On April 9, 2019, the Palestinian leadership inside Israel — represented by the Joint List (JL), the four major Arab parties who formed an unprecedented alliance in 2015 elections — woke to a shocking reality: more than 51 percent of Palestinian citizens boycotted Israel’s national elections. This move dropped JL representation in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to nine seats from the 13 seats (out of 120) they had gained in 2015 elections. Before accepting these results, the Knesset voted, with JL support, to hold a repeat election. The boycott and subsequent repeat election plan occurred as a result of Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to form a coalition government.
The expected September 17, 2019, repeat national elections granted the Palestinian leadership in Israel a golden opportunity to seek lessons from April’s results and work to strengthen their presence in the legislative body. Claiming to respond to Palestinian citizens’ demands for unity — the same demands they ignored in April elections – JL leaders began to negotiate its restoration. However, and to the great disappointment and fury of Palestinian citizens, fierce disagreement accompanied by threats to run independently erupted among different JL components over the allocation of Knesset seats, but not over political agenda or strategies. Mainly, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which represents the national stream, significantly delayed unity. JL, was finally declared on July 30, 2019, after losing significant credit and support among many Palestinian citizens. Long before JL was declared, on May 7, 2019, a survey by Stat-Net Institution showed that Palestinians would not get more than 47 percent of the votes in the next elections and no more than 9-10 seats. It also revealed that JL lost 5 percent of the people’s support for each week of delay in reaching unity.
Examining the significant low turnout among Palestinian citizens (49 percent) in the April 2019 elections, I suggest two main reasons for the drop in participation: the 2018 Nation-State basic law, which further relegated the status of Palestinians to second-class citizens, and the failure of the main Arab parties to maintain their unity through JL in April elections. I contend that voter turnout will continue to be low in the upcoming September elections and that Palestinian citizens will punish their leadership again for hindering the agreement to restore JL for many months. JL leaders have placed their narrow party and personal interests above the national need for unity as a response to the major challenges facing the Palestinian minority in Israel, especially since the passing of the mentioned law. This article is based on interviews I conducted in summer 2018 and summer 2019.
Regarding Palestinian citizens in Israel as a fifth column is the internal aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is considered the prominent security factor shaping the character of Israel’s political system. The Israeli government has been using legislation to marginalize Palestinian citizens in Israel for decades, and Palestinians are systematically discriminated against in all spheres of life, including education, housing, municipal funding, and income.
The Israeli Nation-State of the Jewish People Law states that the “right of national self-determination” in Israel “is unique to the Jewish people.” The passage of this law on July 19, 2018, by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirms that Israel is a state of international Jewry, not of all its citizens, thus excluding 1.8 million indigenous Arab citizens and undermining the already fragile democratic character of the state.
The low turnout in national elections was due to the effective and organized boycotting campaign led by young activists frustrated by the failure of JL’s different components to unite, especially in the face of growing racism and incitements against Palestinian citizens. Many have echoed the stance of the outlawed Northern wing of the Islamic Movement and other players, such as Abnaa al-Balad Movement (Sons of the Country), who objected to the Knesset as a symbol of the Zionist project, and others who have long emphasized and brought attention to the insufficiency of Arab representation in the Israeli Knesset.
In an interview with Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE), former Knesset member Issam Makhoul commented on the campaign: “This is the first time we have such an organized and financed campaign that obviously has parties that benefit from it. I was reserved on the creation of JL because alliances should be based on political programs, not on ethnicity. But we had huge challenges facing us that required such unity, mainly the Nation-State law. JL should be a tactic and should not be a strategy.”
Desperate to avoid April’s low electoral turnout, Arab leaders panicked and tried everything to encourage voters to vote: “They begged the people to go and vote, they used the mosques, entered people’s houses carrying the Quran and forged the results in electoral stations under the government’s eyes. Officials knew what was going on but opted to close their eyes on these violations,” said one boycott campaign leader, Aleef Sabbagh.
Sabbagh denied the accusations that the campaign was financed by external sides and stressed that “The youth in the campaign worked very hard, and they paid for it entirely. It cost 7000-8000 shekels [about U.S. $2,300], and all came from their pockets. I did not know most of them. They were active in social media, hung posters in Haifa, etc.”
Sabbagh further said that even if the Arabs win 13 seats in the next elections, that will not help anything, “because the Nation-State Law closed the door completely on the possibility of correcting the Arab citizen’s status and his/her dream of equality.” Sabbagh explained that “for decades, the Knesset had proved its failure to absorb the Arab electorate and was an enemy of the Arab citizens and their rights. The law sent a very clear statement that the vote of the Arab members in the Knesset is unacceptable, and if their vote is not worth anything, what are they still doing in the Knesset?”
