News Analysis: Arab Parties Expected to Play Major Role in Election, Coalition
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News Analysis: Arab Parties Expected to Play Major Role in Election, Coalition

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Israeli Arabs are determined to be a force in next week’s elections.

With some 500,000 eligible voters, some 12 percent of the Israeli electorate, they hope to flex their political muscle — and in the process win greater rights for themselves.

Traditional supporters of the Labor Party, Israeli Arabs for the first time have one of their own running in the race for prime minister, Azmi Beshara.

As’ad Ghanem, a political scientist at the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva, described Beshara’s run as “the most important political development in the history of Israel’s Arabs in the past 20 years.”

Beshara “signaled to both Arab voters and the Jewish left that the Arabs are not a marginal political group, but rather a national group whose interests should now be taken into account more seriously than before.”

Israel’s Arab community can be expected to pursue those interests in the race for the Knesset as well as in the hotly contested race for the premiership.

Beshara heads his own political party, Balad — known in English as the National Democratic Coalition. There are two additional Israeli Arab parties fielding candidates for the next Knesset, the formerly Communist Hadash Party and the United Arab List.

In the Knesset race, the three parties are expected to win some 62 percent of the Arab vote, with the rest going to the Zionist parties, according to a recent poll conducted by the Jewish-Arab Center.

The Arab contenders for the incoming legislature are convinced that even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election, they could still play a major role in the post-election coalition negotiations.

Together with the Zionist parties representing the left and center, they say, they could form a parliamentary bloc that could prevent Netanyahu from forming a coalition in the next Knesset — a situation that could lead to yet another round of elections for prime minister.

While Beshara is making history with his decision to run in the May 17 elections, his fellow Israeli Arab politicians are concerned that his campaign may help the one candidate they want to lose the race — Netanyahu.

Indeed, officials with the Hadash Party and United Arab List were expected to endorse Labor Party leader Ehud Barak’s candidacy this week.

According to the Jewish-Arab Center poll, 83 percent of Israel’s Arabs will vote in the coming elections, compared with 77.3 percent in the 1996 elections.

“I think there will be a larger Arab turnout this time because of overwhelming resentment for Netanyahu,” Ghanem said recently.

That resentment stems from two sources: the belief that Netanyahu stands firmly against the peace process and the widespread concern that their community is not getting a fair share of Israeli social services and employment opportunities.

But the center’s poll indicated that if there is a second-round runoff vote on June 1, only 74.6 of the Israeli Arab community will turn out for the balloting if Netanyahu and Ehud Barak go head-to-head in the runoff.

This drop-off in the Arab vote would be good news for the premier, but bad news for Barak, who is relying heavily on the Arab vote.

While recent polls show Barak leading Netanyahu in the first round of balloting and beating him in the second, the Labor leader knows that every vote will count.

Last week, Labor officials spoke with Beshara about his dropping out of the race prior to next week’s elections — a move that would give Barak a greater portion of the Arab vote.

Beshara indicated he might withdraw, but only after gaining commitments for Israeli Arabs from the Barak camp. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Monday that Labor leaders expect Beshara to withdraw by the end of the week.

Beshara’s tactic reverses the one previously used by Israeli Arab politicians: His negotiations on behalf of his people are coming before the elections rather than after them, when coalition talks are held.

As Barak mounts a drive to win Arab votes, a televised campaign ad his backers are running is working against that goal.

The ad plays heavily on Barak’s past as a much-decorated soldier who engaged in a number of daring raids against Palestinian terrorists in the years before he became army chief of staff.

The ads, which are intended to show that Barak will be as firm a defender of Israel’s security as Netanyahu, have angered some Israeli Arabs.

“What about the Arab voters?” said Karen Sand, 23, a psychology major at Ben- Gurion University in Beersheba. “Don’t they understand that Arab voters will not rush to the polls to vote for the man boasting of having killed so-and-so many Palestinians?”

Riad Ali, an Arab journalist, made a similar point.

“I understand the need to appear tough on security,” Ali said. “But one could expect Barak to stress peace along with security, to say that he would be dedicated to peace just as he has been to security.”

Ali’s resentment spilled over into an article he recently wrote for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv: “Jews repeatedly preach to us that this is a Jewish state. So why does the Israeli left expect our help in getting rid of Netanyahu?”

Just the same, bowing to political realities, he also conceded that the Isracli Arab community will ultimately go to the polls — if only to protect their own interests.

Beshara, who has campaigned on the platform that Israel should be a state for all of its citizens, not only a Jewish state, also criticized the ad.

“This is but another example why the Arabs should signal to Barak that they are not in his political pocket,” he told JTA.

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