Polls predict that Israel’s ultra-nationalist and religious right will walk away with Tuesday’s elections, and that the subsequent coalition may well be even further to the right than the current one.
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A dispassionate perusal of Israel’s situation would reveal the urgent and desperate need to narrow and bridge the growing gap in Israel between the have-loads and the have-nots and to build bridges across the enormous chasm separating Israelis from Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories.
Yet the right seems bent on widening these splits with its hardcore nationalistic discourse, the casual racism of many of its leaders and its determination to further entrench and broaden the settlement enterprise.
It is distressing and depressing to witness Israel’s continued drift to the right. This is reflected in how parties which were once considered rightwing are now regarded as centrist and in how quickly the “loony” fringe parties become mainstream, as embodied in the meteoric rise of Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett and in how Avigdor Lieberman, who once famously called for the bombing of Egypt’s Aswan high dam and the drowning of Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea, managed to become Israel’s face to the outside world.
The hardening of the right, mixed with the weakness and disarray of the left and centre, has resulted in massive disillusionment and alienation in the ranks of Palestinian-Israelis and, albeit to a lesser extent, among progressive Israeli Jews, many of whom have “defected” rightwards.
This has translated into widespread apathy towards Tuesday’s vote, with surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters will cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. Expressing a widespread sentiment in his community, one voter from Umm al-Fahm explained the reasons for his abstention: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”
Even many of the politically aware and young who are as comfortable in Hebrew as in Arabic, and sometimes more so in Hebrew, feel there is nothing left to vote for.
“I don’t believe I will be voting in these upcoming elections,” admits Mimas Abdel-Hay, a student of government at a private Israeli institution, despite having recently become a political representative for a new party called Hope for Change. http://hope-for-change.org/ “Although this might show weakness or indecisiveness, I never felt like I had a say.”
Faced with such a bleak political landscape, is there anything progressive Arabs and Jews in Israel can do to challenge or protest against the status quo?
Rather than simply abstaining as individuals from voting, some Palestinians in Israel have actively called for a collective boycott of the vote.
But whether it is understandable disillusionment at their growing marginalization or principle that keeps Arab voters away, I personally believe the only thing worse than participating in this unrepresentative electoral fight is not participating.
While mainstream Israeli parties are largely ignoring the Arab electorate, Arab politicians, as well as the joint Jewish-Arab Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), have been working to convince skeptical voters to turn out on Tuesday and make their voices count.
“In South Africa, people were killed struggling to have one person, one vote. In Israel, there is discrimination in every part of life... In only one thing there are equal rights: the day of the election,” Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List said in an interview.
“A boycott now is an act of weakness, not an act of active struggle. We would be out of politics,” asserts Haneen Zoabi of the Balad party, the first woman to represent an Arab party in the Knesset, despite having experienced efforts to disqualify her from the current elections.
Although television producer Hamodie Abonadda will not be voting for Balad but rather Hadash, his assessment of the consequences of staying away from the elections is similar to Zoabi’s. “Not voting is a very harsh statement one makes when living in an environment of equality,” he maintains.
Abonadda describes Palestinians in Israel as being victims twice over: of exclusion by the Israeli political establishment and then of being blamed for the apathy and indifference this engenders. “This has made the victim guilty of being a victim… The 1948 Arabs must stop being the victim and rise up and change the Israeli reality with their votes,” he urges.
But this raises the tricky issue of who to vote for. Like progressive Jews, many Arabs in Israel feel poorly represented by the parties that speak in their name. While many Arab politicians focus their attention on nationalistic questions and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a survey by Haifa University found that 57% of Palestinian-Israeli voters were most concerned with “bread and butter” issues, such as welfare, discrimination and rising crime, while only 8% cited the conflict.
Some also describe discourse as a challenge. “The problem I have is with the way the Arab politicians reach out to the Israeli public. They never speak in a way the Israelis can relate to or understand,” believes Mimas Abdel-Hay. “We are a minority, and in order to be heard, we have to play this game wisely,” she suggests.
“Playing the game wisely” should involve finding common cause with likeminded Israeli Jews as part of a broader struggle for greater socio-economic equality between not only Jews and Arabs, but also within Jewish society itself.
One politician out to do just that is Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka, leader of the socialist, Arab-Jewish Da’am party, who is the first Arab woman to head a party in Israel and has been enthusiastically heralded by some as the “new hope” for the Israeli left.
Her vision? “To talk about Jews and Arabs, about socialism, social justice. They thought I was dreaming, that all Arabs hate Jews and all Jews hate Arabs. And I know that’s not true. At a certain point, because reality is crushing you, because it empties your pockets and kills your children, you start to think,” Agbarieh told Haaretz in an interview.
And, although Da’am attracted less than 3,000 votes in 2009, Agbarieh’s message is finding resonance and has caused a surprisingly large number of people to “start to think”.
“I’m pretty captivated by her and her charismatic activities and ideas,” confesses Harvey Stein, an Israeli-American filmmaker based in Jerusalem. “I think Jews and Arabs must come together to fight those things – the question is, how can this feeling that me and a small group of people are feeling become popular enough to be politically meaningful?”
For Stein, the litmus test will be whether Da’am can gain enough votes to cross the electoral threshold and win even one seat in the Knesset. Up until recently, this seemed like a big ask, but the ground seems to be slowly shifting in Agbarieh’s favour.
But even if Da’am does win a seat in the Knesset, what difference will that make, some may rightfully ask?
In my view, a small victory like this will have enormous symbolic significance: for the first time, a Palestinian woman will be leading an elected Israeli party on a joint Jewish-Arab platform.
This, along with other joint action, could help improve the socio-economic situation of the marginalized in Israeli society, whether Arab or Jewish, especially if Jerusalemite Palestinians overcome their reservations and also start demanding their right to vote. It could also slowly redefine the conflict and pave the way to its eventual resolution from the grassroots up.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea