On Election Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had an urgent message for his Jewish supporters. “The rule of the right is in danger,” warned Netanyahu, “Arab voters are advancing in droves toward the polling stations.” Thus, with a click of a Facebook share, Netanyahu turned Palestinian-Israeli voting from a basic democratic right into an ethnic conspiracy.
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Some American commentators rushed to link Netanyahu’s remarks to the Jim Crow South of the 1960s, when African-American participation in the political process was considered dangerous by white supremacists. This comparison rings even more poignant if we consider that at the same time as when African Americans fought against segregation, Palestinians in Israel were placed under what was known as the Military Government.
This form of martial law (1948-1966; not to be confused with the post-1967 military occupation and Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) suspended many of the civil rights and legal protections that Israeli citizenship afforded those Palestinians who managed to remain in the state after 1948. There is, however, a fundamental difference between early Israel, the Jim Crow South – the early Israeli establishment still allowed the community it oppressed to vote and actually courted their electoral support.
During that period, most major Zionist parties, from left, center and right, competed fiercely for Palestinian votes. Not that the elections, for Palestinians in Israel, were a festival of democracy; the Military Government intimidated and coerced Palestinians into voting for the ruling Mapai party – an ideological antecedent of today's Labor Party, led by Netanyahu's rival Isaac Herzog. Nevertheless, other Zionist parties, aware of the unfair advantage the Military Government gave Mapai, wooed the Palestinians by claiming they should be treated as fully equal citizens. They also cast their Knesset votes after the late 1950s against the continuation of military rule.
In fact, for many years after the dismantling of the Military Government and even today, Palestinians, not to mention the Druze community, have been voting for Zionist parties in the hope that they will make good on their promises. They were willing to do so even at the cost of accepting some level of Jewish privilege, mainly in the cultural realm, like state symbols. One party that benefited from Palestinian votes was Menachem Begin’s Herut, the political forbearer to Netanyahu's Likud party.
The Zionist parties' recognition of Palestinian voting did not just benefit Palestinian citizens, but also, apparently, the Zionist cause. By promoting their participation in the Israeli political process, Zionist politicians managed to divert Palestinian nationalist sentiment into civil demands for equal rights, political representation, and the dismantling of discriminatory institutions. The incorporation of the Palestinians into Israeli parliamentary politics meant that even during times of extreme violence against Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank, those living in Israel refrained from joining their co-nationals by taking arms against Israel. In fact, for decades, most Palestinians in Israel did not even identify themselves as such, with many accepting the term “Israeli Arabs.”
The days of Zionist parties from the right actively seeking the Palestinian vote are more or less over. Senior Israeli officials have repeatedly portrayed Arab citizens as the enemies from within, a demographic time bomb, and a fifth column population. This has been accompanied by election campaigns proposing to disown Palestinian citizens and unilaterally transfer them to the West Bank in exchange for Jewish settlements.
As if this were not enough, only a few months before the recent elections, Netanyahu's cabinet approved a new bill, known as the Jewish Nation-State Bill, which effectively degrades Israel's Arab minority into second-class citizens and elevates Israel's Jewish character above its democratic one. The bill, if passed by the Knesset, will make explicit what Israelis once tried to mask: Israel is a democracy only for its Jewish citizens. Despite this increasingly racist atmosphere, as anyone who has any knowledge of Israel knows, the most extreme political demand of the Palestinian voters was, and remains, their equality.
Netanyahu’s fearmongering suggests he detests the idea of universal suffrage in Israel. How can this surprise anyone? For almost half a century, Israeli leaders have supported the settlement of Jewish citizens on land populated by Palestinians who, unlike the settlers, enjoy hardly any rights, not to mention the right to vote for a sovereign parliament. Supporters of Netanyahu in Israel, as well as in the United States, should look at the American case, and ask themselves: how did history treat those who considered equality as a dangerous, radical notion?
Seraj Assi is an Arab citizen of Israel who holds an MA in Middle East History from Tel Aviv University and is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington D.C.
Arnon Degani is an Israeli citizen who holds an MA in Middle East History from Tel Aviv University and is a PhD candidate in History at UCLA.