By Khaled Diab
Active and effective Arab political participation in the next Knesset can be a game changer, shifting the Palestinian struggle towards civil rights.
Wednesday 25 March 2015
Personally, I didn't expect the ballot to have any profound effects on the status quo of the headline conflict. However, missing from this equation, as so often is the case, was what the elections mean for Israel's Arab minority, which constitutes a full fifth of the country's population.
At first sight, their situation appears to be the very definition of a no-win situation. “I have yet to make a decision regarding which would be the best of two evils – a Zionist Camp government or a Netanyahu government,” Mimas Abdelhai, a young university student from al-Tirah, which lies in what is known as the “Arab triangle”, told me before the election. “The more racist the Israeli government gets, the more the international arena understands Palestinian suffering.”
This reflects the widely held conviction among Palestinian-Israelis that, when it comes to Israel's Arab citizens, the main difference between the Israeli centre(-left) and the right is one of honesty. This broad-based anti-Arabism manifested itself, among other things, in the recent witch hunt against Balad Knesset member Haneen Zoabi.
Many Palestinian citizens of Israel with whom I spoke felt torn about the issue of casting a ballot. “I haven't decided if I'm going to vote or not, but previously my idea was that we all should boycott the elections, and stop giving Israel the image of being a ‘democracy' it markets to the world,” said Sahar Issawi, who is from the north but works for an NGO in Jerusalem.
Drawing on traditional Arab anti-normalisation rhetoric, there are those who urged Palestinians not to vote. Describing casting a ballot as “an effective stamp of approval for Israel's discriminatory regime,” Haifa-based activist Waad Ghantous called for an Arab boycott of the election and the construction of “shadow institutions to relieve the suffering on the ground and provide the basis for a unified struggle against our oppression”.
With incendiary, rightwing anti-Arab racism at fever pitch – such as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's recent suggestion that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe” – it is understandable that Palestinians in Israel should feel the urge to reject rejection.
However, it is my conviction that the only thing worse than voting is not voting. While voting in elections for a Knesset which they feel actively isolates them may seem like folly, not voting is reckless because it would effectively involve Arab voters exiling themselves into self-imposed isolation, leaving the arena wide open for the far right to continue its campaign of creeping disenfranchisement.
Instead, Israel's Palestinian minority should use its demographic strength to force Israel to sit up and take notice. “I intend to vote,” insists Amir Ounallah, a Haifa-based IT entrepreneur. “I want Israelis to realise… that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East.”
And the higher Arab voter turnout (63.5% v 56% in 2013), combined with the joining of forces between Arab parties under the umbrella of the Joint List, has certainly caused the Israeli mainstream to take note, both positively and negatively, as reflected in Netanyahu's scaremongering tactic to draw rightwing voters by claiming: ” “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”
The Joint List, an improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish leftists and Islamists, was formed out of a recognition of the growing common threat facing Palestinians in Israel. Active participation in the political process may help block the raft of discriminatory legislation which the Knesset has been passing recently, the latest of which is the draft “Jewish state” basic law.
“All we have to do is become determined to get involved in the political game and the right wing will be in big trouble,” the eloquent head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh of the communist-leaning Jewish-Arab Hadash party, said in an interview prior to the vote.
In Israel's notoriously fractured political landscape, the relatively high Arab voter turnout has ensured that the Joint List is now in the unprecendented position of being Israel's third largest party, which was forecasted by most pre-election polls.
But electoral success is unlikely to have any effect on the fundamentals of the situation, many fear. “Since the United List will have no impact, to my mind, whatsoever on Israeli politics, it will enhance and accelerate the search for an alternative strategy for the Palestinians,” Ilan Pappé, the ground-breaking Israeli historian and activist, told me.
Personally, I believe that high-profile Arab engagement in the next Knesset carries the potential of being a game-changer. Effective Arab representation will not only act as a buffer against further discrimination, it could also help reduce the socio-economic marginalisation Arabs, who are one of the poorest segments of society, endure in Israel.
In addition, with the Oslo blueprint for a two-state solution looking more and more like an illusion or even a delusion, I believe that the struggle for equality being waged by Israel's Arab minority could point the way to the future.
Like Pappé, I think the most effective, and perhaps only, path forward to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a civil rights struggle. In my book, I call this the “non-state” solution, in which talk of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a joint Arab-Jewish struggle for human rights and human dignity.
This would involve Jerusalemite Palestinians, West Bankers and Gazans following the lead of their brethren in Israel, and joining forces with them, to demand full rights and equality under the Israeli system.
Once this is achieved, then a popular peace process involving everyone can be launched with the aim of forging a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.
This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 March 2015.