"I Vote Therefore I Am?" - Palestinian Participation in Israeli Elections

By Miri -

The past few years have seen the ascent of the most right wing governments in Israel's history. While there seems to be a widespread sense of political apathy and electoral participation in Israel is declining in general, critics often suggest that the relative powerlessness of the Palestinian community in Israel stems from their refusal to take part in the elections.

"Who are you leaving it to?" - Billboard errected by Palestinian party depicting the most right wing Knesset members

Who Can Vote?

All Palestinians with Israeli citizenship aged 18 and above can participate in elections on all levels. Those Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who refused in 1967 to take on Israeli citizenship, were given “permanent residence” which limits their electoral rights to municipal elections.
Throughout recent years the electoral participation of Palestinians has been steadily declining. While in the 1999 parliamentary elections still 75% of the eligible Palestinians cast their vote, ten years later, in 2009, only 53% showed up at the ballots. Finally during the last elections only 50% of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship decided to participate.

Who Can They Vote for?

More than 20 years ago, a significant number of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship still voted for Jewish parties, but the strengthening of the right-wing obviously brought a sharp decrease in those numbers and very few Jewish Israeli politicians bother to win those votes back. Most Palestinians therefore vote one out of the following three Palestinian or Palestinian-dominated parties:

Al-Tajammu'/Balad, the National Democratic Assembly, which is usually associated with a nationalist, secular ideology. Balad's main slogan is about transforming Israel into “a democracy for all its citizens” and suports the idea of a binational state. The party was founded in 1995 by the Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara, who was charged with “aiding and passing information to the enemy during wartime, contacts with a foreign agent, and receiving large sums of money transferred from abroad“, all of which Bishara denied, and left the country to live in exile.
Balad currently holds three seats in the Israeli parliament.
United Arab List, founded in 1996 as an alliance between Ra'am and Ta'al, both of which are usually identified with Islamic movements, and which currently holds two seats in the Knesset.

Hadash/Jabha, an acronym for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a communist Arab-Jewish party founded in 1977, which describes itself as anti-nationalist and therefore as non-Zionist. Hadash/Jabha currently holds four seats in the parliament. 

Why Vote?

Al Tajammu/Balad Billboard in Nazareth
None of the above named parties was ever invited to join in a governmental coalition and there is also no quota system which would ensure an appropriate representation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the parliament. To the contrary, more and more right-wing politicians call for an “Arab-free” Knesset and Arab parties are being accused of “acting as a Trojan horse”, meaning the undermining of Israel as a Jewish state on behalf of the leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Since 2003, right-wing Knesset members have been trying to disqualify whole Palestinian party lists and individual Palestinian candidates by filing so called disqualification motions to the Central Elections Committee (CEC), a body made up of representatives of the parties of the Knesset. Balad's principle slogan of "a state for all its citizens" is seen by right-wingers as proof for the party's refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and Balad representative Haneen Zoabi's bold move to join the notorious Freedom Flotilla to Gaza in 2010, was seen as proof for her supporting terrorism.
While the CEC voted in all cases in support of the banning of those parties or individual candidates, the decisions so far could be reversed through Israel's High Court. 

As a consequence the Palestinian population in Israel is quite divided over whether they should continue fighting for their parliamentary representation, or whether the just mentioned events simply proof the lack of fairness and effectiveness of the parliamentary presence of Palestinian representatives. Slogans, such as “not voting is self-marginalisation” do hardly hold in a climate where exclusion is packaged as inclusion. 

Some Palestinian civil society movements, such as “Ibna al-Balad” call for a general boycott of the elections in order to not give legitimacy to what they perceive as an exclusive democracy for Jews only. Others have campaigned for the complete abandonment of the Knesset and the foundation of an autonomous Arab parliament with direct elections in its place. However according to statistics, more significant than those calls, is an increase in the assumption that voting is pointless. According to a survey conducted among Palestinian citizens of Israel by Haifa University in 2012, 79% had little or no faith in state institutions and 67% lacked confidence in the Arab parties .
Again according to surveys the most effective way for the parties to gain more votes and more influence, would be to present a joint list to the Knesset, yet such attempts were so far blocked by the communist faction, which feared to lose its Jewish support.

 Whatever the reasons for the decline of the Palestinian votes, it should not be forgotten that elections do not constitute the main arena for political action, and that the parties represented in the Knesset are not the only political actors. Neither boycott, nor participation in the elections alone will determine the fate of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and neither one should be seen as an end in itself, but rather as part of a wider context of extra-parliamentary movements and modes of political action.


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1 comment:

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