Esheh Hajjar, former activist of the outlawed Islamic Movement, believes the new law is connected to two variables: one is “the changes in Israeli society that have made it increasingly a society of hatred toward Arabs and other minorities; the second is the inability of communities to prevent the passing of such laws due to weak and ineffective leadership.”
Esheh further explains, “Hatred has blinded Israeli society, and their fear of minorities made them act unreasonably — to support anything against these groups that would ensure their inability to have any influence. The question, in my opinion: how would a democratic state look when ignorance and hatred drown out the sound of reason?”
The Trend to Boycott the Elections Continues
Several activists had voiced a strong concern that voter turnout will remain low in the upcoming elections in many Arab localities because certain geographic areas such as the Little Triangle and the Negev are not represented. Activists argue that there are other prominent personalities in the Arab sector, outside of JL, that can recruit thousands of voters and should be considered in the Joint List.
For Abu Maher, an internal refugee from the Iqrith village that was demolished by Israel in 1947-9, his disappointment reflects 70 years of suffering and frustration: “I never voted in Israeli elections, and I will not vote this time too. I used to believe that we will go back to Iqrith one day, but now I do not believe this anymore, and this is killing me. The Arab Knesset members only care about their seats and the material benefits.”
An active member in the boycott campaign during April 2019 elections, Nashed Abdel-Nour’s critique is also directed against the members of the JL in Israel, who did not dare to submit their resignation after passing the law, fearing the loss of their personal benefits: “This is a weak opposition that lacks a program against the continuing Israeli provocations and policies. Their only way of reaction is screaming and seeking the cameras’ attention.” Abdel-Nour grew critical of the campaign and decided to quit and not take part in any campaign. According to him: “The slogan that the Knesset is illegal is weak and ridiculous, because why is voting illegal while carrying the Israeli ID or passport is legal? The Arabs in Israel live in unbelievable contradictions. In addition, there have been so many accusations on social media, mainly Facebook; every time someone does not agree with the other, he is accused of betrayal. Also, there have been swindlers in the campaign. The discourse has become nasty. I will continue to boycott but will not be part of a campaign.” Sabbagh, too, decided not to continue his activism after significant pressure and personal accusations from some Arab party members.
Many have argued that there was nothing new about the law; it only legalized a reality that has existed since the establishment of the state, as activist Zuhriyeh Azab suggested. According to her, “This law mirrors Israel’s failing democracy. I have to say that whoever calls for equality in this country is still naïve. The real shock was for the Druze, who thought that serving in the military would make them citizens with equal rights.”
Because Israel is one of the few nations in the contemporary world without a formal written constitution, it is interesting to ask whether this law, as well as the lack of a constitution, undermines further the status of Palestinian citizens in Israel. Makhoul, who served two terms (eight years) in the Knesset, explained his opposition to a constitution in Israel by saying, “During my whole service in the Knesset, the Knesset was discussing creating a constitution. I opposed a constitution because of the racist climate that existed at that time, which would’ve been reflected in the new constitution. Nations create new constitutions after gaining independence or after a revolution. Israel did not do that. Instead, it created Basic Laws to become the constitution one day. The Nation-State Law is a basic law and will be part of the constitution, so should I give my approval to such a constitution?”
Sabbagh also echoed on Makhoul’s assessment saying that all basic laws in Israel are “bad for Arabs.” The only basic law that might have led to some degree of equality and democracy was the Basic Law Human Dignity and Freedom in the 1990s, but the Nation-State law replaced it and killed its potential.
Since Israel’s establishment, Palestinian citizens have been exempted from compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), mainly for security reasons, though voluntary service is encouraged. However, in 1957, IDF service became mandatory for the Druze community with the support of some Druze leaders. In a summer 2019 interview with Ghaleb Saif, the head of the Druze Initiative Committee, Saif said that the law is part of “a bigger conspiracy to uproot the Palestinians from their land.” The law’s effects on the Druze community, Saif said, was shocking to the Druze because they had never expected the state to treat them like that: “For those who are so tight to the state, the shock was bigger than death. We in the Druze Initiative Committee called for fighting another law, the Kaminitz bill, that is considered the executive arm of the Nation-State Law. The law basically said, ‘You do not have anything in this state.’ The state never really treated the Druze as anything except Palestinians. Some are trying to absorb the shock by working to modify the law.”
Muhammad Amer, a member of the Druze Committee for Land’s Defense, said that the law “caused a huge disappointment to all, but in particular to the Druze army officers who were ready to give their lives and die for the state and strongly believed that this state is their state and that they matter. But, suddenly they discovered that they are two types; the Jews are type one, and the Druze are guests in this state.”
