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Israel’s Arab Minority After Costly Boycott, Arab Voters and Politicians Working for Change

November 12, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

For the first time after the October 2000 riots, it appears that Arab politicians believe in changing the Israeli political system from within.

But whether they can motivate their alienated electoral base is unclear.

One can sense a dramatic shift in the political mood among Israel’s Arab population: Electoral boycott and political alienation are out; full participation in the upcoming elections is in.

“For the first time since the Rabin government, we have a chance of creating a preventive bloc,” former Knesset member Abdel Wahab Darawshe told JTA. Darawshe, chairman of the Arab Democratic Party, based his forecast on polls taken last weekend, three days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opted for early elections.

A preventive bloc would mean that a bloc of 60 Knesset members could prevent Sharon from creating a Likud-led government — even if the Likud turns out to be, as anticipated, the single largest party.

Darawshe’s electoral arithmetic is simple, though it contains a large dose of wishful thinking. It assumes that despite the change in the electoral system — Israelis no longer will cast separate votes for the Knesset and prime minister, but rather will vote just once for a party — Arabs will continue voting for the Arab parties and will not be tempted to vote for left-wing Zionist parties such as Labor or Meretz.

The key to the change, according to Darawshe, will be the anti-Orthodox Shinui Party. Polls show that Shinui could win as many as 12 mandates, making it the third largest party in the Knesset.

Darawshe’s scenario goes like this: If Labor wins 25 seats, if the Arab parties add one or two mandates to their current 10 and if Meretz and the tiny One Nation Party join in, that would equal the 60 seats needed to prevent a Likud-led coalition.

But the scenario is highly unlikely. Even if election results match Darawshe’s forecast, an electoral deadlock is more likely to produce another national unity government between Labor and Likud than a situation in which Shinui leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid — a pragmatic liberal and proud nationalist — would join forces with the Arab parties.

Even if Darawshe’s forecast is somewhat far-reaching, it shows that Israel’s Arab politicians have concluded in the past two years that change is possible from within the system, rather than from outside.

The October 2000 riots, the continued stalemate in the peace process, the sharp rise in unemployment — particularly in Arab towns and villages — and the Arab public’s discontent with its legislators have led to widespread frustration among Israel’s million Arabs.

In an act of protest against both Labor’s Ehud Barak and the Likud’s Ariel Sharon, Arab voters boycotted the February 2001 elections for prime minister.

“Once they have grown accustomed to boycotting the elections, one will need to invest efforts to change that trend,” Dr. Ahmed Tibi of the Arab List for Change told JTA.

In the last Knesset elections, held in 1999, some 72 percent of eligible Arabs voted. The goal this time should be 90 percent participation, Tibi said.

“The more Arabs vote, the better chance we have to topple the right,” Darawshe said.

Even the leaders of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement — which traditionally has boycotted elections to avoid recognizing the Jewish state — will moderate its opposition this time.

But getting voters to the polls won’t necessarily be easy.

“We are sick and tired of the Arab parties,” Mu’in Zatmeh of Nazareth, who works in a car wash, told JTA. “All they care about is their Knesset seats and the Palestinian state. Forget about Palestine; let it burn. They should first take care of me and my children.”

Customer Taysir Hamudeh went a step further.

“The Arab sector will boycott the next elections,” because “we simply do not care,” he said.

Arab politicians so far have failed to limit the number of Arab parties running in the elections.

All the Arab parties already have called for unity, but each wants to make sure that its own people would stand at the head of a united list.

Are they sincere about unity?

There’s “no chance for a unified list,” Yosef Algazy, a commentator on Arab politics for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, told JTA. “Talking about unity is part of the election campaign, but no one is ready to give in.”

The one person who may have to give in is Tibi, a gynecologist and flamboyant legislator who in the past served as a top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Tibi, who has little support at the polls, is negotiating a possible merger with the United Arab List and Hadash.

“Eventually we will have four Arab lists running,” Tibi said. “If we are mature enough we could cut down to three. Only in case of a political earthquake, shall we have two Arab political parties.”

Hadash suggested having just one secular party in addition to the United Arab List, which is dominated by fundamentalist politicians.

Arab voters complain that Arab legislators have not dealt enough with local Arab issues and instead spend too much time supporting Arafat. But Knesset Member Abdul Malek Dahamsheh, leader of the United Arab List, claims that the election campaign will continue to revolve around both national Palestinian issues and daily civil issues.

“We stress civil-national issues, and we claim that our Islamic way is the way to solve them,” Dahamsheh, leader of the Islamic component in the United Arab List, told JTA.

Darawshe of the Arab Democratic Party, the secular component in the same bloc, suggested a more pragmatic course.

“Our election slogan will be, ‘Just nationalism and total citizenship.’ In other words, demanding the national rights of the Palestinians, but at the same time insisting that we are full and loyal citizens of the State of Israel,” Darawshe said.

One Knesset member whose campaign will undoubtedly have stronger nationalist colors is Azmi Beshara, whose Balad Party has one vote in the Knesset.

Even his opponents agree that Beshara is likely to at least triple his electoral force, even though — or perhaps because — he is set to stand trial for his anti-Israeli rhetoric at a rally last year in Damascus.

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