JERUSALEM, Jan. 30 (JTA) – For the first time in Israel’s history, most Arab voters appear ready to boycott the upcoming elections, a protest that may play a large role in determining the country’s next prime minister.
Generally considered a safe vote for the Labor Party, Israel’s nearly one-million-strong Arab population – a sixth of the country’s population – has played a pivotal role in past Israeli elections, which sometimes are decided by fractions of a percent.
When Israel goes to the polls on Feb. 6, however, it appears increasingly likely that Arab voters will stay home, disillusioned with both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Ariel Sharon and increasingly radicalized in their attitude toward the Jewish state.
The roots of the problem are complex, lying both in Israel’s historical discrimination against the Arab minority and unresolved issues of Palestinian identity that have cast doubt on Israeli Arabs’ loyalty to the state.
The issue came to a head in late September with the outbreak of the “Al-Aksa Intifada” in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and within Israel proper. Israeli Arabs joined in the first days of violence, rioting in the streets of their cities and towns, attacking passing Jewish cars, setting forest fires throughout the Galilee and attempting to burn down neighboring Jewish communities.
Thirteen Israeli Arabs were killed in the ensuing clashes with police, and community leaders accused the state of reacting with an excessive force born of racism. The government has appointed a commission of inquiry to examine police actions, but the standoff deepened the Arab community’s sense of victimization.
Their quandary is heightened by Palestinian accusations that the Israeli response to the past four months of violence – such as assassination squads targeting leading Palestinian militants – makes Barak a “war criminal.”
“When the Palestinian Authority describes Barak as a war criminal, this is a problem for us,” said Mohammad Amara of Bar-Ilan University. “How can we vote for someone who is considered a war criminal by the Palestinians?”
Of course, many Arabs also consider Barak’s opponent, Ariel Sharon, a war criminal for leading Israel into the Lebanon War in 1982 and for failing to prevent Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies from massacring Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Having convinced themselves that the choice is between two evils, many Israeli Arabs are trying to decide whether to stay at home on election day or cast a blank ballot, which will not be counted.
“The choice we will have to make on election day will not be between Barak and Sharon,” said Mohammad Dakhleh of the civil rights organization Adallah, “but rather between spending the day at the Sea of Galilee or at the Sakhneh park.”
That’s bad news for Barak. With Sharon holding a double-digit lead in opinion polls, Barak’s only chance of victory may be a sudden change of heart among the Arab public.
Last week, however, leaders of the Arab community meeting in Umm al-Fahm decided, nearly unanimously, to boycott the elections. This marked perhaps the first time the community has reached a wide consensus on a national issue.
Barak received 95 percent of the Arab vote in his May 1999 race against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This time around, however, it appears that Israeli Arabs want to get rid of Barak at any cost, even if it means making the hawkish Sharon prime minister.
Ahmad Tibi, a Knesset member and former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, stood at a Tel Aviv University symposium last Sunday and, with tears in his eyes, explained why Barak should be punished.
“There is no other place in the world where the state shoots at its own citizens,” Tibi said, referring to the deaths of the Israeli Arabs in the fall riots. Moreover, Tibi said, Barak was responsible for the order this winter to assassinate Thabet Thabet, a Tibi friend and Palestinian Authority official who headed the Tanzim militia in the Tulkarm area.
“Whoever annihilated my friend,” Tibi said, “I will annihilate politically.”
The Arab community’s disappointment with Barak is proportional to the expectations they had when he was elected. Like Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Arabs are not impressed with Barak’s claims that he “turned over every stone” in the pursuit of peace.
Barak’s concessions in the peace talks were unprecedented for an Israeli leader, but Israeli Arabs say he did not really mean business because there were some Palestinian demands that he refused, and because he responded to Palestinian violence with force.
After months of claiming that Barak is no different than right-wing Israeli leaders, the Palestinian Authority this week implored the Arab community to vote for Barak, realizing that Sharon probably would be far less pliable in peace talks.
Though his situation seems desperate, Barak has not yet given up on the Arab vote. The inquiry commission established after the fall riots has not even begun its hearings, yet Barak publicly expressed sorrow for the Israeli Arab deaths, a declaration interpreted as indirect criticism of the police.
Cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Matan Vilnai spent much of their time this week running from one Arab village to another, urging Arabs to cancel their proposed election boycott.
Sharon, on the other hand, is not wasting the energy. His only support in the non-Jewish sector is among the Druze, and Druze former army officers orchestrated minor efforts in their villages so that Sharon supporters will remember to vote on Feb. 6.
In one sense, the Arab election boycott is not just Barak’s problem, but the problem of all Israelis.
For the first time, the Arab community may deliberately pull itself out of the political game, potentially heightening its growing conflict with the state.
Knesset member Talab a-Sana of the United Arab List said the boycott was not a passive, but an active, protest measure.
“We are the ones to decide when we materialize our right to vote, no one else will decide for us,” a-Sana said. Once the Jews “have learned the lesson, in the next elections our leverage will be stronger.”
However, Mustafa Kabaha of the Open University in Tel Aviv, concedes that the boycott represents a breach in the historic tie between the Arab community and the Israeli left.
Even the positions of the left – opposition to Palestinian refugees’ right to return to homes they left in Israel in 1948, support for a firm hand against Palestinian violence, an unwillingness to dismantle the Jewish symbols of the state – are proving too Zionist for an Arab community increasingly identifying as Palestinians.
The Arabs now propose to form “a third option” in Israeli politics, overcoming their internal divisions to maximize electoral potential and seat up to 14 Arab Knesset members.
Despite great enthusiasm for this “third option,” however, Arab Knesset members could not overcome their personal differences to agree on an Arab candidate for prime minister. Such a candidate would have stood little chance of winning on Feb. 6, but he might have forced a runoff, highlighting the community’s influence.
Boycotting the elections, however, leaves the Arab community to walk a fine line between demonstrating its strength and marginalizing itself altogether. It also raises the risk of further radicalizing the community, potentially aiding the push to delegitimize the Israeli political system promoted by part of the fundamentalist Islamic Movement, one of the ascendant forces in the Arab community.
Yet some Israeli Arabs, such as Arab Democratic Party activist Mohammad Darawshe, say a boycott is merely a tactical measure to express displeasure with Barak, not a watershed event in the community’s relation to the state.
Like other Arab political activists, Darawshe sketches the following scenario: Sharon wins the elections, but the days of his coalition are numbered. Early elections for the Knesset are inevitable, perhaps as soon as next November.
By then, Darawshe predicts, the Israeli left will have learned its lesson and will understand that it must pay a high political price for the Arab community’s support.