My own political experience was shaped by the international struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. Teenage weekends were often spent at huge anti-apartheid rallies and smaller demonstrations. I didn’t really understand the politics of settler colonialism, the minutiae around land reclamation, or even the wider socialist goals that many within the movement espoused. I did, however, connect easily with “one person one vote!” One of the simplest yet most powerful slogans in history has brought deep changes to every society that has genuinely adopted its simple principle.
Do we have an opportunity to present a similarly powerful message in Palestine? There is little doubt that, in contrast to the global cacophony to transform South Africa, what is happening internationally around Palestine is but a whisper. There are two clear reasons why, in contrast to the anti-apartheid campaign, the current movement to support Palestine appears so anodyne and ineffective.
The first is a leadership issue. Those deeply involved in the international struggle against Apartheid in South Africa all describe how they willingly accepted the ANC’s leadership. In comparison, we still wait for a Palestinian leadership that is sufficiently visionary, united, innovative and organized to harness the huge potential of a global community of activists that could be prepared to do much more, if told what.
The second is about the clarity of the call to action. What does ending occupation really look like? Activists appear caught between the immediate urgency to address daily injustices and longer term visions for a Palestinian state of various flavors. The struggle lacks anything like the ANC’s Freedom Charter; this presented a united, and in places deliberately imprecise, call for immediate action as well as a longer term vision, and one simple democratic ask.
Whilst the need is clear to sustain both the short term resistance, and build the longer term vision, this is insufficient. At this precarious moment, with Trump’s Steal of the Century looming it’s time to put the solid into solidarity through a pragmatic medium term demand: one powerful enough to disrupt the Israeli electorate’s complicit complacency, and the international diplomatic community’s stasis. One that can, at least on a temporary basis, unite various factions within the movement – one staters and two staters; BDS and softer campaigns. That demand should be one person, one vote.
The recent Israeli election marked the moment when more than three quarters of its 21 elections have been based on a highly selective interpretation of democracy. Since 1967, the adult Palestinian whose lives are controlled by occupation have no say in the political make up of their occupiers. Their right to vote in elections within the territories, as well as not occurring since 2005, offers the chance only to have a say on local issues. The key politics that determine whether Palestinians can travel, work, marry or access electricity and water are decided by a group of politicians in Jerusalem who neither claim to nor wish to represent them.
Today, almost 5 million Palestinians live in territory controlled by Israel but do not have the right to vote for the representatives who govern their lives.
Demographically, Israeli elections have an increasing double-democratic deficit; first, by both numbers and percentage, the number Palestinian adults denied the basic political right of suffrage has increased. Second, the numbers of Israelis living in the West Bank has also are growing faster than ever but, in contrast to their neighbors, these settlers are given the right to vote. There is no theory or practice of democracy that can justify this situation. In years to come, it may be seen as immoral and unsustainable a practice as denying women, black Americans and South Africans the vote.
The international community, wherever possible led by an emerging new generation of Palestinian and Israeli activists and leaders should now coalesce amongst a simple, temporary demand – that all adults Palestinians living under occupation should have the right to vote in the forthcoming Israeli election. The temporary nature of this demand is vital for two reasons. First, many Palestinians would not be prepared to participate in any process that normalized the current reality of and suggested any de facto change to their political status (something the Geneva Convention prohibits). Second, those who advocate a two state solution would not be prepared to support a demand that appeared to accept the permanent death of a sovereign Palestinian state. Keeping this demand as temporary can disarm Israel through a simple choice: either provide full sovereignty through enabling a genuine Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza, or accept the consequences of full annexation and give all adults living in the occupied territories the full range of civil and political rights available to Israelis.
Of course, Israel is highly unlikely to do either, even if international pressure transforms again to something more conspicuous (and the announcement of the so-called deal may concentrate minds and action). This is where any sustainable campaign should already be planning for defeat. During the next election, ideally with the blessing of the various official elements that make up the Palestinian leadership, a DIY unofficial election should be organized and properly monitored enabling every Palestinian to cast a vote. Only those represented in the Israeli Elections should be on the ballot paper (including, vitally, the Arab parties in the Knesset). Votes should be counted and reported on as a valid addition to the official election. If the messaging was coherent and persistent this could disarm any Israeli claims about the health of its own democracy. No occupation without representation.
The situation in the region is, of course, too complex to be solved by granting Palestinians the right to vote in what Netanyahu has called the “Jewish Knesset.” A global campaign that demands one occupied Palestinian, one vote, may help to end the current stasis. It’s time to occupy the occupation through the power of the ballot box.