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Israeli election could end in Arab-free Knesset

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Reprinted from Jonathan Cook Blog

Palestinian parties under pressure to unite as boycott call and raised electoral threshold spell trouble

From Israel's Parliament Votes to Dissolve Itself and Set March 17 Election
Israel's Parliament Votes to Dissolve Itself and Set March 17 Election
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Israel's large Palestinian Arab minority is facing the most crucial, and possibly most dangerous, general election in its history, according to analysts.
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Both the survival of Arab political parties in the Israeli parliament and the status of Palestinian citizens -- who make up one in five of the population -- inside a Jewish state are at stake, said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.

"Key questions that have been avoided by [Israel's] Jewish and Arab communities for decades are coming sharply into focus for the first time," said Ghanem of the election due on 17 March. The outcome, he added, would determine whether Israel continued down the path towards "fascism" chosen by the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The background to the election, Ghanem noted, was a political crisis triggered by Netanyahu's recent efforts to introduce legislation defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

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The bill, which is likely to be revived if, as expected, Netanyahu and the right win a majority of seats, is intended to anchor legislation in Jewish tradition and religion, end the status of Arabic as an official language, and further tie the hands of the Supreme Court in protecting the rights of the Palestinian minority.

The legislation breaks with the traditional and vaguer formulation of a "Jewish state" preferred by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. Like most Israeli politicians on today's left and centre, Ben Gurion wanted to avoid defining too precisely what such a state entailed, fearing that it would exacerbate social divisions and fuel opposition abroad, said Ghanem.

"The Jewish population are being forced to openly debate the question of the status of Arab citizens," he told Middle East Eye. "It is in our interests that they do so. We know what the right thinks, but the left has preferred to ignore the discussion, sticking to the 'safer' subject of the occupation."

Small parties targeted

Netanyahu's right-wing government has also succeeded in raising the electoral threshold for the next parliament, passing a law in March that raised it from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. The move, officially justified on the grounds it would end the proliferation of small, narrow-interest parties, is supposed to lead to more stable coalition governments.

But intentionally or not, the measure also means that, unless they forge alliances, the three small Arab-dominated parties in the current Knesset -- Hadash, United Arab List and Balad -- may fail to win a single seat between them.

Without their presence, said Ghanem, the Zionist centre and left parties in the Knesset had no hope of ousting Netanyahu and the right.

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The Arab parties currently have 11 seats in the 120-member chamber.

Haneen Zoabi, a Knesset member for the nationalist Balad party, said a single, unified list could win an extra four or five seats, adding weight to the minority's voice in parliament.

"The current divisions are unhealthy and the public does not understand why we do not unite," she told Middle East Eye. "We are facing an ever harsher, racist environment and we need a common strategy if we are to struggle for equality."

Unity is no simple task given ideological differences between the factions and long-running personality clashes.

The traditional party divisions are no longer considered viable. The raised threshold and a dramatic fall in turnout by Palestinian voters in recent elections mean that unity has become a matter of "survival," said Awad Abdel Fattah, Balad's secretary general.

The parties' ideological differences -- they largely identify as Communist, Islamic and nationalist -- have prevented them from reaching an early agreement.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)

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