It's been a long time since Israel's Arab citizens had an opportunity like this; they must not let it slip by. Now that the High Court of Justice has done its job and overturned the disgraceful decisions of the Central Elections Committee, which prohibited MK Ahmed Tibi and MK Azmi Bishara and his party Balad from running in the Knesset elections, it is now up to the Arabs in Israel to fulfill their duty - by coming to the polling stations in their masses on January 28 to cast their vote. Without any ifs or buts. They can vote Hadash-Ta'al, Balad, Labor, Ra'am or Meretz - the main thing is for them to take part in the elections. As things appear now, they have the power to influence Israel's image for the years ahead. If they truly have a deep commitment to peace, to the fate of their Palestinian brethren, to the values of justice and equality, they must act on that commitment on January 28. They don't have an opportunity like this to exert influence in every election.
It is impossible to ignore the great problem this step poses for the country's Arab citizens. After many years in which they showed greater loyalty to the state than the state showed them, many of them are fed up with taking part in the supposedly democratic game that chooses to exclude them systematically. In the 2001 elections for prime minister, which took place not long after the events of October 2000 - when Israeli police shot dead 13 Arab citizens in the course of quelling unrest - only 18 percent of Arabs, including the Druze, went to the polls. That was their way, and rightly so, of expressing their protest. Ehud Barak or Ariel Sharon - what did it matter to them, when they felt that their country was alienating them and they had seen the state's police open fire on their brethren.
They continue to be "present absentees" whom no one counts: Most of the public opinion polls list their various parties as one bloc under the rubric, "the Arab parties," and the television ratings are determined on the basis of "Jewish households." No one is seriously considering bringing the country's Arab representatives into a future coalition. Only a Druze can serve as a minister, and even that's rare. Like the foreign workers, the Arab citizens come to mind only when they are hurt in the right circumstances - that is, when an Arab civilian or a Bedouin tracker in the army is killed in a terrorist attack or a firefight. But when the security forces killed 13 Arabs, no Jews were seen at their funerals. The involvement of a few Arab citizens in terrorist acts immediately stigmatizes all of them, although the vast majority continue sitting quietly for so many years, watching what their state is doing to them and their brethren under occupation, in some cases relatives living just a few minutes' drive from their homes - and acting with restraint.
But how does their state reward them for their restraint? With shameful discrimination, with a racist attitude reflected in every sphere of life, with lethal gunfire when they demonstrate, by shutting them up - as in the recent closing down of one of their newspapers for two years - and with an attempt, which failed, to remove their most prominent representatives from the Knesset on the basis of reports drawn up by the Shin Bet security service. Now they are being asked to forget all that, to act with restraint again and return to the political game, whose arena the High Court of Justice has reopened to them.
They owe it to themselves and to their brethren. The smoking ruins of the Jewish-Israeli peace camp also need them very much now. With more than half a million eligible voters, they can elect 15 candidates. That is a huge number. In a decentralized Knesset in which the largest party will probably have no more than 25 to 30 seats, and with the deadlock the polls are predicting between the right-wing and left-wing blocs, it is impossible to overstate the strength the country's Arabs wield, despite the efforts to exclude them. If the weekend polls turn out to be correct, the Arabs can become the tie-breakers of these elections. Since we can assume that the ridiculous phenomena of the past, in which Arabs voted for Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties, will not recur, and that the realistic option for most of them is to vote for the Jewish left-wing parties or the Arab parties, the result will be that their large-scale participation in the elections will significantly increase the left-wing bloc.
If the unbelievable comes to pass and the left-wing camp wins the election, thanks in part to their vote, another opportunity will present itself to break out of the cycle of blood and wrongdoing that the outgoing government led us into. In that event the Arab citizens will enjoy the moral and political authority that will make it possible for them to become a meaningful pressure group in Israeli society and perhaps even to take part in the government under certain conditions. They will then be able to tell themselves and their brethren in the territories truthfully: We have done our part; we have helped replace a bad Israeli government. One can only hope that Amram Mitzna, the leader of the Labor Party, will view this as a blessing - Tibi, Bishara and MK Mohammed Barakeh in his government: why not? Is there a better way to draw closer to peace with the Palestinians and also to present a more just Israel? A moment before the final divorce that the two peoples living in this land give one another, with the demographic clock ticking and hatred on the rise, this is an opportunity that will not come again. Now, for a change, a lot depends on them.
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