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Netanyahu, the Joint List and a history of demonising Palestinian voters

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No bussing of voters

Zazim, therefore, raises money to hire buses on election day to ferry these Bedouin citizens to far-off polling stations so they can exercise their democratic right.

Perversely, Melcer agreed with Netanyahu and Likud that Zazim's efforts to help the Bedouin to vote was not protecting a basic democratic right as Israel's attorney general had earlier contended but partisan "political activity".

Melcer insisted that, if Zazim wanted to help the Bedouin vote, it had first to register as a political organisation, jeopardising its other social justice activities and burdening it with tight restrictions on fundraising. In the end, Zazim abandoned its transport programme for the Bedouin, and Netanyahu's "Arab electoral fraud" narrative received a major shot in the arm.

Palestine gerrymandered

As Melcer's ruling illustrates, Netanyahu's claims of election fraud have not emerged in a vacuum. They are the latest and most cynical steps in long-running efforts by Jewish officials of all political stripes to neutralise the political influence of Palestinian citizens.

That began with the mass expulsions by the Israeli army of Palestinians in 1948 to create a Jewish state on the ruins of their homeland. The small Palestinian population that survived the ethnic cleansing operations termed the Nakba, or Catastrophe were the ancestors of today's Palestinian minority.

The Nabka was primarily an exercise in the re-engineering of the region's political and social landscape an act of gerrymandering on a vast scale.

Palestinians were expelled outside the new borders and then Jews encouraged to immigrate as a replacement population. Overnight the Palestinians were transformed from the overwhelming majority into a small minority.

That was why Israel could allow its unwelcome new Palestinian citizens to participate in elections, even as they were subjected to draconian military rule in Israel's first two decades.

In practice, their vote counted for nothing, paving the way for Israel to steal their lands and impose systematic discrimination in almost every sphere of life. To this day, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian citizens live in separate, ghettoised communities and are taught in a segregated education system.

Voting as window-dressing

In fact, in Israel's first three decades the vote for Palestinian citizens was entirely hollow. It meant casting a ballot for special "Arab lists" of legislators offered up by the main Jewish Zionist parties.

Israel gradually liberalised that policy, but 15 years ago Asad Ghanem, a leading Palestinian scholar in Israel, described to me his community's participation in elections for the parliament as little more than "symbolic" and "window-dressing".

That was certainly how Israel's Jewish politicians saw it. They were relatively happy for the Palestinian minority to vote, if only because the parties they elected had no role to play inside a parliament dominated by Jewish parties.

Rabin's Oslo 'betrayal'

But once Israel entered the Oslo process in the early 1990s, the role of Palestinian parties started to change.

At the time, Yitzhak Rabin became the first Israeli leader to engage diplomatically with the Palestinian leadership in exile. It was widely assumed that those talks would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

There appeared to be little enthusiasm for this process among a majority of Israeli Jews. Rabin, under pressure from the United States and Europe to pursue the Oslo track, was forced to rely on Palestinian parties to prop up his minority government from the outside so it could pass the necessary Oslo legislation.

The right expressed outrage both at the idea of ceding Israel's supposedly divinely promised lands to the Palestinians and at relying on "Arabs" Israel's Palestinian minority to pass such legislation. This betrayal, as it was perceived by the right, including by Netanyahu, led ultimately to Rabin's assassination in 1995.

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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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