FAQ: Palestinians and the Israeli elections

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The Israeli election season began months ago, but the Arab parties have only recently launched their campaign. Unlike other parties that will try to sway swing voters on election day, March 17th, their strategy is getting Arab-Palestinian citizens who have historically been apathetic or who outright boycotted elections to vote. Around half of Arabs in Israel did not participate in recent elections. But this time around, Arab parties are gaining ground. Early polls show the Arab-Palestinians are expected to jump from the lowest voter turnout rate to one of the highest in the country and could become the third largest party in the next Knesset. Yet questions remain as to whether the Arab factions with their assumed new clout will use that power to back a Zionist-left government in order to keep incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing bloc out of government. Or whether they will be politically marginalized, as they traditionally are. Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about Palestinians and the election, and the answers.

How do elections in Israel work?
Because Israel has a coalition government, elections are broken down into two processes. First is the selection of Knesset members. Voters, Israeli citizens irrespective of religion, cast ballots for the parties they want. At times there are as many as 50 factions running. Next the 120 newly elected Knesset members from the winning groups, typically around 30 factions, negotiate to form a government. A combined 61 seats are needed to form a governing coalition.

Who can vote?
Any of Israel’s 6.5 million citizens can vote, including the 20-percent minority Palestinian citizens of Israel. Special arrangements are made for active duty soldiers to cast ballots in advance of election day and citizens abroad can vote in embassies. Polling stations are set-up throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem to allow voting for the 550,000 Israelis who live in occupied territory.

Who cannot vote?
Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs– some 350,000 residents of occupied East Jerusalem– are not citizens of Israel and cannot vote in national elections, although they can cast ballots in municipal elections. Even though these Palestinians are not able to vote, they are still subject to Israeli law, pay taxes to the state, and are eligible for national benefits such as healthcare. But the 300,000 to 350,000 Israeli settlers living in East Jerusalem who are Israeli citizens can vote.

And while Israeli settlers in the West Bank can vote, the Palestinians living in the remainder of the occupied territory, the West Bank and Gaza, are not eligible to vote.

Do Bedouins vote in Israeli elections?
Bedouins have high voter turnout. Consistently some 64 percent participate in elections, trailing behind the national average of 67.8-percent in the 2013 elections. They usually support the Islamic movement. However, there is a stark difference between the participation of Bedouins in recognized townships and those in unrecognized towns. In the Negev half of the Bedouin population lives in state-sanctioned localities fully integrated into the service and governmental system of the Israel, and half live in unrecognized villages, shanty towns off the grid excluded from state services where residents are barred from voting in municipal elections because of their community’s status. In the past only 20-percent of Bedouins in unrecognized villages voted in national elections but this year a legal rights group filed a petition for the government to provide free transport to the polls in hopes of increasing their turnout.

Who are the Palestinian candidates?
Palestinians citizens of Israel have run candidates in every election since the state’s founding, but none of the Arab parties have been invited to join a ruling coalition. Yitzhak Rabin did solicit backing from Arab groups to form a government in 1993, although he did not allow them into his coalition once he was prime minister. This year, changes in Israel’s election laws forced the three smaller Arab parties and one joint Arab-Jewish faction to unite under a single header, the United Arab List. It is a mixed bag of communists, national democrats and the Islamic movement. Some of the groups in the list support a two-state agreement with Israel, and others hope to see one democratic, bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There are also disagreements over polygamy. Two of the candidates running are in marriages with multiples spouses.

What is the Arab list’s campaign platform?
For the first time, the Arab parties are using an Arabic and Hebrew tagline, “This is my answer to racism.” Previous campaign slogans were only in Arabic. The platform itself is a call “For all equality, national equality and citizen equality,” party spokesperson Dr. Abdullah Abu Marouf told me.

Have there been attempts to disqualify Palestinian citizens of Israel from running in elections?
Yes. The Arab list’s campaign against racism is perhaps also a response to a failed attempt by Knesset representatives in Likud and the Jewish Home party to strike candidate Hanin Zoabi from the roster of contenders. In February right-wing groups organized an initiative to ban Zoabi, while center-left politicians petitioned to remove Baruch Marzel, a hardline settler candidate and former Kach member, a radical Jewish party that is now illegal in Israel because of calls for violence. Both Knesset decisions to ban Zoabi and Marzel were overturned by Israel’s high court. However, rightists have continued to question the ruling. Posters have been plastered across the West Bank with images of Marzel alongside leading Arab list candidate, Ahmed Tibi, whose candidacy was not reviewed, with a Hebrew phrase: “Are you crazy?”

