The National – 9 February 2009
Elias Khoury, a 33-year-old architect from the village of Ibilin in Galilee, has been a lifelong supporter of the Communist Democratic Front, the only joint Arab-Jewish party represented in the Israeli parliament. No longer.
Tomorrow, when Israelis head to the polls to elect their next government, Mr Khoury – one of the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens – will be staying home rather than casting a vote.
“I’ve given up on the talk of coexistence,” he said. “Now it’s clear it is just empty rhetoric. After the attack on Gaza, I am sure there will never be two states here. It’s going to be either a Jewish state with no Arabs, or an Arab state with no Jews. Voting any Arab party into the parliament is a waste of time.”
His ominous vision of the future reflects disillusionment with the Israeli political system, he said, rather than extremism. “We are living in an extreme situation imposed on us by Israel.”
Mr Khoury will be joined by a substantial number of others in his boycott. According to recent surveys, slightly less than half the Arab electorate is expected to vote this week, a far cry from the 77 per cent who turned out in 1996, when the Oslo process still promised a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The principal victims of a low Arab turnout will be the Democratic Front and two exclusively Arab parties, which currently have 10 legislators between them in the 120-member parliament.
The causes of the alienation felt by most Arab citizens – who comprise one fifth of the country’s population – are not difficult to divine. They are still smarting from the rock-solid Jewish consensus behind the recent Gaza offensive as well as accusations of treason they faced as a community for opposing the military operation.
Those feelings have been compounded by the overnight transformation of Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a party even Israeli commentators describe as fascistic, into a figure of national authority.
Mr Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is expected to come third in the election, making him pivotal in deciding whether the coalition government will be led by the Kadima or Likud parties. He is also certain to garner a high-profile post in the cabinet under either party.
His popular campaign slogan – “No loyalty, no citizenship” – refers to a plan to revoke the citizenship of Arabs who fail to pledge an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. Many of his supporters, meanwhile, prefer chants of “Death to the Arabs”.
Ahmad Saadi, a political scientist at Ben Gurion University in the Negev town of Beersheva, said he expected a widespread boycott, adding that Arab turnout in elections had been steadily declining for the past decade.
“Since the end of the Oslo accord, the idea of peace, which has always been at the forefront of the Arab parties’ platforms, has sounded increasingly hollow,” he said. “Fewer Arab citizens believe there will ever be a Palestinian state. Disillusionment has set in.”
In addition, Dr Saadi said, it has become apparent to most Arab voters that neither they nor their representatives will have any say in the important decisions facing the country.
Two Arab groups, the small nationalist Sons of the Village and the Islamic Movement, have campaigned for many years against participating in parliamentary elections. “They say voting gives legitimacy to a decision-making process from which the Arab minority is entirely excluded. That view is gaining wider currency in each election.”
Dr Saadi, however, said he believes the rise of Mr Lieberman may spur some Arab voters into action. “There is a fear that the greater influence of the far right demands a response, that we need strong representation to challenge Lieberman’s ideas.”
Both the Likud and Kadima leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, have echoed Mr Lieberman’s main themes in their own speeches, partly in the hope of winning his support during the coming coalition negotiations but also because they share some of his key ideas. Mr Netanyahu declared last week that Yisrael Beiteinu’s campaign against the Arab minority was “legitimate”.
In the past he has been vocal in calling the minority a “demographic threat” to the Jewishness of the state.
Ms Livni, meanwhile, has demanded that all Israelis either serve in the army or perform national service, echoing Mr Lieberman’s comments that such service would be one way for the Arab minority to prove its loyalty. Recently she has said the creation of a Palestinian state would also solve the national ambitions of Arab citizens, implying that their future is not in Israel.
Mr Lieberman, however, may have inadvertently bolstered the two solely Arab parties contesting the elections, the National Democratic Assembly and the United Arab List, through his popular but ultimately unsuccessful bid to have them banned – a move that may yet rally some potential boycotters into voting.
Dr Saadi said Israeli politics was drifting noticeably rightwards, polarising Arab voters into either those resigned to permanent exclusion from the political process or those determined more than ever to make the Arab voice heard.
According to rumours in the Israeli media, Mr Lieberman began his political career in the Kach movement, outlawed in 1994 as a terrorist organisation. Kach campaigned for the expulsion of all Arabs from an expanded Greater Israel.
At least two other parties in these elections are fielding candidates who formerly belonged to Kach. One, Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union, is proposing what he calls a “humanitarian corridor” to allow Arab citizens to leave to other countries, and hopes to raise funds to provide them with “acclimatisation grants”.
The other, Baruch Marzel of Eretz Yisrael Shelanu, has adopted a more confrontational approach with the Arab minority. A hardline settler from Hebron, he has been lobbying for several months to be allowed to stage a Jewish Pride march through one of Israel’s largest Arab towns, Umm al Fahm.
Last week, much to the disbelief of town residents, he revealed that he would be arriving in an official capacity as the head of the election committee appointed to oversee voting in Umm al Fahm.