Palestinian Citizens Wearily Eye Israeli Elections
"Who are you leaving it to?" asks a billboard erected by a Palestinian party in Israel., Atef Safadi / EPA/Newscom
As Nazareth, the capital of Israel's Palestinian minority, gears up for the country's general election next week, the most common poster in the city features three far-right leaders noted for their virulently anti-Arab views.
The posters, paid for by one of the largest Palestinian parties, are intended to mobilize the country's Palestinian citizens to vote.
The most prominent of the faces staring down from billboards is that of Avigdor Lieberman, the recently departed foreign minister who is under police investigation for fraud but still heads Yisrael Beiteinu. His party wants to strip some of Israel's 1.4 million Palestinians of their citizenship by redrawing the boundary with the West Bank, while the rest would be forced to take a loyalty test.
Alongside him, wearing his trademark grin, is Michael Ben Ari, a former leader of the outlawed Kach movement, which demands the expulsion of Palestinians from both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel. He won a parliamentary seat at the last election for the similarly racist Strong Israel party (Otzma LeYisrael).
Between them is the bearded Baruch Marzel, also a former Kach official who leads the extremist settlers occupying the center of the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. He has repeatedly made headlines by organizing provocative far-right marches through Palestinian towns inside Israel. (He staged a special election one this week in the village of Musmus, close to Umm al-Fahm.) Marzel is expected to enter Israel's parliament, the Knesset, for the first time, joining Ben Ari in Strong Israel.
The posters around Nazareth pose a blunt question in Arabic: "Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?"
Polls suggest that on 22 January, Israel's Jewish majority will elect the most right-wing Knesset in Israel's history, returning prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power in a coalition packed with ultra-nationalists. For Israel's Palestinian citizens, comprising nearly a fifth of the total population, the dilemma has been how to respond to this all- but- inevitable outcome.
Lieberman, Ben Ari and Marzel are part of ever- widening circle of right-wing politicians who want an "Arab-free" Knesset.
The share of the Palestinian electorate prepared to cast a ballot for one of the Zionist parties has shrunk dramatically over the past 15 years. In 1999, 31 percent still voted for a Zionist party; by 2009 the figure had fallen to 17 percent, with more than half that number accounted for by Druze and Bedouin communities that serve in the army.
Instead, the overwhelming majority vote for one of three Arab or Arab-dominated parties (two other Arab parties are not expected to pass the threshold). Over the past 15 years these Palestinian parties, though without influence in the political system, have grown increasingly noisy in demanding equal rights for their constituents. They may not be able to effect change, but they have shown a talent for embarrassing their Jewish colleagues by using the Knesset - and platforms outside it - to express truths Israeli Jews would prefer remained unspoken.
The continuing presence of Palestinian representatives in the Knesset is threatened by two related developments: a consensus among the dominant right-wing parties that the Arab factions are a "fifth column"; and an internal debate among the Palestinian electorate about the value of taking part in national politics given the current climate.
The Zionist parties, especially on the right, have been formulating ways to silence the Arab parties, along with human rights groups and what is seen as the too-liberal Israeli high court. On the issue of the Arab parties, they have found support from Israel's domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, which has warned that the Palestinian minority's demands for equal rights - encapsulated in its program for a "state of all its citizens" - constitutes subversion and that Israel should act in accordance with the principle of a "democracy defending itself" ("Democracy for Jews only," Haaretz, 30 May 2007).
The three main parties vying for Palestinian votes can be described as loosely representing the communist, nationalist and Islamist streams, with each party historically winning three or four seats in the 120-member Knesset.
All have faced attacks from the Zionist parties and more widely from the media for what is seen as their "treasonous" behavior in supporting the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But even in pursuing their domestic agenda - the campaign for equal rights - they have found themselves accused of acting as a "Trojan horse": that is, seeking to undermine Israel as a Jewish state on behalf of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. It has been this paranoid perception by the security establishment that has increasingly fueled demands from the Israeli government that the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks.
In the increasingly hostile climate in Israel, the Communist Front has fared best, even though its leader Mohammed Barakeh has been subjected to a series of dubious legal actions by the state and is currently on trial for allegedly assaulting a soldier during a West Bank demonstration.
The Communists have gained some protection from their status as a joint Jewish-Arab party, one that includes a Jew among its current four Knesset members. However, in line with the long-term collapse of the Israeli Jewish left, the overwhelming majority of the Front's members are Palestinian; the rump Jewish caucus almost operates as a party within the party.
The Islamist stream, known as the United Arab List, includes, in practice, not only the southern wing of the Islamic Movement but socially conservative factions and the one-man Taal party of Ahmed Tibi, long vilified by Israel for his close connections to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But the focus of Israeli politicians' outrage has been the National Democratic Assembly party, which was established in 1995, in the wake of the signing of the Oslo accords. Its original leader, Azmi Bishara, who popularized the slogan of a "state of all its citizens," treated the Knesset principally as "an arena of confrontation," using it to expose the limits of Israel's democracy.
Bishara has been living in exile since 2007, when the Shin Bet accused him, improbably, of having helped Hizballah target sites in Israel with its rockets during the Israeli attack on Lebanon a year earlier.
His place as Zionism's public enemy number one has been usurped unexpectedly by Haneen Zoabi, who was elected to the Knesset on the NDA ticket at the last election, in 2009. She is the first Palestinian woman to sit in the Knesset for a Palestinian party.
Her main crime in the eyes of the Jewish parties was her participation in the aid flotilla that tried to break the siege of Gaza in May 2010. The lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, on which Zoabi sailed, was attacked by the Israeli navy in international waters, and nine humanitarian activists were killed.
Zoabi returned to Israel with an eye-witness account of Israeli brutality aboard the ship that gave the lie to Israel's account of what took place and helped stoke international criticism of Israel's action. As a result, she has been relentlessly hounded in the Knesset chamber; demonized by politicians and the media; and subjected to a wave of death threats from the Israeli public.
Questioning the right of the Palestinian parties, especially the NDA, to contest national elections has become an established feature of each campaign of the past decade. But the Zionist parties have been able to move beyond mere threats into concerted efforts to disqualify the parties and individual candidates.
This has been possible because a highly partisan body called the Central Elections Committee is charged with overseeing how the campaign is conducted. The committee, dominated by representatives from the main Zionist parties, is given a facade of legitimacy by having a high court judge sit as chairman.
In the 2003 and 2009 elections, the committee tried to ban the NDA, both times with the open support of the Shin Bet, and also targeted elements of the United Arab List. The committee's decisions have always been overturned on appeal to the high court. But it is widely assumed that, were one of the Arab parties to be disqualified, the others would pull out of the running too.
It looked as though this election would run according to the same script. But while several motions from the right were proposed to ban the NDA and the United Arab List, they were ultimately rejected by the committee, narrowly in the case of the NDA.
Instead, the committee singled out the NDA's Haneen Zoabi, barring her from running again for the Knesset. The decision was reached despite an advisory opinion from the attorney- general, Yehuda Weinstein, that there was "no sufficient, exceptional critical mass of evidence" to disqualify her.
The Basic Law on the Knesset makes disqualification of a party or individual candidate possible if they have: incited racism; denied Israel's Jewish and democratic character; or supported armed struggle or terrorism against Israel.
The committee pointed both to Zoabi's participation in the 2010 aid flotilla to Gaza, declaring it "support for terrorism," and to her rejection of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
The case against Zoabi was so insubstantial that few observers doubted it would be overturned by the high court.
NDA officials pointed out that she had not personally chosen to take part on the Mavi Marmara. The High Follow-Up Committee, a body representing the whole community, had decided that the Palestinian minority should be represented, and her party had selected her. Similarly, her ideological positions about Israel's character simply reflected the NDA platform.
The party vowed to boycott the election should she be banned.
There were other obvious problems with the case. The attorney- general had closed the investigation into her participation on the Mavi Marmara in 2011, having found no evidence she broke any law. Furthermore, Israel had not declared the IHH, the Turkish group behind the Mavi Marmara, a "terrorist" organization at the time of the flotilla. In fact, one of her lawyers, Hassan Jabareen of the human rights group Adalah, surprised the court by revealing that the IHH had not been designated as such until a few weeks before the court hearing.
But as a Haaretz editorial noted, evidence was beside the point: "what we're dealing with is a political crusade against all the Arab political parties" ("The Zuabi test," 30 December 2012). An opinion poll in December showed 55 percent of Israeli Jews thought a ban on Zoabi would be justified.
The high court overturned Zoabi's disqualification and did so unanimously. Following the decision, Zoabi observed that "this ruling does little to erase the threats, delegitimization and physical and verbal abuse that I have endured - in and outside the Knesset - over the past three years" ("Supreme Court: MK Zoabi can run for Knesset," Ynet, 30 December 2012).
For dramatic effect, she had hoped to make her statement to the waiting media as she left the courtroom. But instead she had to be ushered out of a back door to safety as more than two dozen right- wing extremists, led by Michael Ben Ari, blocked her path and started shoving and threatening her escorts. Ben Ari and his Strong Israel party activists were left in charge of the courtroom to denounce the judges' decision.
Legislators from other right-wing parties criticised the decision too. Yariv Levine of Netanyahu's Likud party said: "Unless MK Zoabi blows herself up in the Knesset, the high court justices won't understand that she has no place there" ("Right lambasts court after Israeli Arab MK cleared to run," Israel Hayom, 30 December 2012).
The joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party issued a statement saying it would introduce yet more legislation to restrict the rights of the country's Palestinian citizens and their representatives: "any expression of support for terror should be grounds for disqualification for running for election in the Israeli Knesset. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu will immediately act during the next Knesset to fix the existing laws" ("Supreme Court allows MK Zoabi to run for election," +972, 30 December 2012).
The Central Elections Committee's decision not to ban the whole NDA list came as a surprise to observers, especially given the dominance of the right. Tel Aviv law professor Aeyal Gross suggested that committee members realized from their previous efforts that they were doomed to failure ("The Supreme Court has again rescued the shards of Israeli democracy," Haaretz, 30 December 2012).
However, it is fairly difficult to believe that most of the committee members were capable of thinking so dispassionately. In any case, disqualifying Arab parties, whether ultimately futile, has other benefits for the right: it reinforces the message to Jewish voters that the Palestinian public is a fifth column, and it reminds them that the high court needs to be radically overhauled to make it more accountable to public opinion.
Awad Abdel Fattah, secretary-general of the NDA, offered a different reading of the committee's behavior. He noted that the right-wing parties voted as feverishly for a ban of his party as ever. It was saved by a switch of positions among what has been termed the "center-left" bloc.
The so-called "center-left" - a term the bloc has embraced to signify its ability to become a genuine alternative to Netanyahu and the right - might in countries other than Israel be described as the "center-right." Its three principal parties - Shelley Yacimovich's Labor, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah, and former TV anchorman Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid - are still heavily influenced by neoliberal economic doctrine; they have not challenged the ballooning defense budget or proposed a way to plug the resulting record deficit; and they have kept the Israeli-Palestinian conflict well in the background of their platforms.
In this case, the parties' claim to left-wing or centrist credentials derive from their emphasis on reducing the tensions that Netanyahu has allowed to escalate between Israel and its sponsors, the US and the European Union. The center- left is concerned about Israel's image abroad and making the necessary concessions - including reviving an endless peace process with the Palestinians - to prevent a further deterioration in Israel's strategic position.
According to Abdel Fattah, the "center-left" is starting to panic, fearing that the momentum of the shift rightwards may soon prove unstoppable. Without concerted action to shore up a credible opposition to Netanyahu, Israel is hurtling towards full-blown fascism at home and pariah status abroad.
The lurch to the right is discernible in two key developments during the election campaign.
The first was an effective coup by the far-right in the Likud's recent primaries. The party's last few "moderates" have now been replaced by ultra- nationalists, including religious settlers. Moshe Feiglin, this latter group's controversial figurehead, won the 23rd slot on the joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, ensuring his place in the parliament for the first time.
The second is the rapid rise during the campaign of the Jewish Home party, under its new leader Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu's former chief of staff. Bennett has reinvented the faction, shedding its image as simply a settlers' party. A hi-tech entrepreneur, Bennett has injected political glamour and won converts from the center by emphasising a "return to Jewish values."
According to recent polls, Jewish Home, which has been plundering votes from Likud, could become the second or third largest party, after Likud-Beiteinu. Unlike the deceitful equivocation of Netanyahu on Palestinian statehood, Bennett is plain-speaking: "I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That's the equation." He demands that Israel immediately annex most of the West Bank. ("Naftali Bennett interview: `There won't be a Palestinian state within Israel'," Guardian, 7 January 2013).
Faced with these trends, the so-called "center-left bloc" appears to have wavered. In the 2003 and 2009 elections, it voted with the right in the Central Elections Committee to ban the NDA. This time it switched to opposing disqualification. Rather than wanting a Knesset empty of Palestinian representatives, the "center-left" appears to have decided that a Palestinian presence may be in their interests.
This possibly explains the unorthodox, and patronizing, editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper this week that urged Palestinian citizens to participate in the election - and did so in Arabic. Its headline ordered them to: "Get out and vote!" ("Get out and vote!", 15 January 2013).
The cause for the concern expressed by Haaretz has been a steady decline in the Palestinian minority's turnout at each election over the past decade. In 1999, amid the greater optimism of the Oslo period, three-quarters of the Palestinian electorate voted; 10 years later, in 2009, that figure had fallen to 53 percent, the lowest in the community's history.
Surveys taken by Asad Ghanem of Haifa University indicate a likely scenario in which, for the first time, less than half the Palestinian electorate vote in a Knesset election ("What's the point?" The Economist, 12 January 2013).
The falling interest in voting reflects various developments within the Palestinian minority.
Some of it can be attributed to a formal boycott movement initiated in 2006 by the small secular Palestinian nationalist movement the Sons of the Village (Abna al-Balad). The Popular Committee for Boycotting Knesset Elections has attracted backing from academics and intellectuals.
This weekend boycott activists were due to lead a day-long motorcade spreading their message through dozens of Palestinian villages and towns, starting in the central Galilee, passing through Nazareth and then ending in the Triangle area south of Umm al-Fahm.
A boycott has also been the default position of the northern Islamic Movement, led by the popular figure of Sheikh Raed Salah, since the movement split in 1996. The southern wing contested the election in the belief that an Oslo-inspired two-state solution was at hand. Salah has been the chief beneficiary of the gradual discrediting of the Oslo process.
But according to Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth, more significant than the boycott movement has been the much wider assumption in popular discourse that voting is a pointless activity and that the Arab parties are ineffective.
The alienation of Palestinian citizens from the political system was highlighted in a survey presented at Haifa University in December. It showed 79 percent had little or no faith in state institutions, including the Knesset, and 67 percent lacked confidence in the Arab parties ("On my mind: Arab voters," The Jerusalem Post, 24 December 2012).
Zeidan pointed to a lack of campaigning in Palestinian communities, apart from the billboards. "It's almost as if the [Palestinian] parties themselves are too embarrassed to show their faces by electioneering."
He also noted a frankness among people stating that they would not be voting. "Among the youth this trend is especially strong. They are clear that the Knesset and the [Palestinian] parties do not represent them."
This is an assessment even the parties themselves are prepared to concede. Jamal Zahalka, head of the NDA's Knesset faction, said: "We're trying to encourage Arabs to vote because it's important, but you can't blame them when they see how little power we have in parliament" ("Israeli Arabs unenthusiastic about Jan 22 vote," The Huffington Post, 19 December 2012).
Mostly out of view, the parties have been deliberating how to deal with the rapid decline in turnout. The posters featuring Lieberman, Ben Ari and Marzel - part of the NDA's campaign - were intended to play on the community's fears of the far- right.
But according to surveys, the most likely way to increase voting would be for the parties to present a joint list for the Knesset. Back in October, when the election was announced, a campaign on social media was launched urging the parties to cooperate more closely so that they could win a larger number of seats and have a greater influence.
However, the Communist Front is reported to have vetoed the move, apparently worried that a union with the two other Arab parties would drive away Jewish support and end its tradition of being a Arab-Jewish party.
A more radical solution, again opposed by the Communist Front, would be to abandon the Knesset and set up an Arab parliament with direct elections. One of its first acts would be to demand cultural and educational autonomy.
The idea of a separate parliament has been under discussion, so far fruitlessly, for more than a decade. But a very low turnout this time may push it higher up the Palestinian parties' agenda.
It is not only the Arab parties that are anxious about the expected low rate of participation. The Jewish "center-left" appears to have realised that it may harm them too, even though few Palestinian citizens now vote for Zionist parties. The damage is possible in two ways - one strategic, the other pragmatic - according to Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University.
The first is that, if the Knesset no longer represents Palestinian citizens, either through a successful boycott or because of a ban by the right, Israel's rule over its Palestinian minority will look increasingly illegitimate, and more like a variety of apartheid. In such circumstances, the center-left's role in defending Israel's standing abroad - its chief selling-point to its shrinking constituency at home - is in danger of becoming irrelevant. The center- left could quickly find itself in vicious spiral of political and diplomatic marginalization.
The second, deeper concern for the center-left is one of "cold political calculation," says Jamal. A low turnout by Palestinian voters will be reflected in a low number of seats. And that in turn will make the chances of building a credible Knesset bloc to challenge Netanyahu and the right even more hopeless.
Without a strong showing by the Palestinian parties, the center-left has no hope of tasting power. Instead they are more likely to end up squabbling with each other to be allowed to sit meekly on the margins of his coalition.
Jamal said: "Plenty of the members of the center-left parties have no real love of the Arab parties but still they understand that they need these parties strong to reduce Netanyahu's power."
Two weeks before polling day, the center-left parties made what looked suspiciously like a desperate, last-minute gesture towards Palestinian citizens to encourage them to vote. They signed a covenant committing to end inequality between Jews and Arabs within 10 years. Of the Arab parties, only the Communist Front attended.
The meeting received little coverage in the local Arab media. Of the few in the minority who were aware of it, most expected the covenant would become another quickly forgotten promise.
Ramez Jeraisi, Nazareth's mayor and a member of the Communist Front that signed the document, summed up the mood: "We have experienced talk and declarations that were never implemented, and I don't expect a change in reality."
[Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His new website is jonathan-cook.net ]