Palestinian Citizens Wearily Eye Israeli Elections
By Jonathan Cook
January 19, 2013
As Nazareth, the capital of Israel's Palestinian
minority, gears up for the country's general election
next week, the most common poster in the city
features three far-right leaders noted for their
virulently anti-Arab views.
The posters, paid for by one of the largest
Palestinian parties, are intended to mobilize the
country's Palestinian citizens to vote.
The most prominent of the faces staring down from
billboards is that of Avigdor Lieberman, the recently
departed foreign minister who is under police
investigation for fraud but still heads Yisrael
Beiteinu. His party wants to strip some of Israel's
1.4 million Palestinians of their citizenship by
redrawing the boundary with the West Bank, while
the rest would be forced to take a loyalty test.
Alongside him, wearing his trademark grin, is
Michael Ben Ari, a former leader of the outlawed
Kach movement, which demands the expulsion of
Palestinians from both the occupied West Bank and
Gaza Strip and Israel. He won a parliamentary seat
at the last election for the similarly racist Strong
Israel party (Otzma LeYisrael).
Between them is the bearded Baruch Marzel, also a
former Kach official who leads the extremist settlers
occupying the center of the Palestinian city of
Hebron in the West Bank. He has repeatedly made
headlines by organizing provocative far-right
marches through Palestinian towns inside Israel.
(He staged a special election one this week in the
village of Musmus, close to Umm al-Fahm.) Marzel
is expected to enter Israel's parliament, the Knesset,
for the first time, joining Ben Ari in Strong Israel.
The posters around Nazareth pose a blunt question
in Arabic: "Who are you leaving it [the Israeli
Polls suggest that on 22 January, Israel's Jewish
majority will elect the most right-wing Knesset in
Israel's history, returning prime minister Benjamin
Netanyahu to power in a coalition packed with
ultra-nationalists. For Israel's Palestinian citizens,
comprising nearly a fifth of the total population, the
dilemma has been how to respond to this all-but-
Lieberman, Ben Ari and Marzel are part of ever-
widening circle of right-wing politicians who want
an "Arab-free" Knesset.
The share of the Palestinian electorate prepared to
cast a ballot for one of the Zionist parties has
shrunk dramatically over the past 15 years. In
1999, 31 percent still voted for a Zionist party; by
2009 the figure had fallen to 17 percent, with more
than half that number accounted for by Druze and
Bedouin communities that serve in the army.
Instead, the overwhelming majority vote for one of
three Arab or Arab-dominated parties (two other
Arab parties are not expected to pass the threshold).
Over the past 15 years these Palestinian parties,
though without influence in the political system,
have grown increasingly noisy in demanding equal
rights for their constituents. They may not be able to
effect change, but they have shown a talent for
embarrassing their Jewish colleagues by using the
Knesset - and platforms outside it - to express
truths Israeli Jews would prefer remained
The continuing presence of Palestinian
representatives in the Knesset is threatened by two
related developments: a consensus among the
dominant right-wing parties that the Arab factions
are a "fifth column"; and an internal debate among
the Palestinian electorate about the value of taking
part in national politics given the current climate.
The Zionist parties, especially on the right, have
been formulating ways to silence the Arab parties,
along with human rights groups and what is seen as
the too-liberal Israeli high court. On the issue of the
Arab parties, they have found support from Israel's
domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, which
has warned that the Palestinian minority's demands
for equal rights - encapsulated in its program for a
"state of all its citizens" - constitutes subversion
and that Israel should act in accordance with the
principle of a "democracy defending itself"
("Democracy for Jews only," Haaretz, 30 May 2007).
The three main parties vying for Palestinian votes
can be described as loosely representing the
communist, nationalist and Islamist streams, with
each party historically winning three or four seats in
the 120-member Knesset.
