On the eve of Israeli elections, the Arab League has taken the unusual step of intervening in Israeli politics, urging Israel’s Arab minority to flock to the polls. Otherwise, they warn, the country will be taken over by a far-right government that will increase discrimination toward Arab citizens and step up settlement expansion in the West Bank, where their Palestinian brethren have long sought a state of their own.
Arabs make up a significantly larger voting bloc in Israel than Hispanics in the US – 14 percent of eligible voters, compared with 9 percent for Latinos. But while US politicians conscientiously woo Latinos, Arabs enjoy no such courtship. Though their numbers have steadily grown since being absorbed into Israel when it declared independence in 1948, they have not been able to translate their numerical clout into the political and economic equality they are entitled to on paper but rarely enjoy in practice.
They are underrepresented in academia and because they generally don’t serve in the army, they have difficulty getting jobs – even sometimes at coffee shops – and often end up doing manual labor. Nearly 6 in 10 live under the poverty line. In the latest Knesset, Israeli Arabs held 17 of the 120 seats – almost exactly proportionate to their share of eligible voters. But they were unable to block a raft of right-wing legislation that many saw as discriminatory against Arabs.
“The last three years have been a nightmare for many Palestinians inside Israel,” says Honaida Ghanim, an Israeli citizen and director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies in Ramallah, West Bank. “Almost 30 new laws and regulations were launched against them,” Ms. Ghanim adds.
Indeed, disillusionment with the political system is running high, as evidenced at a recent debate among eight Israeli Arab politicians, hosted by Al Qasami Academy in Baqa al-Gharbiyya.
“What have you done?” asked one dismayed student, Malak, after all the candidates made their pitches for how they have helped or will help Arabs in Israel. “I see you doing nothing.”
Arab voter turnout in tomorrow’s elections is expected to drop below 50 percent – the worst showing since 1949, other than a 2001 boycott during the second intifada. At stake is the ability of the Arab community to find a unified voice to press for the rights they have been promised, as well as the ability and willingness of Israel to be faithful to its democratic ideals – and make peace with those who were living here before the return of the Jewish diaspora.
“According to the public opinion polls that have been conducted in Israel, the radical right is expected to obtain a majority [of seats in the Knesset]," the Arab League said in a statement. "The radical right consists of right-wing groups that do not want peace; they refuse to accept the Other and they regard Israeli Arabs as a threat to the country.”
A call for unity
The fact that Israel has declared itself to be Jewish as well as democratic leaves Israeli Arabs unsure about their place in this society, and how best to press for their rights.
“How can we exist in a state that defines itself as a Jewish state?” asked Mohammed Asawi, head of Al Qasami, as he welcomed the mainly Arab attendees to the debate. “It’s a state where racism is growing.”
“You all know how the Nazis developed and how they controlled a complete country called Germany,” Mr. Asawi continued, implying a comparison with Israeli Jewish politicians. “We need [members of parliament] that challenge racism. We have to develop our thinking toward liberating ourselves and others from racist attitudes. We have to distance ourselves from clans and tribes.”
But Arab politicians – and voters – are divided along many fault lines, which limits their collective bargaining power. Should they work with Israeli Jews, or stick to Arab-only parties? Should they work from within the parliament, and thus legitimize what many see as an unrepresentative system, or agitate for change outside of the Knesset? Should Arab politicians focus on economic issues like the astronomical rise in the cost of food and housing, or pursue more nationalist goals?
At the Al Qasami Academy debate, held Jan. 17, these divides were fully on display among the eight Israeli-Arab politicians. Some are already members of the Knesset; others are aspiring to be. One, a former prisoner, eschews the electoral process all together and chewed out a fellow debater, a member of the Knesset, for not delivering on his promise to fight for prisoner's rights – a promise he had made while the accuser was serving 25 years in an Israeli jail. “I never saw his face again,” the ex-prisoner said bitterly.
A professor who helped organize the event said he didn’t even believe in voting.
“If you are fighting now, how will you ever get unity?” asked the student, Malak, wearing a gold headscarf and an elegant turquoise dress.“They should be united for us to have a strong force,” she told the Monitor later. “I think only united can they be strong, only united can they get us rights.”
Enter Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka. She was the only woman on the debate stage, and the only Arab woman to head a political party – no small feat in a patriarchal country where even Jewish women face glass ceilings in academia, business, and politics.
She started the party, Daam – solidarity – at age 22. Now, nearly two decades later, it has evolved from a nationalist party to one that seeks to bring Jews and Arabs together to work on social issues, such as workers’ rights. Infused with new momentum after the Israeli social protests of 2011, Daam includes both Arabs and Jews at the top of its electoral list, and also seeks to work with Israeli Jews outside the party.
“Daam is trying to break the isolation that has been imposed on [Arabs in Israel],” Ms. Aghbarieh-Zahalka said during the debate. “We have Jewish allies and they can affect the Israeli voters and politicians.”
One of these allies is Eran Brill, an activist with House of the People in Tel Aviv, who is 14th on Daam’s list. He notes that that's "largely symbolic," since Daam is unlikely to get more than the minimum three votes, meaning only the party's top three candidates would get a seat in the Knesset.
"I became more and more fascinated by her very clear and brave political ideas; not least important is the fact that their basic values is people,” Mr. Brill says.
Improving social equality for both Arabs and Jews, Aghbarieh-Zahalka suggests, is part and parcel of solving the political problem.
"In my view this poverty, unemployment is connected to the political issues. All political ailments stem from social issues," she said during the debate. "When we are exploited socially we are not capable of helping others. You have to empower yourself to empower others, therefore both issues connect."
Many Israeli Arab politicians focus on the nakba, or catastrophe, of Israel’s declaration of independence 65 years ago, at which time at least 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes – many ending up outside Israel’s borders and unable to return. But Aghbarieh-Zahalka argues that while such important history should not be forgotten, it is more profitable to focus on the socioeconomic problems of today.
“80 percent of Arab women do not work – this is a catastrophe,” she says over lunch after the debate, calling them victims of both Israeli discrimination and the neo-liberal economy.
“The occupation is deepening, the settlements are deepening, and the despair is deepening between Arabs and Jews. We feel there is a very huge need for an alternative,” Aghbarieh-Zahalka says.
“Arabs and Jews on the same list, with an Arab on top – this is a dramatic change in Israel. It’s a new start for the relationship between Arabs and Jews.”
So far, Daam hasn’t managed to win the 2 percent threshold of votes necessary for entering the Knesset. But Aghbarieh-Zahalka, who has waited all these years for a seat in the Knesset, says they’re closer than ever. In the meantime, she’s patiently wooing voters – in Hebrew and Arabic.
* Chelsea B. Sheasley contributed reporting.