Israel’s Palestinian citizens can make a difference by voting

Israel’s Palestinian citizens can make a difference by voting

Israel’s Palestinian citizens can make a difference by voting
Palestinians take part in a protest at the northern Gaza Strip’s Falluja cemetery in Jabalia, on August 16, 2022. (AFP)
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At every election for the Knesset, no other segment of Israeli society faces the same dilemma as the country’s Palestinian citizens: Should they participate or abstain from voting?
On the one hand, turning out in large numbers allows them to exercise every citizen’s basic right to influence the election’s outcome and select their representatives. On the other hand, nearly three-quarters of a century’s experience of taking part in 24 previous general elections has produced very little to advance their status or their social and economic development.
And interestingly enough, in this November’s general election, a low turnout of no more than 40 percent is forecast among Palestinian voters, despite the fact that, for the first time in the country’s history, one of the parties that represents them served in the outgoing coalition government. Or perhaps it is because of this.
Israeli commentator Hanin Majadli has suggested there is nothing for Palestinian voters to look forward to this November because the Arab parties have nothing to offer them, while they have ceased to believe that improvements in their status or quality of life hang on enhancing their representation in the Knesset. There might be much truth in this, but the answer is not to abandon the democratic process altogether, but to embrace it with a sense of purpose and a desire for increased representation.
Historically, voter turnout among Palestinian citizens in Israel is much lower than among the Jewish population. For instance, at the last general election, the figure for the entire population was 67.4 percent, but only 44.6 percent among Palestinians, which demonstrates an understandable yet worrying distrust in the country’s democratic process as a whole.
On the exceptional occasion of the 2020 election, when all Palestinian parties ran on one list and gained a record 15 seats, this alliance — despite its obvious appeal to voters — was to fall apart due to ideological and personal differences. In the election that followed last year, when they ran as separate parties, the turnout fell and they won only 10 seats.
It would be wrong to blame the Palestinian citizens of Israel for their general lack of enthusiasm or even apathy when it comes to exercising their right to elect their representatives. They have been disenfranchised from the social and political discourse ever since the country’s inception as a mainly Zionist and Jewish state; one which over time has come to be dominated by the right and extreme right. But this is the very reason why the field should not be left free for those who would like to exclude them from the national discourse altogether. Because only a high turnout — probably the highest ever among Palestinian voters — will ensure that a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and the far right becomes impossible to assemble.

The field should not be left free for those who would like to exclude them from the national discourse altogether.

Yossi Mekelberg

Turning out in force to support the Arab parties or the more progressive Zionist groups will not instantly achieve the desired effect of Palestinian citizens enjoying full equality in every sphere, but it would be an important step toward that goal, while at the same time preventing the much worse alternative of a government that openly includes unashamed racists. That politics is the art of the possible might be a worn-out cliche, but it is a fitting one in this case.
If turnout among the Palestinian community were to match that of the Jewish population, the former’s representation in the next Knesset could jump from its current 10 seats to as many as 16. This would be sufficient to ensure not only that a government hostile to Jewish-Arab coexistence will not be in charge, but also that Palestinian representation will be required to form the next administration.
Critics of the outgoing government are right to point out that hopes for faster and more radical change in the status of Israel’s Palestinian minority did not make much progress toward fulfillment during its short tenure. Moreover, the long-awaited and overdue expectation for a society based on mutual respect, dignity and universal human and political rights for every single citizen currently looks more like a utopian dream.
Nevertheless, despite budgets being slow to be allocated to Palestinian towns and cities, and despite only scraping the surface of resolving their acute crisis in housing, planning and construction, or of reducing crime in their communities, this government, by including an Arab-Palestinian party, and an Islamist one, has removed one of the most important psychological and practical barriers to building a better and more equal society.
It is not the end of the journey, but in the sorry state of Israeli society it is a first yet important step forward that has proved to be one of the highlights of the outgoing Naftali Bennett/Yair Lapid-led coalition. To a large extent, this breakthrough was thanks to the constructive and responsible approach taken by the Ra’am party and especially its leader Mansour Abbas, eclipsing on many occasions the petty squabbling of the other coalition partners. But it is worth remembering that this was a government with the tiniest of majorities, intractable pull-push forces within it and the most undermining, toxic and partisan opposition grouping in the country’s history.
It is not necessarily the polarization, fragmentation and instability that typifies Palestinian politics and equally characterizes Israel’s Zionist and Jewish parties that is hampering the Palestinian citizens of Israel from playing the role they should and could do. Rather it is their disbelief that their votes could instigate any positive change for them. To fulfill their electoral potential, there is no reason for multiple Palestinian parties to run on one ticket; there can be a number of separate parties that represent the diversity in their community. However, for all of these to pass the electoral threshold, they need to convince their potential supporters that coming out to vote and entrusting them with political power will be translated into influencing Israeli politics to the point at which they become equal partners in government and society.
In an ideal world, at least for some of us, there will not be a divide between Jewish and Palestinian parties, but more parties where both communities can find their political home to the benefit of everyone. There is a need to focus on building an Israeli identity in which the large Palestinian minority, which compromises a fifth of the population, plays an integral part and enjoys the same rights and benefits as those enjoyed by the Jewish population. The Palestinian minority voting in large numbers will be an important step toward fulfilling this aspiration.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.
Twitter: @YMekelberg

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