Non-Jews Are About to Lose the Right to Vote in Israel

The Israeli right is not so subtly moving toward an atmosphere of disenfranchising non-Jewish voters. Palestinian citizens of Israel who boycott the elections may not get another chance to ensure their voice is heard

An Israeli Arab woman walks past a campaign poster showing Israeli-Arab candidates in Kfar Manda, 16 kilometres northwest of the city of Nazareth. April 4, 2019

Recent polls suggest that the votes of Palestinian citizens of Israel may hold the key to swinging Tuesday's election – and that only 50 percent of the Arab population plans on voting. 

It's clear that many Palestinian citizens of Israel have been reluctant to use their vote to influence who will govern Israel.  In part this is because they are reluctant to legitimize Zionism, or believe that their votes do not really count

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I recently had the opportunity to ask Israeli Arabs living in Jerusalem's Bet Hanina and Kufr Aqub neighborhoods why they had not voted in greater numbers in the municipal elections - and thereby put a mayor into office who would then have to be responsive to their concerns. My interlocutors offered exactly these arguments. It left me frustrated - and worried about the future of democracy in Israel. I am worried even more now.

The forces that seek to limit democracy are no longer afraid to show themselves in Israel. And Israel calls itself the only true democracy in the Middle East. For how long? Ironically, this election, the act of voting, will be a time of testing the sustainability of that democracy.

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For the sake of democracy, Arab voters must turn out at the voting stations. For the sake of ensuring the Arab voice is heard and ensuring their agency in their destiny, they must vote. If Palestinian citizens  genuinely want to determine their own future, they must make sure their votes count. If they do not, they may find that they will not ever get that chance again.

They have only to look at the evidence from the wider region. In what Arab state have votes mattered? As for the Palestinians in the occupied territories or in Gaza, it is clear that their own leadership is not interested in encouraging voting. Neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority have offered recent opportunities for voting. Both groups seem to hew to the principle of one person, one vote, one time. 

Israel still offers an alternative, although the Israeli right is not so subtly moving toward an atmosphere of disenfranchising its non-Jewish voters.

The repeated calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make sure Arab votes do not count, or at least should not determine the results of the election, portend a day when his supporters will be ready to say that Judaism trumps democracy. The Jewish Nation State Law may only be a preliminary step in the process.

Moshe Feiglin, leader of Zehut, an ultra-nationalist religious party, speaks at an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, Israel April 2, 2019

Israeli Arabs, Druze and all those who can vote must understand the value and importance of putting in power a government that will have to answer to its needs as much as those of its Jewish citizens, because it needs their votes. They cannot count on their towns and villages getting the same economic and political support as Jewish settlements if they do not vote.

Only when all voters come out in large numbers will Israel have to come face to face with the true meaning and consequences of democracy.

There are those who talk about the idea of one state for two peoples, about confederation as a solution to the Israeli Arab dilemma, about Jews and Arabs living side by side in harmony without the trauma, division and stress of two states. If such a dream is possible, it will require a full commitment to voting, a hallowing of democracy. This election may be the most important in this regard.

This may be the last time a credible alternative to the one "Greater Israel" Jewish state that only counts Jewish votes as significant is on the ballot. A victory by anti-Arab parties presenting themselves as Jewish or religious nationalists threatens the very future of Israeli democracy. Arab voters must use their right - or risk losing it. When people choose not to use the ballot box, they should be less surprised when it is taken away.

A labourer works on hanging up a Likud election campaign banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his party candidates, in Jerusalem. March 28, 2019

Never have the forces that argue against true democracy been stronger in Israel. The only response to this is to vote in droves, and to force a coalition that includes all parties to the vote. In the coalition politics that have governed Israel throughout its existence, Arab voters have made it easy to make themselves irrelevant.

If, instead, Palestinian citizens of Israel were to be the deciding element in determining which coalition assumes power, the entire dynamic of the Israeli democracy would change. Only a massive Arab turnout can accomplish this.

Let all who have the right to vote fill the polling stations, and then let us all see how such a turnout can force Israelis to look at the true meaning of democracy, when the politicians who win seats in the next Knesset are forced to answer to all the voters, and not just those who are Jewish.

But if the non-Jewish voters fail to go to the ballot box, they will have little or no voice on the day after the voting - and they will have to accept part of the responsibility for that terrible outcome.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York