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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.

Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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9 Responses

  1. a blah chick on February 26, 2015, 7:42 pm

    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.

    • crone on February 26, 2015, 9:58 pm

      War Without Mercy

      The next war will break out in the summer. Israel will give it another childish name and it will take place in Gaza. There’s already a plan to evacuate the communities along the Gaza Strip border.

      Israel knows this war will break out, it also knows why – and it’s galloping toward it blindfolded, as though it were a cyclic ritual, a periodical ceremony or a natural disaster that cannot be avoided. Here and there one even perceives enthusiasm.

      It doesn’t matter who the prime minister is and who the defense minister is – there’s no difference between the candidates as far as Gaza is concerned. Isaac Herzog and Amos Yadlin are saying nothing of course, and Tzipi Livni is boasting that thanks to her no port was opened in Gaza. The rest of the Israelis aren’t interested in Gaza’s fate either and soon it will be forced to remind them again of its disaster in the only way left to it, the rockets.

      Gaza’s disaster is dreadful. No mention of it is made in the Israeli discourse and certainly not in the most dumbed down, hollow election campaign there’s ever been here. It’s hard to believe, but Israelis have invented a parallel reality, cut off from the real one, a callous, unfeeling, denying reality, while all this adversity, most of it of their own making, is taking place a short distance from their homes. Babies are freezing to death under the debris of their homes, youths risk their lives and cross the border fence just to get a food portion in an Israeli lock up. Has anyone heard of this? Does anyone care? Does anyone understand that this is leading to the next war?

      Salma lived only 40 days, like the eternity of a butterfly. She was a baby from Beit Hanoun on the northeast of the Gaza Strip, who died last month of hypothermia, after her tiny body froze in the wind and rain that penetrated into the plywood-and-plastic hut she has been living in with her family, since their house was bombed.

      “She was frozen like ice cream,” her mother said of the last night of her infant’s life. UNWRA Spokesman Chris Gunness wrote about Salma last in week in the British newspaper the Guardian. Mirwat, her mother, told him that when she was born she weighed 3.1 kilograms. Her three–year– old sister, Ma’ez, is hospitalized due to frostbite.

      Ibrahim Awarda, 15, who lost his father in an Israeli bombardment in 2002, was more fortunate. He decided to cross the fence between Gaza and Israel. “I knew I’d be arrested,” he told the New York Times reporter in Gaza last week. “I told myself, maybe I’ll find a better life. They gave me good food and then threw me back.”

      Ibrahim was held for about a month in two prisons in Israel before being tossed back to the destruction, squalor, hunger and death. Three hundred Gazans drowned in the sea last September, in a desperate attempt to leave the prison Strip. Eighty-four Gazans were arrested by the Israel Defense Forces in the last six months after trying to enter Israel, most of them just to flee from the hell they live in. Nine more were arrested this month.

      Atiya al-Navhin, 15, also tried to enter Israel in November, just to escape his fate. He was shot by IDF soldiers, treated in two Israeli hospitals and returned to Gaza in January. Now he’s lying paralyzed and unable to speak in his home.

      Some 150,000 homeless people live in Gaza and about 10,000 refugees in UNRWA shelters. The organization’s budget was spent after the world totally ignored its commitment to contribute $5.4 billion to rebuild Gaza. The commitment to negotiate lifting the blockade on Gaza – the only way to avoid the next war and the one after it – has also been broken. Nobody talks about it. It’s not interesting. There was a war, Israelis and Palestinians were killed in it for nothing, let’s move on to the next war.

      Israel will again pretend to be surprised and offended – the cruel Arabs are attacking it with rockets again, for no reason.

      ~ Norman Finkelstein

      • jon s on February 27, 2015, 2:21 pm

        The column was written by Gideon Levy, not Norman Finkelstein.

  2. Walid on February 27, 2015, 4:03 am

    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.

    • Kay24 on February 27, 2015, 5:47 am

      Yes, it is sad that the Palestinians will continue to suffer no matter which zionist party wins.
      Still, I admire their determination to be part of the process.

  3. piotr on February 27, 2015, 10:47 am

    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 some combination of Yesh Atid and Haredi and make a government. Or they could, but the whole premise of these elections is that they do not want to: put those guys and gals at one table and you will see fist fights or food throwing. From my perspective the reasons are theological, and those are hard to overcome in an essentially theocratic state.

    In my reading of the issues, the most profound duty of Jews is the defense of the Jewish State, not for their mere gain or convenience but as sacred duty demanded by the one we cannot name. However, should it be achieved by IDF service or by Torah studies? In the past there was a compromise, let young people choose, but to the warrior faction that dominates this is a blasphemy, while preventing full time Torah study is the blasphemy to the other side. As a result, it is very hard to collect 61 supporters of a government of the “National Camp”.

    This can increase the tolerance of Israeli Jewish public for breaking the principle of keeping non-Zionist parties out of the government. But it still rises the question what could a Zionist government offer to Arab Joint List? And they call themselves “Zionist Camp”. For starters, they can easily promise that neither BY nor YB (sorry, I can’t tell them apart) will control the police. And not even Likud! That would be a good start. In a sane word it could be easily expanded to a program giving substantial concessions to “disadvantaged sectors” that would include Arabs (solving Beduin problem by giving them land or land leases) and poor Haredim, some peace program (not too much, this is Zionist Camp after all), cut in settlement funding and military (it does not need all the recruits and all weapon systems to keep in check Gaza and villages in Area C, and the conquest of Iran is out of the question in any case).

    But in a sane word the theocratic fascists could also agree on a common course of action, “sane world” is clearly in an alternative universe. So I will not try to quantify how big the “fair chance” is.

  4. ritzl on February 27, 2015, 3:07 pm

    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?

    Barring some national unity hokum (i.e. ZERO change, which they could have now without an election) they simply can’t get there from here without including Palestinian-Israelis.

    Here’s looking for a little vision on the Israeli left, and the courage (cough) to back it up.

  5. Ladidah on March 1, 2015, 10:44 am

    It is not the case that the call for the boycott of the Knesset elections “is over.” The position of the Islamic Movement is not and has never been the defining factor for the boycott of the Knesset. There is a video campaign as well. Here are links to two articles on the boycott call:
    “Rather than pouring our money into costly electoral campaigns, our impact would be amplified by building shadow institutions to relieve the suffering on the ground and provide the basis for a unified struggle against our oppression.” – by Waad Ghantous
    Kana’aneh responded to the description of a combined Arab list running in the elections as a “dream” of Palestinian Arabs in ’48, noting that this is only a dream for those individuals and political parties who sought to unite parties to participate in accessing the Knesset. “This is not the dream of the Arab masses and the Palestinian people – that dream is real liberation and return, Palestinian independence and ending the occupation on the entire land of Palestine.”

    “We recognize these new developments [in the creation of the United Arab List.] We do not see any justification for retreating for our principled position to call for boycott of the elections. On the contrary, we must escalate our political struggle around this principled position on the issue of the Knesset and its role in the structure of the Zionist occupation,” Kana’aneh said. – comments of Mohammed Kana’aneh of Abna’a el-Balad

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