Opinion |

It's a Disaster if Palestinian Citizens of Israel Boycott the Elections

The rupture of the Joint List, Netanyahu's serial anti-Arab incitement, and the rise of an explicitly racist far right mean Arab voters feel disenfranchised, and disillusioned about the value of their vote. But this election, participation is more crucial than ever

Anwar Mhajne
Anwar Mhajne
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MK Ayman Odeh, then head of the four-party Joint List, now head of the Hadash-Ta'al joint list, 
voting in the 2015 general elections with his children in Haifa, Israel
MK Ayman Odeh, then head of the four-party Joint List, now head of the Hadash-Ta'al joint list, voting in the 2015 general elections with his children in Haifa, IsraelCredit: rami shllush
Anwar Mhajne
Anwar Mhajne

Now that elections are only weeks away, there are calls for Palestinian citizens of Israel to boycott of the elections – and the calls are coming from within the Arab community.

These boycott came initially as a protest against the break up of the Joint List, a political alliance of the main Arab-dominated political parties in Israel: Balad, Hadash, Ta'al and the United Arab List.

The coalition ruptured over arguments about the relative placing of candidates from different parties on the slate, a piece of petty politicking which has led to a loss of faith among Arab voters in the parties that are supposed to protect their interests. Many Arab voters now feel disenfranchized and disillusioned about the value of their vote.

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The boycott call is likely to gain more momentum in the wake of the decisions by the Central Elections Committee to disqualify half the parties from the former Joint List - the Arab joint slate Balad-United Arab List, and the candidate Ofer Cassif, a member of the political alliance Hadash-Ta'al, while approving the candidature of Michael Ben Ari, head of the far-right, anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit party. The decision will automatically be referred to the Supreme Court, which almost always overturns the Committee's (overtly political) decisions.

Michael Ben Ari of Otzma Yehudit at a demonstration in northern Arab city Umm al-Fahm, Israel, July 14, 2017Credit: ערן גילווארג

But the damage to Palestinian citizens' faith in equal and fair representation may already have been done.

Even though a boycott is tempting, and justified by many valid reasons, not least the continuous incitement from Netanyahu and his government against Arab voters, it would be a major error for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

It is more crucial than ever to turn out the vote "in droves" in the upcoming elections. This election, it is more critical than ever to counter the rising strength of the racist-right in Israel and its disregard of the most basic democratic values. This election, it is more urgent than ever for parties on the Israeli left to form a strong coalition to defend human rights, freedom of expression and democratic participation.

This is not the first time there have been calls for Arabs to boycott national elections.

During the 1990s there was a call to boycott the election in response to "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in Southern Lebanon. But large-scale voter abstention only began at the 2001 election, where a mere 18% of all the Arab citizens of Israel participated in the vote for the prime minister. Another third of Arab voters cast a blank ballot.

That election was held shortly after the events of October 2000, when the Israeli police killed 13 Arab citizens, marking a turning point in the of the relationship of Arab citizens to the Israeli political process. In 2006, the calls for boycott became a tangible item on the political agenda.

The rise in popular interest culminated in establishment of the People's Committee for Boycotting the Election. It published an editorial urging for the establishment of a separate Arab parliament in Israel and a boycott of the Israeli election.

In 2009, there was another widespreadArab boycott, in response to the Israel-Gaza conflict of "Operation Cast Lead," the Knesset's attempt to disqualify the Arab lists, and the political agenda of the Israel Beiteinu Party, which intended to pass a series of measures such as the the "Loyal Citizenship Law" that effectively would have demoted Arab citizenship rights

Protestors at a 2012 memorial ceremony in Sakhnin for victims of the October 2000 riots.Credit: Abdullah Shama

But specific events and conflicts are only a partial explanation for why Arabs are increasingly adopting the boycott as an opposition strategy. Election boycotts stem from the Arab population's growing awareness, and constant reminders, of its status as second-class citizens in the State of Israel. This consciousness-raising has translated into a historic drop in the Arab voter participation over the past two decades.

Turnout among Arab citizens fell from 75% in 1999 to 53.4% in 2009 – a drop of over 20 percentage points in less than a decade. But from then – until now – there has been a noticeable recovery.The percentage of Arabs who voted increased to 56% in 2013 and 63.5% in the 2015 election.

That uptick was spurred by the formation of the Joint List, which positioned itself as a political union representing the Arab public as a united collective in Israeli politics. The Joint List played a critical role in reversing a decade of political disillusionment of Arab voters. But now that the Joint List has ruptured into two lists, Arab voter turnout might well wane again.

