Israelis Decide Their Future: Israeli Arabs Reluctantly Voted for Barak, Lose Clout in Knesset
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Israelis Decide Their Future: Israeli Arabs Reluctantly Voted for Barak, Lose Clout in Knesset

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At times one could have mistaken Paulus Street, the main street of downtown Nazareth, for downtown Gaza City or Nablus.

It was the national Palestinian flag of black, white, green and red on top of many cars that broke the monotony of election day. The flags were Palestinian, but the cars running up and down the streets of this scenic capital of the Galilee worked in the service of a party in the Israeli Knesset: Azmi Beshara’s National Democratic Alliance — Balad.

“What’s the surprise about?” asked Ahmad Zuabi, the driver of one car decorated with Palestinian flags. “You wouldn’t ask the question had I put up an American flag, would you?”

Dr. As’ad Ghanem, of the Givat Haviva Peace Research Center, explained the reasons for displaying Palestinian flags in Israeli territory.

“This is simply an indication for the need of local Arabs for a national symbol to identify with,” Ghanem said. “People are no longer afraid to express their Palestinian sentiments.”

Beshara’s main election slogan was to turn Israel into “a state of all its citizens” and to take away its definition as a Jewish state. However, this platform failed to rally the Arab masses behind him.

Of the 400,000 Israeli Arabs who went to the polls, only 62,000 voted for Beshara’s National Democratic Alliance, giving it two Knesset seats — one for Beshara and the other for his old-time rival, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a former adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Arafat himself rushed to congratulate Barak on his landslide victory and said he hoped the change in leadership would revive the stalled Middle East peace process.

Balad is the smallest of the three Arab parties. Hadash, the former Communist Party, earned three Knesset seats.

The big surprise among the Arab vote was the United Arab List, dominated by Israel’s Islamic movement, which won five Knesset seats. For the first time in the history of the Jewish state, an Islamic party has became a force in Israeli politics.

The Islamic movement was “simply better organized than the others,” Ghanem told JTA.

However, he added, this does not mean that their gains should be perceived as the Arab equivalent to Shas, the fervently Orthodox party that increased its representation from 10 to 17 setas in the election.

“They have developed a local brand” of political Islam that aspires to “integrate into Israeli society and not work against it.”

There was more to it. The Arab parties and Ehud Barak’s Labor Party had reached a tacit understanding: Labor would not compete with the Arab parties for the Knesset vote, while the Arab parties would ensure that their voters support Barak for prime minister.

The deal seemed to have worked best in the strongholds of the Islamic movement.

Indeed, some 94 percent of the Arab electorate cast their votes for Barak, approximately the same rate of support that Shimon Peres had enjoyed in 1996 – – which was not enough to defeat Netanyahu.

In contrast, Yitzhak Rabin owed his 1992 victory to the Arab vote and relied on the support of the Arab parties throughout his tenure. Rabin drew extensive criticism for having secured the majority for the Oslo accords in the Knesset only with the help of Arab legislators.

This time, however, Barak would have won even without Arab support — and he could form a coalition without the Arab parties.

“We have missed out,” complained Arab journalist Riad Ali. “We were important for Barak as long as he believed he needed us to win the elections. But now that he had won in the first round, we once again find ourselves at the political margins.”

However, this does not mean Barak owes nothing to the Arabs. It was Beshara’s withdrawal from the prime ministerial race Saturday night — followed by Yitzhak Mordechai and Ze’ev “Benny” Begin’s withdrawals — that paved the way for Barak’s first-round victory.

“Beshara created a domino effect, and we do not know what could have happened had he stayed in the race, forcing a second round of elections,” Ghanem said.

In the eyes of some observers, Arab voters were forced into voting for Barak. They did not like him. They did not like the way he projected his military image during the campaign. But they voted for him because they knew his election was the only way to topple Netanyahu.

“I still hope that this is a golden opportunity for Barak to hit the peace track,” said Arab writer Salem Jubran. “Never before has there been a more suitable coalition of forces to do so.”

Indeed, initial Arab reactions, including those from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, have been favorable.

Marwan Barghuti, secretary-general of the Fatah Party in the West Bank said, “Everyone is pleased with the fall of Netanyahu. His fall renews the hope that we can once again prepare ourselves for peace.”

In remarks published Monday in the USA Today newspaper, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the militant Islamic movement Hamas, offered mixed signals.

Yassin suggested for the first time that he might recognize Israel’s right to exist. “Let’s end this conflict by declaring a temporary cease-fire,” Yassin said.

But Yassin did not completely change his militant rhetoric. In an interview the same day with the Reuters news agency, he said continued terror attacks would not “depend on whether Likud or Labor are in power.”

But political analysis like Ghanem said it was unlikely that Hamas would resume its terrorists attacks.

“Yasser Arafat’s control of the situation in the territories is effective enough to prevent such attacks,” Ghanem said.

Knesset Member Abdul Malek Dahamshe, leader of the United Arab List, said he’s convinced that Hamas has no interest in immediately resuming terrorist attacks.

“They, too, will wait and see.”

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