Al-Ahram Weekly – 30 January 2003
Two days before polling, two Knesset candidates for the extreme right-wing Jewish Party Herut, which advocates the expulsion of Palestinians, tried to enter the northern Arab town of Umm Al-Fahm in what they termed an attempt to “examine up close illegal construction” — an inflammatory comment in the wake of the Sharon government’s populist decision to demolish several houses in Arab areas over the past few weeks.
One of the candidates was Baruch Marzel, a former leader of the outlawed racist Kach movement. Before setting out on their visit, Marzel and Herut’s leader, Michael Kleiner, announced to the media that they would go armed. Large groups of local residents gathered in Umm Al-Fahm to block their entry to the town. But they needn’t have bothered.
With great fanfare, and plenty of media exposure, the pair were turned back at a police roadblock a short distance from their destination. Then the next day, on the eve of polling, shots were fired at an Arab Knesset candidate, Hussein Ghanayim, second on a new party list, the Progressive National Front, as he drove through the Galilean village of Kfar Kana, near Nazareth. Ghanayim reported four bullets being fired at his car.
He said he had received several death threats since joining the list.
The National Front had not been expected to come within view of the 1.5 per cent threshold (50,000 or so votes) needed to gain representation in the Knesset. Counting had not finished when this article went to press, but according to most predictions the party was not likely to win more than 15,000 votes.
“Those are still a lot of votes,” said Ghassan Basool, the deputy news editor of the Haifa-based Channel Nine television station. “Activists from the other parties are keen to send a message to the National Front to withdraw so that it doesn’t take away precious votes from them.”
Observers agreed that what has marked out this election from previous ones is a dark cloud of disillusion hanging over Arab voters, some 12 per cent of the Israeli electorate.
It appears to have dawned on many that they have no real stake in the Knesset system. “There is a real dilemma for voters,” said Amir Makhoul of the Ittijah umbrella organisation for Israel’s non-profit Arab organisations. “They want to support Arab parties, to make their voices felt, but they don’t want to give legitimacy to the rules of a political system that always excludes them from exerting influence.”
A perennial complaint by voters is that the Arab leadership is weakened by internal divisions and personal feuding, a phenomenon encouraged both by Israel’s tribal politics and the low threshold needed to enter the Knesset. In the last parliament there were nine MKs belonging to seven Arab factions, operating in four lists.
There were the same number of factions in this election, although the configuration of the lists has slightly altered. The largest grouping is the United Arab List, which had five MKs in the last parliament. It is an uneasy coalition of the religious Islamic Movement and two populist conservative parties, the Democratic Arab Party and the Arab National Party.
Polls suggested the UAL had lost considerable support, much of it prompted by ugly feuding over personal rankings on the list.
The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a joint Arab-Jewish list whose support is drawn mostly from supporters of the Arab Communist Party (Jubha), had three MKs, including one Jew, in the last Knesset. It has formed a joint list with Yasser Arafat’s former adviser Ahmed Tibi (Ta’al), straining relations with some Jewish members. Tibi has taken the third slot, pushing the Jewish candidate into fourth place — a position which jeopardises his chances of election and may undermine the Front’s claims to embody Arab-Jewish coexistence. In the last general election, in 1999, Tibi formed an uncomfortable alliance with Azmi Bishara’s National Democratic Assembly (Tajamu). This is the first time that the NDA, which was formed in 1996, has risked running on its own.
Polls suggested it might receive three or even four seats, although observers said it was the party that would suffer most if the turnout was low. The NDA draws supporters both from the committed nationalist camp and more weakly from Arabs disillusioned with left-wing Zionist parties.
The fourth faction, the conservative-secular Progressive National Front, is led by the veteran MK Hashem Mahameed, who quit the UAL after falling out with the Islamic Movement’s leader, Abdulmalik Dehamshe. Two other Arab parties, the popular hard-line northern wing of the Islamic Movement, led by Sheikh Raed Salah, and the small secular Sons of the Village (Ibna Al-Balad), refuse to participate in national elections.
The Sons of the Village have been the driving force behind an election boycott campaign and four of their leaders, including the party’s secretary- general, Mohamed Kanaani, were arrested on polling day as they drove towards the Galilee town of Sakhnin in a 15-car convoy flying Palestinian flags. Initial reports suggested police were questioning them on suspicion of obstructing the elections.
