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THE ROAD TO ISRAEL’S ELECTIONS Israeli Arabs mull best chance of swaying vote for new premie

JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 (JTA) — Israeli Arabs found themselves with a new political party this week when the owner of an advertising firm in Jaffa founded The New Arab. While the latest entry in Israel’s political arena does not stand much of a chance, its founder, Makram Mahoul, sent a clear message: The needs of Israel’s Arabs should not be ignored by the nation’s candidates for prime minister. Like the rest of the electorate, Arab voters will cast two ballots on May 17: one to decide the makeup of the next Knesset and one for premier. In addition to deciding whether to back Mahoul or one of the four other Arab parties running in the May 17 Knesset elections, Israeli Arabs face a far more complex question — how best to influence the outcome of the voting for premier. For their part, the candidates are well aware that the Arab vote could be crucial in the May voting. With this in mind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor candidate Ehud Barak recently visited Arab villages in northern Israel to court their vote by promising improvements in housing, education and other social services. Another candidate, former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, can be expected to do the same in the runup to the elections. The fourth candidate, hard-liner Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, is unlikely to be pinning much hope on Arab support. Israeli Arabs had an impact on the outcome of the 1996 elections — by withholding their votes. In April of that year, during Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath campaign against Hezbollah, Israeli shelling of a U.N. base in southern Lebanon resulted in the deaths of at least 91 Lebanese refugees who had taken shelter there. Many Israeli Arabs retaliated for that action by refusing to vote in the election for prime minister, a move that denied the incumbent, Shimon Peres, their much-needed support. Netanyahu won that election by a razor-thin margin. “We have learned the lesson of 1996,” said Sheik Abdullah Nimer Darwish, the leader in Israel’s central region of one of the Arab parties, the Islamic Movement. “We shall not repeat the same mistake.” This time around, with several candidates to choose from, Israeli Arabs face a more complex decision than in 1996, and they will have to choose wisely if they expect to get any support from the next elected premier. The Arab vote has long had its ups and downs in Israeli politics. Its golden years were during the 1992-1996 Rabin-Peres governments, when the coalition’s majority in the Knesset depended on the support of Arab Knesset members. Currently, there are 10 Arabs serving in the Knesset, but their support — or lack of it — has mattered little to the governing coalition. Having received little of the Arab vote in 1996, Netanyahu did not owe the Arab legislators anything politically, nor did he care to invest in them for the future. Now, given the almost universal support of Israel’s Arabs for the Oslo accords, they are likely to respond to Netanyahu’s candidacy as they did in 1996. As a result, they will be focused on supporting either Barak or Mordechai. Their goal will be clear: to support the candidate more likely to unseat Netanyahu — and they are currently pinning their hopes on Barak. A recent poll indicated that 62 percent of the Arab voters prefer Barak, compared with 28 percent for Mordechai. Mordechai has lost some of their support because of his former ties to Likud and because he is still associated with the recent seizure of Arab land for the construction of army training facilities. Meanwhile, the Arab political leaders are still mulling whether to run a candidate for prime minister. Such a candidacy has been entertained time and again since the 1996 elections as a way of telling the Zionist parties that Arab support is not guaranteed. The widespread belief that none of the candidates will win more than 50 percent of the vote — and that there will be a runoff vote for prime minister on June 1 — has affected the thinking of some Arab leaders. “Had there been only two candidates, we would not have considered an Arab candidate for the premiership,” said Darwish. “But since none of the candidates will win in the first round of elections, why not try an Arab?” Arab leaders such as Darwish believe that an Arab candidate would force the other candidates to have to spend more time courting the Arab vote prior to the May voting. After the first round, when the Arab candidate will have fallen by the wayside, it will be too late for the Arabs to play hard to get, because by that time their support for whoever is running against Netanyahu will be virtually guaranteed. Despite this reasoning, enthusiasm for an Arab candidacy has faded in recent weeks. Tifook Toubi, one of the veteran leaders of the Israeli Arab population, warned recently that such a candidacy is a “futile and irresponsible demonstration. Arab voters should not waste their votes on nationalist and adventurous steps which would prevent them from influencing the Israeli political scene.” Among the possible Arab candidates is Dr. Ahmed Tibi, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s Israeli adviser. Tibi heads the Movement for Change Party. Another possibility is Hadash Knesset member Azmi Beshara. Beshara, a historian-turned-politician, has quoted polls giving him 20 percent of the Arab vote compared with 12 percent for Tibi. But Beshara recently lost some of his appetite to make a run, citing the lack of unity among the five Arab parties. “Had there been a unified Arab list, then running an Arab candidate would have become a must,” he said. For now, as in the past, the question remains whether this lack of unity will ultimately hurt the Israeli Arab cause.