Palestinian liberation through the Israeli ballot box

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite their marginalisation or disenfranchisement in Israeli politics, Palestinians can use Israel’s democratic tools to their advantage.

Thursday 31 January 2013

The expected massive swing further to the right in Israel did not materialise, with, according to some estimates, an even 60-60 split of seats in the Knesset between the “left” and “right”. Although incumbent prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not quite out, he is definitely down – and there exists the theoretical, though unlikely, scenario that he might not retain his position as prime minister if the famously fractured centre and left join forces.

Meanwhile, the new kingmaker, though probably not the king, is not, as many had forecasted, Naftali Bennett or the ultra-nationalist and religious right, or at least not them alone, but the compulsively centrist Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which came in second, with an estimated 19 seats.

This gain for the centre, if not exactly the left, has enabled many secular and progressive Israelis to breathe a sigh of relief, though not necessarily to breathe more easily. “The Knesset as a whole looks like it will be significantly more moderate as a whole than after the last elections,” said on Israeli friend, Rifka, expressing a certain cautious optimism.

In fact, many on the Israeli left feel little elation, and some are gripped by a sense of deflation. “The public of floating voters went for the middle-class chauvinist TV presenter with good hair and mood music and the charming high-tech guy who calls them ‘achi’ (‘brother’),” believes Udi, a young British-Israeli. “This is a victory for banal, naïve, escapist anti-politics.”

And Yair Lapid, nicknamed Tofu Man by one commentator, is perhaps the greatest example of this escapist anti-politics. He is an actor, a journalist and a TV presenter. But when it comes to politics – he is a political novice and lightweight. He seems to have gained so many votes partly through his superficial charm and the fact that he is a household name, and partly by maintaining an almost pathological silence on the political issues dividing left and right during his campaign.

Another area of major escapism in Israeli politics relates to the Palestinian question – and the occupation hardly featured as an election issue, not even as a minor preoccupation, except perhaps with the religious and revisionist rights’ unapologetic determination to further extend and entrench the Israeli settlement enterprise and even to annex large swathes of the West Bank.

“It was a surprise to everyone that the centre and centre-left have revitalised themselves, but when it comes to Palestinians, no one is jumping with joy,” admitted veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi in an article, expressing a widespread sentiment among Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Faced as they are with an apparently unending occupation and its attendant machinations – walls, checkpoints, martial law, ever-growing settlements, the absence of sovereignty and self-determination – and the indignity this produces, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have little to no faith in the Israeli electoral process.

However, the lack of enthusiasm stretches across the Green Line to Palestinians living in Israel who, at least theoretically, enjoy equal citizenship and have the right to vote. They are frustrated by how the Israeli political establishment at best ignores them and at worst passes legislation that actively discriminates against them, despite the political leverage their votes should afford them.

In addition, even though they are generally better off materially than Palestinians living under occupation and enjoy greater freedom than Arabs living under autocratic regimes, they are nonetheless marginalised and stigmatised socially and economically. As one resident of Umm al-Fahm explained: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

This translated into widespread apathy – and a certain measure of active boycotting – towards the recent vote, with pre-election surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters would cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. At the time of press, it was unclear what the actual voter turnout among Palestinian-Israelis was, though indications were that it would be far lower than the nearly 70% national average, despite the efforts of Arab parties, politicians, community activists and even the Arab League to bring out the vote.

One young Palestinian who had not intended to vote changed her mind at the last minute when she got wind of how low voter turnout in her community was. “I got nervous and upset. I grabbed everyone I know who didn’t vote and drove them [to the polling station],” she admitted.

In total, Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish parties together managed to secure an estimated 12 seats in the Knesset: United Arab List (5), Hadash (4) and Balad (3). Some lament the low voter turnout as a missed opportunity.

“Let’s assume they had voted in large numbers and managed to get 20 seat, which is feasible, then the Arab parties would have had the power to impose their opinion,” believes Hamodie Abonadda, a television producer and Hadash voter. Abonadda speculates that armed with that many seats, the Arab parties would have become impossible to ignore (as Lapid has insisted he will do) by the left and could have made it, for the first time in Israeli history, into a ruling Israeli coalition.

It is my conviction that the political leverage of Palestinians in the Israeli system could be multiplied significantly if the 300,000 or so Palestinian Jerusalemites joined the fray and decided to claim their right to vote.

However, this would involve them applying for Israeli citizenship, which many oppose because it would, they fear, give legitimacy to Israel’s decision to annex Jerusalem. In fact, in the clash between ideology and pragmatism, even participating in municipal elections, which Jerusalem residents are allowed to do without becoming citizens, is still regarded as an unacceptable form of “normalisation”, as I have heard from numerous activists.

“For too long… there has been this taboo on voting for the municipal elections because if one does vote then he/she is seen as a ‘traitor’,” explains Apo Sahagian, an Armenian-Palestinian musician and writer from the old city of Jerusalem. “But this mentality has only worked to the Palestinians’ disadvantage… For example, the approval given to settlement construction starts on the municipal level. If there is enough opposition at that initial level, then that settlement enterprise can be stopped or interrupted.”

Though Sahagian believes that only “raw pragmatism” will save the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and equality, he opposes the idea of Palestinians in Jerusalem applying for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “in a different reality” the combined vote of Jerusalemite Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis would “shake the political landscape of Israel”.

And “raw pragmatism” is guiding a growing number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, as attested to by the plethora of posters advertising language courses, and even to apply for Israeli citizenship, which they see, in light of the vulnerable status of the permanent residence cards that can be taken away fairly easily, as a way of guaranteeing their presence in their beloved city, and hence preserving what remains of its Palestinian character. “What is the difference between having an Israeli ID and an Israeli passport? They’re both Israeli documents, but one gives you rights, the other does not,” one young Jerusalemite who had recently acquired citizenship confessed to me.

There are Jerusalemites I know who argue that the potential combined political clout of Palestinians in Israel and in Jerusalem could also help ease the suffering of their kin in the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite the fact that this emerging trend has sparked controversy, even within individual families, many Palestinians who are moving down this path are doing so out of principle, not just pragmatism, seeing it as an important step along the road to a single, democratic, bi-national, Arab-Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.

A friend and neighbour from Jerusalem, with whom I spent long hours dreaming of a better future, expresses this reality succinctly: “There will not be two states. There is already only one state. All the people of this one state should be represented at the ballot box.”

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2013.

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