Today, the Arab and Muslim world will observe Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. The holiday atmosphere has been felt since the start of the week. In recent days, stores and shopping malls in Arab towns and villages in the Galilee and the Little Triangle area of Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh and Tira have been packed. Concurrently, however, support committees operating within mosques report that they are fielding numerous calls for assistance from those lacking the resources to prepare holiday meals.

One might think that excitement about the holiday is stopping Arabs from mobilizing for Israel's upcoming elections in January. But the truth is that after the holiday ends on Monday, few Arab citizens are likely to be engaged by the elections. Apathy, demoralization and lack of faith in the political system characterize attitudes toward the elections. Political activists associated with the Arab parties will have to work hard to persuade voters to go to the polls and cast their ballots on election day.

A veteran activist from the Hadash party acknowledges that "in internal discussions we talk about this [voter disinterest], even as we plan a national campaign. For us, of course, it's important that voters cast ballots for our party, but, in general, it's also important that members of the Arab public get out and vote. Otherwise, the extreme right will receive additional Knesset seats."

In recent weeks there has been a surge of calls in Arab society for unification between the Hadash, Balad and United Arab List-Ta'al parties. Calls for the Arab parties to merge routinely appear before every election campaign, and party delegates hold meetings or exchange messages about such a scenario. However, the chances of a merger actually happening are extremely slim, owing to rivalries and occasional personal contempt among Arab MKs, and also to intrigues and power struggles within the parties themselves.

"It appears that unless there is some sort of external shock, such as a move to raise the threshold level [the minimum number of votes required for party representation in the Knesset], there's no chance of a merger, and that's unfortunate," lamented a Shfaram resident, who identifies himself as a Balad voter.

On the national political stage, several new and (in some cases ) unexpected personalities are joining the Jewish parties, and some political stars from the past are staging comebacks. In contrast, in Israeli-Arab politics, no new sensations are expected - certainly not in the top tiers of the established parties. MK Mohammed Barakeh will head Hadash's Knesset list, though he is expected to resign after a year and a half, to allow a new party member to join the parliament. (Barakeh's replacement will apparently be Hadash's secretary general, attorney Aiman Uda. ) At Balad, the list's two top slots will again be taken by Jamal Zahalka and Hanin Zuabi; Balad's third spot will be vacant, as a result of the ousting of MK Said Naffaa (the latter refused to carry out a rotation agreement ). MKs Ahmed Tibi and Talab al-Sana (both United Arab List-Ta'al ) see themselves serving another Knesset term, at least.

New faces are needed

Dr. As'ad Ghanem, a lecturer in political science at Haifa University who researches Israel's political arena, identifies four primary challenges which he believes face the Arab parties. The first challenge, he says, is the parties' need to revamp themselves and recruit appealing candidates, who are better suited "to the winds of change that have been felt in the Arab world."

The second challenge is to overcome the fracture between the parties which, in Dr. Ghanem's view, "exists despite the fact that in the Knesset and in parliamentary activity there is no ideological difference" between Arab politicians from the various parties. The third challenge is to increase the representation of women, and the fourth, Dr. Ghanem says, involves the parties' need to relate to daily problems faced by Arab towns and villages, and to proffer assistance for matters such as "unemployment, racism, inequality and rising violence."

Dr. Ghanem's analysis and the sense that apathy and distrust are rampant among Arab voters are reinforced by a comprehensive poll carried out recently by the Abraham Fund Initiatives organization, whose results are disclosed here for the first time. The poll and accompanying analysis, carried out by Dahlia Scheindlin and Hisham Jubran, concentrated on five focus groups of Arab voters; questions were posed to 500 people, a representative sample of Israel's entire Arab population.

The research survey yields one clear conclusion: Arab voter turnout can be increased (in the last national elections, some 53 percent of eligible Arab voters cast ballots ). Among survey respondents, 28 percent defined themselves as regular voters who have a political outlook and know which party they are likely to vote for, while 32 percent of respondents identified themselves as being mostly disinterested and as rarely turning out to vote. The most unsettling finding is that 34 percent of respondents say they are disinclined voters who do not take part in Israeli elections.

In this last group, a quarter of respondents say the reason underlying their disinterest is lack of faith in Israel’s democratic system. Another quarter of respondents say the existing parties do not deserve their support. Some 14 percent of respondents say they don’t believe they can influence decision-making processes; 16 percent said they haven’t decided for whom they would vote or whether they would vote; and 11 percent simply said they had no response.

In the penultimate group of mostly disinterested voters who are not in a regular habit of casting ballots, 51 percent of respondents said the chance of them going to the polls would be heightened if the Arab parties were to unite. Some 58 percent said that if spots in the next cabinet were to be reserved for Arab ministers, they would cast ballots. And 56 percent said they would vote if Israel’s electoral system were changed so that a given number of spots for Arab parliamentarians − proportional to the size of the country’s overall Arab population − were reserved in the Knesset.

Were young people to become candidates in the Arab parties, 52 percent of respondents in this particular group say they would have greater motivation to vote. And were a woman to head one of the Arab parties, 46 percent in this group would have heightened inclination to vote.

The survey shows that although many members of Israel’s Arab community harbor criticism about the national-political arena, by and large citizens in this population sector have faith in Arab MKs. Forty percent of respondents said they trust Arab MKs, whereas just 8 percent expressed faith in heads of Arab local councils, and just 6 percent of respondents trust the Supreme Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs. Thirty percent of respondents admit they don’t know whom to trust; 9 percent said they trust various nonprofits, and a similar percentage expressed faith in Arab religious leaders.

Other findings compiled in the survey show that the Palestinian-Israeli dispute no longer counts as a top priority for Arab voters. Only 12 percent of respondents in this poll cited Israel’s occupation in the territories as an imperative that must be dealt with now. Others ‏(24 percent‏) believe that poverty and unemployment top the list of priorities; some ‏(16 percent‏) give the prerogative to crime and violence, and others cite tension between Jews and Arabs ‏(10 percent‏), state security ‏(6 percent‏) and strengthening democracy ‏(4 percent‏).

“Arab citizens are disposed in favor of increasing their representation in the Knesset, but they don’t want ineffectual representatives. They want real influence on decisions that pertain to their future,” explains Mohammad Darawshe, Abraham Fund Initiatives co-executive director. Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, the organization’s other co-exec director, adds that “this research survey shows that Arab citizens are looking for a ‘square deal’ with Israeli society. Should the Arab public be convinced that it can be a partner in the fashioning of reality and is perceived by the central Zionist parties as a legitimate partner, it will take part in the elections.”