According to Sabbagh, “The Druze on the Zionist party lists were not placed in advanced places, thus they could not achieve much. They did not get more than their percentage in the population, which is 5 percent, and there were even members from these parties that objected to the 5 percent and thought it comes at the expense of the Jewish candidates.”
There are five Druze members in different Zionist parties, said Amer, “and look what happened with Ayoub Qara, who was the Communication minister in Netanyahu’s government. He voted with the Nation-State law after he was promised to be placed in a secure slot in April elections, but he was out. He discovered that he was a rubber stamp, and now, after quitting the Likud, he is waging a war against his former party. If the Arabs in this country do not unite, we will be in a very bad situation.”
When some Druze activists called the law an “apartheid” law, Netanyahu ended a meeting with the Druze leadership; however, after a massive demonstration of about 90,000 Druze on August 4, 2018, in Tel-Aviv, which was attended by two ex-directors of the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) and one ex-director of the Shabak (Israel’s internal security service), Netanyahu announced his intention to create a special committee to advance the special ties with the Druze representatives that serve in the IDF. Netanyahu did not bother, however, to react to the Arab leadership protests, including that of the Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel.
Amer also opposed the boycott of the elections and questioned its intentions: “If someone wants to boycott, why only the elections? Why not the Social Security? The factories that sell its products to the settlements? When we boycott, we give the opportunity for an additional right wing member to sit in the Knesset. Unfortunately, the trend to boycott the forthcoming elections is still going.”
Still, Makhoul says, “The Druze regarded the law as an insult, and that was a lesson. The problem is that they do not want to be like the rest of the Arabs in Israel, and they regard themselves as having a blood bond with Israel. They are similar to the rest of the Arabs in their duties, and at the critical moment, Israel puts its identity above all.”
Amer viewed the problem for the Druze as bigger than that, saying, “The problem is that Arabs in Israel are not good at uniting to face challenges, and they are unaware of the ‘Zionist conspiracy’ against their existence in their land.”
The emergence of New Arab Parties?
As’ad Ghanem, a professor at Haifa University, attacked JL and the Follow-Up Committee and accused the Palestinian Authority of interference in the internal politics of the Arabs in Israel. He also claimed that some Gulf countries loyal to Netanyahu are financing some of the Arab parties in JL. In the spring Ghanem launched a new party called the Popular Unity party to confront racism against the Palestinian Arab minority that was not adequately addressed by the JL. Moreover, Ghanem’s party allows Palestinian independents to run for Knesset, a departure from the JAL who only runs candidates affiliated with the four main Arab political factions.
Commenting on the emergence of the Popular Unity, Makhoul believed that these are people who are searching for positions and seats and that external arms work to dismantle JL. Amer also believed that the new party is a very bad move and urged its leadership not to burn Arab votes and harm the struggle of JL that represents all streams (national, Communists, Islamist). Ghalib Saif questioned the alternative: “There is no other option but voting for JL. Leftist Zionist parties such as MERETZ were part of racist governments that do not fight for core questions that concern us. Ghanem will burn votes, and our objective is fighting the right wing. The focus is not Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], but the right wing that created Bibi.”
While all interviewees suggested that this party will not be able to make it to the next Knesset, the party will not back off and will not withdraw, as assured to Sabbagh by several in the Popular Unity: “They will not withdraw, as JL is wishing for and will run until the end even knowing that they will not succeed. Withdrawing will mean the end of their project. Popular Unity candidates are preparing for the next elections and want to prove that they can attract votes.”
Meanwhile, the fight over Arab votes has been intensifying within the Zionist parties. Ehud Barak, former prime minister and leader of the Independent Party suggested in an interview on a local Arabic channel that a new basic law, called the Equality law and based on the equality concept in the 1948 Declaration of Independence, should be passed to replace the Nation-State law. According to him, this should happen not because the Nation-State law is bad for the Druze and the Arabs but to protect the foundation of Israel: “Arabs ‘have the right of equality because they are citizens, not because we want their votes.'” Even general Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main competitor in the Kahol Lavan (Blue-White) party, acknowledged that a fundamental shift in his party’s approach to Arab voters had taken place after his inability to secure enough Jewish votes to form a government in April elections. Gantz spread many empty promises to “reach out to the Arab citizens and their representatives in the next Knesset.” However, he avoided a promise to repeal the Nation-State law. Amir Peretz, Labor party leader, started his campaign from Tamra city in the north and has been sending buses with big ads to promote his party’s promise for equality.
Meanwhile, the streets in Arab localities are almost dead, and Arab candidates are still silent. They continue their old ways of conducting home circles, mainly among their supporters, leaving behind the disappointed segments who are in most need of leadership. This oversight leaves the door open for Zionist candidates to roam Arab communities, spreading promises to counter the law and bring equality for desperate Palestinian citizens.