Proponents of boycotts argue Arab parties historically have little impact on Israeli politics. They claim they've always operated on the margins of the Israeli government and are tokenistic, existing simply to mask the fragility and discriminatory aspects of Israel’s contentious democracy. The aim of past boycotts was to expose the weakness of Israeli democracy and express dissatisfaction with its treatment of the Arab minority. However, these boycotts did not substantively change Israeli politics - or expose their illegitimacy.

The boycotts did not improve the status of the Arab minority in Israel either. Boycotting the general elections of 2001 brought Ariel Sharon to power, infamous for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Israeli-Arab protesters in Taibeh during Land Day demonstrations in March 2007.Credit: JINI

While in office he launched Operation Defensive Shield and circumvented the Palestinian Authority to implement a one-sided policy of "separation" from the Palestinians, which led to Hamas rule in Gaza. He also introduced to high level political discourse the idea that Arab citizenship was mutable and a tool for strategic transations, when he proposed the "transfer" of Arab towns in Israel in exchange for Jewish West Bank settlements.

Despite the boycotts, incitements against the Palestinian community in Israel have continue to the point that they have been almost completely normalized in political discourse. Unsurprisingly, prospects for peace between the Israeli state and Palestinian citizens are at an all-time low.

A counter-current to the idea of a boycott is the call for a wider political coalition – between Arab parties and the Jewish/Zionist left.

However there is a substantial distance between the two camps, and this was clearly illustrated recently during the passing of the Jewish Nation State Law, which codified the marginal status of non-Jewish citizens of Israel. While Arab parties called to eliminate the bill, the leadership on the Jewish left fumbled, unsure whether to try to amend the bill or fight against it.

Of course, I don't claim that shunning an election boycott and forming alliances with the Zionist left immediately guarantees increased equality and justice for Arab citizens. Palestinian voters in Israel, and their leaders, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. But if progress is going to be made, engagement and organization within Israel’s political institutions is better than risking political disillusionment, and seeing candidates and blocs even more hostile to Arab rights being elected.

Political participation cannot guarantee a tangible improvement in the status of Arabs, but being present in the Knesset is itself a form of power.

Netanyahu with lawmakers Ahmad Tibi, Jamal Zahalka and Ayman Odeh in the Knesset. Credit: Emil Salman

Boycotts also don't contribute in any way to the struggle against the occupation or the welfare of Palestinians outside the state. Instead, this Arab capitulation plays directly into the hands of the forces of the occupation.

The right-wing settlement movement savors the complete freedom they currently enjoy, pushing blithely ahead with their discriminatory agendas. Encouraging Arab voters to remain on the political sidelines actively enables, rather than contests, the discriminatory forces and agendas that Palestinian rights activists claim to defy.

The only strategy that offers the possibility of progress is for Arab parties to participate in a center-left bloc. The last, and only time, Arab parties played a semi-influential role in the government was when they participated just such a bloc. His government was subsequently able to move forward on the peace process and the Oslo Accords - with the help of Arab parties.

This integration faces two, but surmountable challenges. First, the Israeli left continually weakens itself by refusing to act as an ally to Arab parties, and in some instances even avoids associating with them altogether.

Second, Arab party leaders rejected creating an alliance with leftist parties because of a lack of trust. That is what happened in 2015, when the Joint List as a whole refused to sign a vote-sharing agreement with the leftist Meretz party, thereby hurting the left block electorally and damaging the prospect of an Arab-Jewish left alliance.

Protest by Jewish residents of the Israeli city of Afula against the sale of apartments to Arabs. The sign reads: 'We won't let ARabs into our neighborhood.' 13 June 2018Credit: Gil Eliahu

This issue could be overcome by focusing on consensus issues, such as civil and political equality and joint support for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, despite all the media attention given to Arab parties’ positions on the occupation, the majority of the bills proposed by Arab parties address issues pertaining to all Israelis committed to equal rights.

Boycotts aren't a solution: participation is. A coalition with like-minded, even if disparate, Zionist parties in opposition to the ruling right-wing would be beneficial for all its members, regardless of ethnicity. An alliance such as this would never become a majority bloc – but it could become substantial enough to play a role as kingmaker, and to use its electoral strength to help defeat Netanyahu, revive the prospect for a two-state solution, and create a more just and equitable society.

But of course, for Arab parties to be able to do that, they need to have a willing partner from the Jewish left. And, ironically, too many parties on the 'pro-civil rights' Jewish left have also implicitly endorsed the idea of a boycott – refusing to formally participate in an alliance with the parties representing Israel's Palestinian citizens.

Dr. Anwar Mhajne is an Umm Al Fahm native and moved to the United States in 2011 to pursue her M.A. and Ph.D. She is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Stonehill College, MA. Twitter: @mhajneam

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