How many seats is the Arab list likely to win in the election?
The Arab list could win as many as 15 Knesset seats, according to a +972 Magazine poll, marking an increase from the consistent 11 spots they won in 2013. A Haaretz poll places the number lower, at 12 seats. But even 12 is formidable. It could tie the Arab list with leading Jewish parties, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home. Such an outcome would be the result of the Palestinian citizens of Israel being receptive to having a joint list. The Arab parties themselves have done very little outreach. They have one ad running on television. Few posters can be seen in the streets of Arab towns.

Is the Arab boycott of Israeli elections over?
The decades-long Arab boycott of Israeli national elections seems to have come to an end. There was no official announcement. Because voter participation is polling at close to 70-percent for Arab citizens of Israel, according to research by +972 Magazine, though, it appears that the boycott has ended. In the past Israel has never had to deal with Arabs as serious political contenders. This election will demonstrate what happens when they put their demographic clout into the ballots. That said, a scenario in which Arab-Palestinians citizens of Israel change the direction of Israel through the democratic process is a long time off.

Will the Arab parties support a Labour-Zionist government?
If the Arab list secures 15 seats in the Knesset, that number could prove to be a game-changer. For the first time in the history of Israel, Arab parties could be a political player in choosing the next prime minister. Even if Netanyahu’s challengers in the left-center Zionist Camp headed by Issac Herzog and Tzipi Livni do not outpoll rightwing parties, if the Arab parties agree to support them, it is possible that they could deny Netanyahu the numbers he needs to form a government with him at the helm. The Arab list has remained quiet on whether or not they will engage in the chess game of selecting Israel’s next prime minister. Though a poll by the Arab list showed over 60 percent of their base expects the Arab parties to back the Zionist Camp as a move to keep Netanyahu out of office.

What does the next government mean for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza?
Neither of the two major Israeli blocs vying for control of the government have presented positions regarding the conflict. Of the little that has been said, Herzog will allow continued settlement expansion, which is what Netanyahu promised when he came into office in 2009 (he approved five new settlements while in office). The last time Netanyahu addressed negotiations and Palestinian sovereignty was shortly after the Kerry talks collapsed in 2014. Netanyahu said at a Likud youth meeting that he had no intention of ever seeing a Palestinian state. As a result there is no present expectation that any configuration of Israel’s next government will pursue peace talks or a path to ending/changing the occupation.

Where do Israeli political parties disagree regarding the settlements?
There is cause to assume some differences between the parties on government subsidies given to the settlements. Disputes between the center/left and right-wing factions over the national budget ushered in the collapse of government. Yesh Atid and the Labour/Hatuna want fewer subsidies for the settlements. Netanyahu wants more, and he is currently selling off state-owned defense industries in order to foot the bill.

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I would like to commend Ms. Deger for a succinct and clear presentation of the up coming election.

If the Arab Joint List gets more seats than Vapid Lapid’s party I might dance in the streets and pass out candy. Anything to wipe that smug look off his face.

Thanks for the great desription, Allison; now I will feel a little less ignorant when I see the results of these elections and the ensuing jockeying to form the government. In the end, it will be as seafoid predicted, with no difference for Palestinians who wins.

I think that there is a fair chance that Arab Joint List will join the government coalition in some form in exchange for tangible policy concessions. The precedences would point otherwise. After all, political scene is dominated by current and former Likud members: barely distinguishable Jewish Home and Home for the Jews (my bad, I can’t tell the difference), Kulanu, Livni in Zionist Camp, and of course, Likud itself. They can get together and pick… Read more »

Thanks for the report Allison. It’s a sign of change that this is even being contemplated and discussed as much as it has been, this election. My maybe not-so-FAQ is: Why would any Jewish Israeli who had the slightest niggle of a need for change in the political dynamics of Israel, vote for before-the-fact, self-declared losers of Herzog and Livni if they hold to their statement that they would not include “Arabs” in their government?… Read more »