The Israeli general election, scheduled for March 17, can be fateful for the
Israeli Arabs as their voting en masse could change the political map and
potentially prevent Netanyahu from forming the next government. They can, and
indeed must, defy all parties from the right-of-center who do not wish them
to have a voice, ostensibly because the Israeli Arabs cannot be trusted on
matters related to peace and national security. But if the Israeli Arabs want
equal distribution of resources to improve their socio-economic conditions,
fully integrate into Israeli society, and contribute constructively to the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they must now fully exercise their right
to vote and not squander this historic opportunity.
The number of Arab voters has dwindled in past elections, from 90% in 1955 to
18% in 2001, and up to just over 50% in the last election. This swing in
voting was due to several important factors, including their frustration with
the Israeli political system that does not allow much to change, growing
complacency due to their general distrust of Israeli governments, and the
inability to influence events.
In addition, Israeli Arabs have always been torn between their duty as
Israeli citizens and their sense of affinity to their brethren in the West
Bank and Gaza as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grinds on. This is coupled
with disappointment with their own leaders, which has further discouraged
them from being politically active.
The convergence of several developments in this election has created an
unprecedented opportunity for Israeli Arabs to vote en masse and potentially
change the political landscape in Israel. To achieve that, the burden of the
''get out the vote'' campaign falls on the shoulders of their leaders,
Israeli Arab mayors, and local Arab political activists.
As it is, the Israeli Arabs are more motivated to vote in this election,
especially because of the growing acuteness of their socioeconomic problems,
overt discrimination in job opportunities and education, and limits on
building permits and neglect of infrastructure. Their strong desire to
prevent Netanyahu from advancing the ''Nationality bill,'' which they
consider to be racist, provides further impetus.
Although the formation of a joint list of all the Arab parties—Balad, United
Arab List-Ta’al, Hadash and Raam—came about from self-preservation, it has
nevertheless engendered new momentum.
Israeli political organizations from the left and left-of-center, who
vehemently want to deny Netanyahu another term, are also supporting the Arab
list because the larger the number of Arab members in the Knesset, the wider
the political base they will muster.
It is true that the Arabs are unlikely to vote in great numbers for Labor/Hatnua,
partly because of the characterization of the party as the ''Zionist Union''
and partly because they are not a part of the political apparatus.
Nevertheless, the prospect of improving their condition and having a say in
the political affairs of the country will depend to a great extent on the
advent of Labor to power, which explains their tacit cooperation.
To be sure, the Israeli Arabs could be a deciding factor if parties on the
right (led by Likud) lose some and the left (led by Labor) win some. Should
they vote en masse for their own list, they have the potential of winning as
many as 18 seats, emerging as the fourth or even third-largest party and
becoming the ''blocking bloc'' that will prevent Netanyahu from forming a new
Even if Likud wins by a small margin over Labor, it is important to note that
Israel’s President is not required to assign the leader of the party who wins
the most seats to form the new government if he concludes that the left and
left-of-center bloc could have a majority vote. For this particular reason,
how many seats Arab Knesset members win will matter greatly.
To achieve their objective, the Arab list must first and foremost put forth a
political agenda and an effective action plan that appeals especially to the
eligible Arab youth, who have been disenchanted and are desperate for
meaningful change. Time is short and they must utilize every moment to
promote their political agenda.
They must focus on how to improve the conditions of Israeli Arabs in all
spheres, rather than merely criticizing other political parties. They should
constructively engage their Jewish counterparts in a dialogue about the
future of the country and demonstrate loyalty to the state as their fate is
intertwined with the fate of the country.
They must not be intimidated by the leaders of center and right-of-center
parties, who refer to the Israeli Arabs as a fifth column whose main agenda
is to destroy Israel. It should be noted that even though they are
systematically discriminated against, 99 percent of Israeli Arabs prefer to
live in a democratic Israel, where they at least enjoy equal rights before
Their role now is to translate their constitutional rights into day-to day
equality between them and their Jewish counterparts by voting instead of
complaining. As Abraham Lincoln is attributed as saying, ''Elections belong
to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the
fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their
In fact, Israelis from all circles of life lament the discrimination against
the Arabs and feel strongly that for Israel to remain a vibrant progressive
democracy with security, it must have true equality between all citizens.
Equality, though, is a process, and however long it might take, it rests on
the ballot and not the bullet, to quote Lincoln again.
Working closely with Labor now and after the election, the Israeli Arabs’
struggle will continue. In the final analysis, regardless of who forms the
next government, they must pursue a constructive path and not be drawn into a
cycle of recriminations.
It is up to the Israeli Arabs to vote in this election and grasp the
political power that reflects their numbers. They now have a momentous
opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the state as responsible
citizens who are ready to do their share and defy those Israelis who wish to
see them disappear for 24 hours during election day.