All have faced attacks from the Zionist parties and
more widely from the media for what is seen as their
"treasonous" behavior in supporting the rights of
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But even in pursuing their domestic agenda - the
campaign for equal rights - they have found
themselves accused of acting as a "Trojan horse":
that is, seeking to undermine Israel as a Jewish
state on behalf of the Palestinian leadership in the
West Bank and Gaza. It has been this paranoid
perception by the security establishment that has
increasingly fueled demands from the Israeli
government that the Palestine Liberation
Organization leadership recognize Israel as a Jewish
state as a precondition for peace talks.
In the increasingly hostile climate in Israel, the
Communist Front has fared best, even though its
leader Mohammed Barakeh has been subjected to a
series of dubious legal actions by the state and is
currently on trial for allegedly assaulting a soldier
during a West Bank demonstration.
The Communists have gained some protection from
their status as a joint Jewish-Arab party, one that
includes a Jew among its current four Knesset
members. However, in line with the long-term
collapse of the Israeli Jewish left, the overwhelming
majority of the Front's members are Palestinian; the
rump Jewish caucus almost operates as a party
within the party.
The Islamist stream, known as the United Arab List,
includes, in practice, not only the southern wing of
the Islamic Movement but socially conservative
factions and the one-man Taal party of Ahmed Tibi,
long vilified by Israel for his close connections to the
late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But the focus of Israeli politicians' outrage has been
the National Democratic Assembly party, which was
established in 1995, in the wake of the signing of
the Oslo accords. Its original leader, Azmi Bishara,
who popularized the slogan of a "state of all its
citizens," treated the Knesset principally as "an
arena of confrontation," using it to expose the limits
of Israel's democracy.
Bishara has been living in exile since 2007, when
the Shin Bet accused him, improbably, of having
helped Hizballah target sites in Israel with its
rockets during the Israeli attack on Lebanon a year
His place as Zionism's public enemy number one
has been usurped unexpectedly by Haneen Zoabi,
who was elected to the Knesset on the NDA ticket at
the last election, in 2009. She is the first Palestinian
woman to sit in the Knesset for a Palestinian party.
Her main crime in the eyes of the Jewish parties was
her participation in the aid flotilla that tried to break
the siege of Gaza in May 2010. The lead ship, the
Mavi Marmara, on which Zoabi sailed, was attacked
by the Israeli navy in international waters, and nine
humanitarian activists were killed.
Zoabi returned to Israel with an eye-witness account
of Israeli brutality aboard the ship that gave the lie
to Israel's account of what took place and helped
stoke international criticism of Israel's action. As a
result, she has been relentlessly hounded in the
Knesset chamber; demonized by politicians and the
media; and subjected to a wave of death threats
from the Israeli public. Banning
Questioning the right of the Palestinian parties,
especially the NDA, to contest national elections has
become an established feature of each campaign of
the past decade. But the Zionist parties have been
able to move beyond mere threats into concerted
efforts to disqualify the parties and individual
This has been possible because a highly partisan
body called the Central Elections Committee is
charged with overseeing how the campaign is
conducted. The committee, dominated by
representatives from the main Zionist parties, is
given a facade of legitimacy by having a high court
judge sit as chairman.
In the 2003 and 2009 elections, the committee tried
to ban the NDA, both times with the open support of
the Shin Bet, and also targeted elements of the
United Arab List. The committee's decisions have
always been overturned on appeal to the high court.
But it is widely assumed that, were one of the Arab
parties to be disqualified, the others would pull out
of the running too.
It looked as though this election would run
according to the same script. But while several
motions from the right were proposed to ban the
NDA and the United Arab List, they were ultimately
rejected by the committee, narrowly in the case of
Instead, the committee singled out the NDA's
Haneen Zoabi, barring her from running again for
the Knesset. The decision was reached despite an
advisory opinion from the attorney-general, Yehuda
Weinstein, that there was "no sufficient, exceptional
critical mass of evidence" to disqualify her.
The Basic Law on the Knesset makes
disqualification of a party or individual candidate
possible if they have: incited racism; denied Israel's
Jewish and democratic character; or supported
armed struggle or terrorism against Israel.
