JERUSALEM, Dec. 11 (JTA) – In an annual custom during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the king of Jordan invited a delegation of Israeli Arab leaders to take part in a late-night meal this week to break the daily fast.
As in 1996 and 1999, the talk this year revolved around the Israeli elections.
Details were not revealed, but it seemed unlikely that King Abdullah would follow in the footsteps of his late father, King Hussein, and urge Israeli Arabs to support the Labor Party’s candidate.
Judging by the present mood in the Arab world, Prime Minister Ehud Barak will have to work overtime to win the endorsement of any Arab leader, including the relatively friendly Abdullah.
Three of Jordan’s leading dailies carried a front-page headline this week that read: “The Intifada Defeated General Barak,” a reference to the more than 10-week-old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“It is not that we prefer” former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced this week that he would seek to run against Barak, a senior Egyptian political scientist and journalist told JTA in a telephone interview from Cairo.
“But you Israelis must understand: There is a lot of frustration here regarding the behavior of Barak.”
The journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that in the eyes of the Arab world, Barak, like Netanyahu before him, has demonstrated “that he is unfit to rule.”
When asked why, he said Barak “does not really understand the Middle East and does not know how to treat the Arabs.”
It is one thing for Barak to lose popularity in Amman and Cairo. It is another thing to do so among Israel’s Arab voters.
Late last month, when the Knesset gave initial approval to a bill for new elections, Barak rushed to the Israeli Arab town of Tira for a campaign-style dinner, much to the surprise of the local leaders.
Although 95 percent of Israel’s Arab voters chose Barak in the May 1999 elections, Barak has not visited an Israeli Arab village or city since.
Polls last week showed that only 11 percent of Israeli Arabs say they would vote to re-elect Barak – the same rate of support the community would give Netanyahu.
Last week, an Israeli Arab legislator, Ahmed Tibi, announced that he, too, would run for prime minister. Tibi, a former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, was among the delegation that visited Amman this week.
If Israeli Arabs vote for Tibi, who is not considered to have a realistic chance of winning, they ultimately will be helping the right-wing candidate – be it Netanyahu or Likud Party chairman Ariel Sharon – by taking votes away from the Labor Party candidate, who ordinarily would receive Arab votes.
This consequence did not bother Tibi.
“For once, don’t burden us with the responsibility of who will become the next prime minister of Israel,” he said.
“We want to create another option for all those who are not willing and cannot vote for Netanyahu, Sharon and Barak,” Tibi told a news conference in Amman.
He and other Israeli Arab politicians have a certain logic behind their strategies.
A vote for an Israeli Arab candidate conceivably could prevent either of the two main candidates from gaining an absolute majority in the election, forcing a second-round runoff.
In such a case, the Israeli Arab community could demand specific commitments from one of the candidates in exchange for its support.
In the 1999 elections, Israeli Arab legislator Azmi Beshara withdrew his candidacy for the premiership at the 11th hour, and his supporters voted for Barak. Many Arab citizens feel that Barak did not deliver enough in return.
How can Barak get more of the Arab vote?
“Only a settlement with the Palestinians,” said Riad Ali, an Israeli Arab journalist. “Only if the Arabs are absolutely convinced that this time Barak will deliver the goods.”
Not that it’s all up to Barak, of course – much will depend on Arafat.
Arafat, who convened his Cabinet this week for an emergency meeting in Gaza, said that the early elections in Israel may delay the peace process.
“Barak is known for his way of not implementing agreements and wasting precious time,” Arafat said. “The truth is that we do not believe in his ability to make acceptable compromises.”
If Arafat strikes a deal with Barak before the elections, he will signal to the Israeli Arab community to vote for the Labor Party leader.
Officially, Arafat has declared that the elections are an internal Israeli matter. But just as previous elections were affected by Palestinian terrorist attacks, Arafat is aware that the ongoing Palestinian uprising will have a direct effect on the elections.
“If the intifada calms down, this will be an indication that Arafat understands that he has gone too far,” journalist Ali said. “If the intifada continues at the same pace, that means that Arafat has given up on Barak and would rather have the Likud in power.”
What interest does Arafat have in supporting the right?
“It seems that the old cliche that the left is best at waging war and only the right can make peace still holds water,” Ali said.
Despite the strategies the Israeli Arab community is considering, predicting the election’s outcome is a tricky business, since one terror attack could change the entire electoral scene.
Palestinian militants are not Israeli citizens, but they may yet have the final word on Israel’s next election.