Atta Allah Mansour
Al- Quds
June 19, 2008 - 2:56pm

The next election for the Knesset is on the horizon, and the condition of the Arab parties is dismaying. The Arab share of Israel’s electorate ranges between sixteen to twenty percent of the total eligible to decide the election and set government policy – however, the conventional wisdom is that Arab influence in the Israeli election will be one tenth that of Jewish influence in the American presidential election, even though Jews only compose three to four percent of those who are eligible to vote in the United States.

The Israeli lobby has succeeded at its conference, held on the eve of the conclusion of the primary season for the major parties in America, in having the candidates give speeches and compete among themselves over giving Israel and its government promises and pledges. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, went as far as saying that Jerusalem should be kept undivided as Israel’s capital – though after less than a day he went back on what he said, and stated that Jerusalem’s status should be left to the negotiations between the two peoples.

So is there an explanation for the weakness of Arab votes and the strength of Jewish ones?

Anyone following Arab engagement in Israeli elections can track the long path that Arabs have walked to develop their relationship with the Israeli government. Fifty years ago, the relationship between the Israeli government and those who were still left in its presence among the Palestinian people, the ones who succeeded in maintaining the natural right of living on their land, was almost nonexistent.

Harsh and unjust travel restrictions were imposed on these Arabs from 1948 until 1966. The creation of the State of Israel was accompanied by government confiscation of a large proportion of Arab arable lands to be used for Israeli settlements, an action that pushed the Arabs to the brink of starvation. An Arab citizen would have to wait long days in order to get an authorization from the military establishment specifying the areas to which the worker could travel, and the dates and the time by which the worker would have to be home, otherwise risking arrest, prison, fines, and blacklists, which the military establishment imposed on anyone who disobeyed its orders. 

Arabs, both as a community and individually, could not escape such injustices because Israeli courts could interfere in any case which the Israeli army held to be a “security issue.” Arabs also did not have any kind of representation to intervene on their behalf in any case that was “security” related.

The different Israeli parties, with their varying agendas, viewed the Arabs as a “voter-rich sector” in their election battles. The ruling party, Mapai, and its Arab followers were receiving a majority of these votes during this period of Israeli military rule. Zionist parties had succeeded in receiving a majority of Arab votes until 1977, when the “Democratic Front for Peace and Equality” (Hadash) received, for the first time, almost half of all Arab votes.

Arab leaders in the first decade of the new Arab parties failed in garnering support due to obstructions from the Israeli government. “Al-Ard” was the most memorable Arab attempt at ensuring that Arabs received their rights, and that group fought (in vain) for six years in Israeli courts. At this stage, Arabs were only successful in expressing their demands through the Communist Party (made up of Jews and Arabs) and Mapam (A Jewish party that tried winning over Arabs); the existence of left-wing parties and their interest in Arab demands played a great role in advancing the fortunes of the Arab minority.

As a result of the high level of political awareness of Arabs, every election cycle, the government found itself forced to give them promises and follow through on some of them. For example, loosening the restrictions of the military establishment and even abandoning that establishment altogether in January of 1966; allowing Arab workers to join the Histradrut labor union in 1958; initiating programs to develop villages, build roads, open school, etc.; and forming local authorities and supplying villages with electricity, and irrigation and drinking water.

But Arab parties succeeded after the first Intifada in gaining recognition of the right to organize, initially the Arab Democratic Party, which was followed by religious, ethnic, and radical parties that managed to unite the Israeli parties against them by proclaiming slogans that called for all Palestinians’ right to their historical land – a position that is unequivocally opposite to the Israeli position. As a result of this confrontation, Arabs and Jews in Israel found themselves in a situation comparable to that of Palestine before 1948, but with this time with a vast difference in the balance of power between the two peoples.

The Arab parties have succeeded in the last decade in attracting a majority of Arab votes in Israel, but this victory has unified Israelis against Arabs. These Arab leaders have insisted on uncompromising rhetoric demanding complete and absolute rights, and have forgotten the golden rule defined by Bismarck, the creator of the German state, that “politics is the art of the possible.”


[Translation by Mike Husseini of ATFP]


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