The committee pointed both to Zoabi's participation
in the 2010 aid flotilla to Gaza, declaring it "support
for terrorism," and to her rejection of Israel as a
Jewish and democratic state.
The case against Zoabi was so insubstantial that few
observers doubted it would be overturned by the
NDA officials pointed out that she had not
personally chosen to take part on the Mavi
Marmara. The High Follow-Up Committee, a body
representing the whole community, had decided
that the Palestinian minority should be represented,
and her party had selected her. Similarly, her
ideological positions about Israel's character simply
reflected the NDA platform.
The party vowed to boycott the election should she
There were other obvious problems with the case.
The attorney-general had closed the investigation
into her participation on the Mavi Marmara in 2011,
having found no evidence she broke any law.
Furthermore, Israel had not declared the IHH, the
Turkish group behind the Mavi Marmara, a
"terrorist" organization at the time of the flotilla. In
fact, one of her lawyers, Hassan Jabareen of the
human rights group Adalah, surprised the court by
revealing that the IHH had not been designated as
such until a few weeks before the court hearing.
But as a Haaretz editorial noted, evidence was
beside the point: "what we're dealing with is a
political crusade against all the Arab political
parties" ("The Zuabi test," 30 December 2012). An
opinion poll in December showed 55 percent of
Israeli Jews thought a ban on Zoabi would be
The high court overturned Zoabi's disqualification
and did so unanimously. Following the decision,
Zoabi observed that "this ruling does little to erase
the threats, delegitimization and physical and verbal
abuse that I have endured - in and outside the
Knesset - over the past three years" ("Supreme
Court: MK Zoabi can run for Knesset," Ynet, 30
For dramatic effect, she had hoped to make her
statement to the waiting media as she left the
courtroom. But instead she had to be ushered out of
a back door to safety as more than two dozen right-
wing extremists, led by Michael Ben Ari, blocked her
path and started shoving and threatening her
escorts. Ben Ari and his Strong Israel party activists
were left in charge of the courtroom to denounce the
Legislators from other right-wing parties criticised
the decision too. Yariv Levine of Netanyahu's Likud
party said: "Unless MK Zoabi blows herself up in the
Knesset, the high court justices won't understand
that she has no place there" ("Right lambasts court
after Israeli Arab MK cleared to run," Israel Hayom,
30 December 2012).
The joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party issued a
statement saying it would introduce yet more
legislation to restrict the rights of the country's
Palestinian citizens and their representatives: "any
expression of support for terror should be grounds
for disqualification for running for election in the
Israeli Knesset. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu will
immediately act during the next Knesset to fix the
existing laws" ("Supreme Court allows MK Zoabi to
run for election," +972, 30 December 2012).
The Central Elections Committee's decision not to
ban the whole NDA list came as a surprise to
observers, especially given the dominance of the
right. Tel Aviv law professor Aeyal Gross suggested
that committee members realized from their
previous efforts that they were doomed to failure
("The Supreme Court has again rescued the shards
of Israeli democracy," Haaretz, 30 December 2012).
However, it is fairly difficult to believe that most of
the committee members were capable of thinking so
dispassionately. In any case, disqualifying Arab
parties, whether ultimately futile, has other benefits
for the right: it reinforces the message to Jewish
voters that the Palestinian public is a fifth column,
and it reminds them that the high court needs to be
radically overhauled to make it more accountable to
Awad Abdel Fattah, secretary-general of the NDA,
offered a different reading of the committee's
behavior. He noted that the right-wing parties voted
as feverishly for a ban of his party as ever. It was
saved by a switch of positions among what has been
termed the "center-left" bloc.
The so-called "center-left" - a term the bloc has
embraced to signify its ability to become a genuine
alternative to Netanyahu and the right - might in
countries other than Israel be described as the
"center-right." Its three principal parties - Shelley
Yacimovich's Labor, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah, and
former TV anchorman Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid - are
still heavily influenced by neoliberal economic
doctrine; they have not challenged the ballooning
defense budget or proposed a way to plug the
resulting record deficit; and they have kept the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict well in the background of
In this case, the parties' claim to left-wing or centrist
credentials derive from their emphasis on reducing
the tensions that Netanyahu has allowed to escalate
between Israel and its sponsors, the US and the
European Union. The center-left is concerned about
Israel's image abroad and making the necessary
concessions - including reviving an endless peace
process with the Palestinians - to prevent a further
deterioration in Israel's strategic position.
