Al-Ahram Weekly – 13 February 2003
As the dust settles in Israel, pundits and journalists have been digesting the meaning of the country’s election results: the huge swing to Likud, the unprecedented collapse of the left and the emergence of an embittered and anti-religious Ashkenazi sect in the shape of Shinui. The significance of these changes will only become apparent over the next months as Ariel Sharon struggles to form and hold together a coalition government made up of the new combustible elements at his disposal.
But another seismic electoral shift has gone entirely unremarked: the severing of the last vestiges of political co-operation between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
The departing Knesset reflected the “mood” in Israel that pre-existed the Intifada; this Knesset has been a catching-up process. It mirrors the current reality of deep ethnic divisions. In the long term the consequences of this will be far more troubling for Israel than coalition pact disputes between Tommy Lapid’s secular Shinui and Elia Yishai’s religious Shas Party. Until now common ground had held, however shakily, between the country’s two ethnic groups. The Palestinians who became citizens of the state of Israel in 1948 may have profoundly resented the disaster that befell their people but they and their children soon came to accept that, if the world was not going to rectify the Nakba, their future was tied inextricably to the Jewish homeland.
Israel’s 36-year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the oppression of the Palestinians, severely tested this bond of loyalty but never ruptured it, not even during the first Intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the Knesset election of 1988, 42 per cent of the Arab minority voted for Jewish Zionist parties, rising to more than 50 per cent in the 1992 election.
Unquestionably, this electoral support was largely bought: after all, the Zionist parties control the distribution of all state resources, itself the reason for the huge discrimination against the minority. Why did so many voters in Galilean villages like Kfar Manda and Ein Mahil make the apparently perverse decision in the 1990s to vote for Shas, the party whose spiritual leader Rabbi Yosef Ovadia refers to Arabs as “vipers” and “evil and damnable”? The answer is simple: for some years Shas has controlled the Interior Ministry, which allocates municipal council budgets.
The story of this Intifada, however, is different. Barely more than 10 per cent of Arab voters backed Labour and Meretz, the lowest support for the Zionist left in the community’s history. A full 77 per cent of the vote went instead to independent Arab parties.
Equally unsettling for Israelis, the Arab turnout fell to its lowest point ever — at 63 per cent, more than 10 points down on normal. True, there was a sharp drop in the Jewish sector too but for very different reasons. Among Israeli Jews there was a general sense that these elections had been foisted upon them unnecessarily. The public repeatedly tells pollsters it wants unity — and means it. A proportion of Jewish voters stayed away to punish the politicians, particularly those in Labour, for wrecking the coalition government and forcing early elections.
The low turnout among Arab voters reflects something else. There is a tangible sense of hopelessness on the streets of Nazareth, Sakhnin and Umm Al-Fahm prompted by two realisations. The first is that no Jewish Zionist party, be it Labour, Likud or Meretz, is serious about finding a fair solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This has been driven home by the blanket consensus, in the media and Knesset, that Israel is waging a just war in the territories. Satellite and cable have made the Arab minority more aware than ever of what the rest of the Arab world sees and hears. During the first Intifada, they relied mainly on the Israeli media for news. Now they see the yawning gulf between their two main sources of information.
The second realisation is more personal. It is a dawning that Arab politics in Israel — however it is conducted — will always be a distraction, and that the simple act of participation only serves to legitimise an inherently racist system. “It’s getting hard for us to continue believing in the rules of the Jewish state’s game,” said 1948 Arab leader Amir Makhoul, referring to the exclusion of Arab parties from every government in Israel’s history.
Arguments about the principle of boycotting elections were fully aired among the Palestinian citizens two years ago, during the special prime ministerial election between Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak. In the earlier, 1999 general elections, 95 per cent had turned out for Barak, impressed by his promises to negotiate a Palestinian state and deal with discrimination against the Arab minority. In the 2001 election the turnout among Arabs fell to only 18 per cent, and a proportion of those would have been Sharon supporters among the “loyal” elements of the Druze and Bedouin communities.
That boycott was assumed by most observers to be a special case, a reflex of anger at Barak’s “great betrayal”: his role in allowing the police to shoot dead 13 Palestinian citizens as they demonstrated in their towns and villages at the start of the Intifada.