The Zionist parties, mainly Labour, Shas, Meretz and Likud, can also expect some votes, especially from the Druze and Bedouin who serve in the army.
In past elections Shas has been able to buy the support of some village leaders through its control of the Interior Ministry and council budgets. “Voting for Zionist parties will decline significantly this time,” predicted Jafar Farah of the Arab Knesset lobbying group Mossawa. “The left has lost influence, and even Shas’s fortunes are waning. But a lot of pressure has been put on local leaders, particularly by Likud.
Last week the deputy public security minister, Gideon Ezra, visited A’ara and Ar’ara villages [where nine houses are under threat of demolition] and promised the families that the orders would not be carried out if they voted for Likud.”
Apart from an obvious religious-secular divide, the ideological differences between the main Arab parties are not clearly articulated, or understood by many of their supporters. All the parties have adopted as their slogan the demand that Israel become “a state of all its citizens” and support the creation of a separate Palestinian state.
But during this election the parties have spent less time elucidating their platforms and more time trying to build enthusiasm for the campaign. All have highlighted the minority’s civic duty to vote, especially in the face of the increasing rightward drift in Israeli Jewish politics.
Early in the campaign the parties were alarmed by polls showing that as many as 50 per cent of the Arab electorate might stay at home. Many activists feared that this was an unforseen legacy of their successful campaign to persuade the minority to boycott the prime ministerial election between Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon two years ago, shortly after 13 Arab citizens were shot dead by police during demonstrations in October 2000.
The final turnout will be crucial to the parties’ success. Because voting In Israel splits along ethnic lines, the overall Arab representation in the Knesset depends on the relative proportion of Arabs and Jews casting their ballots. In the last parliament of 120 MKs, nine belonged to Arab parties.
Another four Arab MKs were included on the lists of three Zionist parties — Labour, Likud and Meretz. Recent polls had forecast a nearly normal turnout among the Arab electorate, at about 70 per cent. However, early indications were that the figure might be closer to 60 per cent.
The boycott campaign was dealt a severe blow by two events during the campaign. One was a poll reported by Haaretz in mid-December which confirmed the Arab minority’s worst fears about the threat of transfer.
It showed that 63 per cent of Israeli Jews believed their government should encourage the emigration of Arab citizens. Among certain groups, such as immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the ultra- Orthodox, one of the fastest-growing sectors of the population, the figures were far higher.
The other was the decision earlier this month to ban two Arab candidates, Tibi and Bishara, as well as Bishara’s party, by the Central Election Committee, a body of Knesset members that is dominated by the right-wing parties.
The decision was quickly overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court but it fuelled a sense that the minority needed to urgently stake its claim to voting as a right. “The Arab parties, particularly Bishara, owe a debt of gratitude to the election committee for reinvigorating the campaign,” said Mohamed Zeidan, head of the Arab Human Rights Association in Nazareth. “But the Jewish committee members will learn their lesson from the Supreme Court’s decision. They will tighten the law in the next Knesset so that they can successfully ban Bishara and any other Arab politician they don’t like at the next election.”
Two externally financed advertising campaigns were also launched to persuade the minority to vote. One was by the Lebanese satellite channel Al- Mustaqbal, which is hugely popular with Arab citizens. It ran a series of adverts rallying them with the message “Your voice is your dignity”.
Both the United Arab List and the Democratic Front were unhappy that the channel also gave Bishara, who has close relations with the Syrian government, almost unimpeded access to the airwaves while ignoring them. “The Arab regimes have no real strategy for dealing with Israel [in its conflict with the Palestinians] and wrongly believe that we can somehow change things from the inside,” said Makhoul. “They want a strong Arab block in the Knesset so that we can work together with Labour. They don’t understand that our influence will be zero however many MKs we elect.” The other advertising campaign was run by American Jewish groups who placed slogans like “I am challenging — I will vote” prominently in local Arab newspapers. “One has to suspect their motives,” said Makhoul. “They are not spending all this money because they are worried about our interests but because they are worried about Israel’s interests. They don’t want Israel looking like apartheid South Africa.” In fact, most Arab citizens know only too well that their fate — as well as that of the Palestinians — will not be decided by whether they vote, or how they vote. Much more significant will be the verdict of the Jewish electorate on the makeup of this next Knesset and whether to admit candidates like Baruch Marzel.