According to Abdel Fattah, the "center-left" is
starting to panic, fearing that the momentum of the
shift rightwards may soon prove unstoppable.
Without concerted action to shore up a credible
opposition to Netanyahu, Israel is hurtling towards
full-blown fascism at home and pariah status
The lurch to the right is discernible in two key
developments during the election campaign.
The first was an effective coup by the far-right in the
Likud's recent primaries. The party's last few
"moderates" have now been replaced by ultra-
nationalists, including religious settlers. Moshe
Feiglin, this latter group's controversial figurehead,
won the 23rd slot on the joint list with Yisrael
Beiteinu, ensuring his place in the parliament for
the first time.
The second is the rapid rise during the campaign of
the Jewish Home party, under its new leader Naftali
Bennett, Netanyahu's former chief of staff. Bennett
has reinvented the faction, shedding its image as
simply a settlers' party. A hi-tech entrepreneur,
Bennett has injected political glamour and won
converts from the center by emphasising a "return
to Jewish values."
According to recent polls, Jewish Home, which has
been plundering votes from Likud, could become the
second or third largest party, after Likud-Beiteinu.
Unlike the deceitful equivocation of Netanyahu on
Palestinian statehood, Bennett is plain-speaking: "I
want the world to understand that a Palestinian
state means no Israeli state. That's the equation."
He demands that Israel immediately annex most of
the West Bank. ("Naftali Bennett interview: `There
won't be a Palestinian state within Israel',"
Guardian, 7 January 2013).
Faced with these trends, the so-called "center-left
bloc" appears to have wavered. In the 2003 and
2009 elections, it voted with the right in the Central
Elections Committee to ban the NDA. This time it
switched to opposing disqualification. Rather than
wanting a Knesset empty of Palestinian
representatives, the "center-left" appears to have
decided that a Palestinian presence may be in their
This possibly explains the unorthodox, and
patronizing, editorial in the liberal Haaretz
newspaper this week that urged Palestinian citizens
to participate in the election - and did so in Arabic.
Its headline ordered them to: "Get out and vote!"
("Get out and vote!", 15 January 2013).
The cause for the concern expressed by Haaretz has
been a steady decline in the Palestinian minority's
turnout at each election over the past decade. In
1999, amid the greater optimism of the Oslo period,
three-quarters of the Palestinian electorate voted; 10
years later, in 2009, that figure had fallen to 53
percent, the lowest in the community's history.
Surveys taken by Asad Ghanem of Haifa University
indicate a likely scenario in which, for the first time,
less than half the Palestinian electorate vote in a
Knesset election ("What's the point?" The
Economist, 12 January 2013).
The falling interest in voting reflects various
developments within the Palestinian minority.
Some of it can be attributed to a formal boycott
movement initiated in 2006 by the small secular
Palestinian nationalist movement the Sons of the
Village (Abna al-Balad). The Popular Committee for
Boycotting Knesset Elections has attracted backing
from academics and intellectuals.
This weekend boycott activists were due to lead a
day-long motorcade spreading their message
through dozens of Palestinian villages and towns,
starting in the central Galilee, passing through
Nazareth and then ending in the Triangle area south
of Umm al-Fahm.
A boycott has also been the default position of the
northern Islamic Movement, led by the popular
figure of Sheikh Raed Salah, since the movement
split in 1996. The southern wing contested the
election in the belief that an Oslo-inspired two-state
solution was at hand. Salah has been the chief
beneficiary of the gradual discrediting of the Oslo
But according to Mohammed Zeidan, director of the
Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth,
more significant than the boycott movement has
been the much wider assumption in popular
discourse that voting is a pointless activity and that
the Arab parties are ineffective.
