To the Arab world, every Israeli candidate is the same
The Arab media is not really taking an interest in this election. For them, all the candidates are alike.
"Conventional wisdom has it that Israeli Jewish voters are more likely to vote for candidates with a reputation of taking a tough stance vis-a-vis the Palestinians. In both the popular and political lexicon, this translates into spilling Palestinian blood, destroying Palestinian homes and further narrowing Palestinian horizons," writes Khaled Amayreh in the English language Al-Ahram Weekly.
Amayreh isn't airing banal claims to prove, once again, that the citizens of Arab countries should not take an interest in the Israeli elections. He is informed, he reads the Israeli press, he cites the latest public opinion polls and the statements of the prime ministerial candidates. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who until recently was treading water in the polls, has improved his position slightly thanks to how he suggested to treat wanted Palestinian men, even when they are on the toilet.
Readers of the international Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat might know a bit more, because the paper's Israel correspondent has taken the trouble of informing them that Shas has promised a personal blessing from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to anyone who recruits 10 voters for the ultra-Orthodox party. The names of Israeli politicians and parties have long since become an integral part of the news menu served up to Arab readers in the Middle East. And so, when the London-based Al-Hayat published a cartoon a week ago, with the word "Wanted" written alongside pictures of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livi, Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu and the caption "Elections in Israel: Coming Soon," there was no need to explain who represented what party.
An attempt to find an opinion piece about the upcoming elections in newspapers of the Persian Gulf states, Jordan or Syria came up blank. The outcome does not interest the Arab media, since whoever becomes Israel's new prime minister is hardly any different from the other contenders. "Israel's foreign policy agenda is no longer a mystery to us," explains a Jordanian columnist writing in the Al Rai newspaper. "The interest in what is happening in Israel derived from the impression that different prime ministers can set different agendas - solve the Palestinian problem, withdraw from the Golan Heights, create regional opportunities. Today everyone is using the language of violence. Everyone wants deterrence against the Palestinians and no one is talking about peace agreements."
Three years ago, during the 2006 elections, the Arab arena was a hub of activity. The ambassadors of Egypt and Jordan met with Israeli politicians, activists and journalists in an effort to characterize the popular mood and assess the candidates. "Every day we would get a long list of questions from Cairo. Sometimes they had even read the Israeli press before we did," an Egyptian diplomat who used to work at the embassy in Tel Aviv said on the phone. "They wanted to know every detail, to understand even the smallest anecdote about an Israeli politician."
And nowadays? "My work focuses on another area, but out of curiosity I have been following events in Israel," related the diplomat. "It's boring now, because the candidates aren't presenting a challenge to the Arab policy. It looks like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak isn't making any special efforts now, compared to how he acted in the previous elections." Before the 2001 elections, Mubarak described Ariel Sharon as a danger to peace; two years later the Egyptian leader congratulated Sharon - that very same Sharon - on his electoral victory, in a well-publicized phone call that elicited harsh criticism from several Arab countries. In addition, some four months ahead of the 2006 elections, Mubarak told a Spanish newspaper that "only Sharon can bring peace."
Such direct intervention in Israeli elections on the part of an Arab leader had been unprecedented until then - apart from Yasser Arafat, who in his heyday used to tell Israeli Arabs how to vote. Incidentally, in this electoral race, the Arab press has discerned a change in the status of Israeli Arabs. The sector, which was perceived as able to impact the make-up of the Knesset and the cabinet, has now been accorded the status of an "endangered flower."
"Aside from reiterating the slogan about the Palestinian refugees' right of return, it is also necessary to demand the right of 'Israeli Arabs' to remain on their land," Majid al Sheikh wrote in Al Hayat last week. He was referring to the slogans of Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman, and furthermore asserted that Livni's stance toward Israel's Arabs is no different: Like Lieberman, she wants a Jewish state, that is - to bring about the emigration of Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian state. "The dream of [a population] transfer has been and remains the Zionist dream," Sheikh wrote. "It changes in intensity (from candidate to candidate), but not in its essence. Livni's center or Barak's center is no different from Netanyahu's." It seems that in Sheikh's opinion, not "only Lieberman understands Arabic" (as his electoral slogan says), but so do Livni, Barak and Netanyahu.
According to the Jordanian columnist, "In the past, before the peace agreement with Israel was signed, we would read every report about the Israeli elections. There was hope that a new government would bring with it a new initiative. Your election slogans were full of hope. We related to them as a commitment. Today, the really important election has already been held - in the United States. Now we are writing about George Mitchell and Barack Obama, about Hillary Clinton and the rift between Fatah and Hamas or between Syria and Egypt. We have already despaired of what is happening in Israel."