But it is also possible that the boycott opened a Pandora’s box. Half of Arab voters, according to the early opinion polls, had decided not to vote in this election. The two boycotting parties — the secular Sons of the Village and the northern wing of the Islamic Movement — tapped into a real sense of alienation from the system.
The Arab parties’ intensive campaign to get the vote out — backed by Arab satellite channels and American Jewish lobby groups — produced results only after the decision of the Central Election Committee to ban two candidates, Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, and Bishara’s National Democratic Assembly Party.
The Supreme Court overturned the decision — in Bishara’s case by a majority of only seven to four — but the tide had already turned. The argument that the minority had to stake a claim to such basic rights as voting persuaded some.
Still those who voted chose their own candidates, not the Zionist lists.
What is surprising is that this surge of support for the Arab parties comes at a time when the electoral system has been redesigned to encourage voting for the big (read Zionist) parties. Instead of the previous two- ballot system — one cast for the prime minister and one for the party — the electorate was allowed to vote only once, for a party. The intention was to discourage voting for small, sectoral parties which might play no role in choosing the new government.
The defiance of 77 per cent of Arab voters is a considerable slap in the face to the Zionist left. This rift between Jews and Arabs will be very much reflected in the composition on the 16th Knesset. For the first time there will be no Arab MKs represented in the Jewish parties (apart from two hard-line Druze members on Likud’s list).
In the last parliament, Meretz had a woman Arab representative and Labour two men, one of them, Salah Tarif, who became the country’s first Arab minister. That looks like an inexplicable aberration now. The Arab voice in mainstream Israeli politics has been silenced.
Similarly, the country’s one Arab- Jewish party, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, can no longer claim to embody the principles of coexistence. In the last parliament, its delegation comprised two Arabs and one Jew. This time, the Jewish candidate, pushed into fourth place on the list, will not be in the Knesset. The Front will effectively be an Arab-only party.
Sources inside the Front say that there is a degree of relief among its Arab leadership. They have felt hampered by the need to secure the support of a tiny Jewish membership for all decisions, even though the party draws almost exclusively Arab votes.
The election’s other big success apart from Likud and Shinui’s was Azmi Bishara’s National Democratic Assembly, which tripled its number of seats. Bishara has stuck to his platform of strident Palestinian nationalism, and apparently that political message struck a chord with Arab voters. The Jewish majority that so despised Bishara’s lone voice in the last Knesset will now have to get used to a small troop of noisy dissenters.
All these electoral outcomes point in the same direction: that the ethnic fault line in Israel is growing ever wider. The space for political dialogue has narrowed to the point where it barely exists — not among the public, not in the media and now not even in the Knesset. This trend may be almost impossible to reverse. What incentive now for Labour or Meretz to place Arab candidates high on their lists (and consequently knock Jewish candidates lower) when they win virtually no votes from the Arab minority?
The national war between Israelis and Palestinians risks merging into an even more destructive civil war between Jews and Arabs inside Israel. The wider picture is not encouraging. The shooting of 13 Arab citizens at the start of the Intifada has left the Jewish majority believing that the Arab population is a fifth column while leaving the Arab minority convinced of their status as second-class, and probably temporary, citizens of the Jewish state. Both are likely to be proved right if things continue as they are. Surveys of Jewish opinion in Israel make for disturbing reading: an ever larger proportion wants to see Palestinians cleansed from both the occupied territories and Israel. A recent survey showed that 62 per cent favoured the Israeli government adopting policies to encourage the emigration of the Arab population. Among the fastest growing sector of the Jewish population, the ultra-Orthodox, the figure exceeded 80 per cent.
And there is a small but increasing segment of Arab youth, stripped of everything but its Palestinian identity, ready to ally itself with the cause of the more militant factions beyond the Green Line. Stories of explosive belts being hidden in Israeli mosques and taxi drivers taking suicide bombers to Netanya are growing in number. So far their role has been limited but the trend is clear.
Israel’s voters have spoken. That should worry anyone who cares about the future of peace in the Middle East.