The alienation of Palestinian citizens from the
political system was highlighted in a survey
presented at Haifa University in December. It
showed 79 percent had little or no faith in state
institutions, including the Knesset, and 67 percent
lacked confidence in the Arab parties ("On my mind:
Arab voters," The Jerusalem Post, 24 December
Zeidan pointed to a lack of campaigning in
Palestinian communities, apart from the billboards.
"It's almost as if the [Palestinian] parties themselves
are too embarrassed to show their faces by
He also noted a frankness among people stating that
they would not be voting. "Among the youth this
trend is especially strong. They are clear that the
Knesset and the [Palestinian] parties do not
This is an assessment even the parties themselves
are prepared to concede. Jamal Zahalka, head of the
NDA's Knesset faction, said: "We're trying to
encourage Arabs to vote because it's important, but
you can't blame them when they see how little
power we have in parliament" ("Israeli Arabs
unenthusiastic about Jan 22 vote," The Huffington
Post, 19 December 2012).
Mostly out of view, the parties have been
deliberating how to deal with the rapid decline in
turnout. The posters featuring Lieberman, Ben Ari
and Marzel - part of the NDA's campaign - were
intended to play on the community's fears of the far-
But according to surveys, the most likely way to
increase voting would be for the parties to present a
joint list for the Knesset. Back in October, when the
election was announced, a campaign on social
media was launched urging the parties to cooperate
more closely so that they could win a larger number
of seats and have a greater influence.
However, the Communist Front is reported to have
vetoed the move, apparently worried that a union
with the two other Arab parties would drive away
Jewish support and end its tradition of being a
A more radical solution, again opposed by the
Communist Front, would be to abandon the Knesset
and set up an Arab parliament with direct elections.
One of its first acts would be to demand cultural
and educational autonomy.
The idea of a separate parliament has been under
discussion, so far fruitlessly, for more than a
decade. But a very low turnout this time may push
it higher up the Palestinian parties' agenda.
It is not only the Arab parties that are anxious about
the expected low rate of participation. The Jewish
"center-left" appears to have realised that it may
harm them too, even though few Palestinian citizens
now vote for Zionist parties. The damage is possible
in two ways - one strategic, the other pragmatic -
according to Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel
The first is that, if the Knesset no longer represents
Palestinian citizens, either through a successful
boycott or because of a ban by the right, Israel's rule
over its Palestinian minority will look increasingly
illegitimate, and more like a variety of apartheid. In
such circumstances, the center-left's role in
defending Israel's standing abroad - its chief
selling-point to its shrinking constituency at home
- is in danger of becoming irrelevant. The center-
left could quickly find itself in vicious spiral of
political and diplomatic marginalization.
The second, deeper concern for the center-left is one
of "cold political calculation," says Jamal. A low
turnout by Palestinian voters will be reflected in a
low number of seats. And that in turn will make the
chances of building a credible Knesset bloc to
challenge Netanyahu and the right even more
Without a strong showing by the Palestinian parties,
the center-left has no hope of tasting power. Instead
they are more likely to end up squabbling with each
other to be allowed to sit meekly on the margins of
Jamal said: "Plenty of the members of the center-left
parties have no real love of the Arab parties but still
they understand that they need these parties strong
to reduce Netanyahu's power."
Two weeks before polling day, the center-left parties
made what looked suspiciously like a desperate,
last-minute gesture towards Palestinian citizens to
encourage them to vote. They signed a covenant
committing to end inequality between Jews and
Arabs within 10 years. Of the Arab parties, only the
Communist Front attended.
The meeting received little coverage in the local Arab
media. Of the few in the minority who were aware of
it, most expected the covenant would become
another quickly forgotten promise.
Ramez Jeraisi, Nazareth's mayor and a member of
the Communist Front that signed the document,
summed up the mood: "We have experienced talk
and declarations that were never implemented, and
I don't expect a change in reality."
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special
Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and
the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to
Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and
Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in
Human Despair (Zed Books). His new website is
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate