in these elections means giving legitimacy to Israel as it is right now: an occupying country, an apartheid system that separates the Palestinian people,” said Abna al-Balad’s leader, Ahmad Khalifeh.
Ayman Odeh, the chairman and first candidate on the Joint List, said he respected the views of those like Khalifeh who are calling for a boycott.
But he believes a boycott would ultimately be detrimental to the interests of Palestinian citizens of Israel. “The question is whether we want to isolate ourselves or be very much present in the public sphere,” Odeh explained. “Do we want to have Lieberman isolating us and controlling the public, or do we want to be there and stop him? There will not be any bridge for peace and social justice for the two people of this state unless the Arabs fight and exert efforts.”
One of the Joint List’s more controversial candidates is Hanin Zoabi, a member of the Balad party and former Knesset member who was disqualified from standing in the elections earlier this year by Israel’s Central Elections Committee, which accused her of inciting violence against Israel. The Supreme Court, however, overturned the decision last month.
“We consider the Joint List as a historical development in the politics of the Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Zoabi told Al Jazeera. “Through this list we want to increase our political influence inside the parliament. Voting is a good idea because it’s one of the tools to struggle for our rights. It is a tool for visibility and to force the Israeli public to know we exist.”
The Joint List’s success may well be determined by its ability to win over Arab citizens of Israel alienated from the electoral process.
That includes people like Zaid, a Christian Arab from Nazareth, who lamented that “inside Israel, the Palestinian doesn’t exist. We are ghosts.” Zaid said he “won’t vote for the [Joint] List, and I might not vote [at all] – I’m undecided. When there really is coexistence, I think then I will vote.”
With reporting from Kate Shuttleworth.