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Palestinian Citizens Wearily Eye Israeli Elections

By       Message Jonathan Cook     Permalink
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According to recent polls, Jewish Home, which has been plundering votes from Likud, could become the second or third largest party, after Likud-Beiteinu. Unlike the deceitful equivocation of Netanyahu on Palestinian statehood, Bennett is plain-speaking: "I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That's the equation." He demands that Israel immediately annex most of the West Bank. ("Naftali Bennett interview: "There won't be a Palestinian state within Israel'," Guardian, 7 January 2013).

Faced with these trends, the so-called "center-left bloc" appears to have wavered. In the 2003 and 2009 elections, it voted with the right in the Central Elections Committee to ban the NDA. This time it switched to opposing disqualification. Rather than wanting a Knesset empty of Palestinian representatives, the "center-left" appears to have decided that a Palestinian presence may be in their interests.

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This possibly explains the unorthodox, and patronizing, editorial in the liberal Haaretz  newspaper this week that urged Palestinian citizens to participate in the election -- and did so in Arabic. Its headline ordered them to: "Get out and vote!" ("Get out and vote!" 15 January 2013).

Boycott calls

The cause for the concern expressed by Haaretz has been a steady decline in the Palestinian minority's turnout at each election over the past decade. In 1999, amid the greater optimism of the Oslo period, three-quarters of the Palestinian electorate voted; 10 years later, in 2009, that figure had fallen to 53 percent, the lowest in the community's history.

Surveys taken by Asad Ghanem of Haifa University indicate a likely scenario in which, for the first time, less than half the Palestinian electorate vote in a Knesset election ("What's the point?The Economist, 12 January 2013).

The falling interest in voting reflects various developments within the Palestinian minority.

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Some of it can be attributed to a formal boycott movement initiated in 2006 by the small secular Palestinian nationalist movement the Sons of the Village (Abna al-Balad). The Popular Committee for Boycotting Knesset Elections has attracted backing from academics and intellectuals.

This weekend boycott activists were due to lead a day-long motorcade spreading their message through dozens of Palestinian villages and towns, starting in the central Galilee, passing through Nazareth and then ending in the Triangle area south of Umm al-Fahm.

A boycott has also been the default position of the northern Islamic Movement, led by the popular figure of Sheikh Raed Salah, since the movement split in 1996. The southern wing contested the election in the belief that an Oslo-inspired two-state solution was at hand. Salah has been the chief beneficiary of the gradual discrediting of the Oslo process.

But according to Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth, more significant than the boycott movement has been the much wider assumption in popular discourse that voting is a pointless activity and that the Arab parties are ineffective.

The alienation of Palestinian citizens from the political system was highlighted in a survey presented at Haifa University in December. It showed 79 percent had little or no faith in state institutions, including the Knesset, and 67 percent lacked confidence in the Arab parties ("On my mind: Arab voters," The Jerusalem Post, 24 December 2012).

Zeidan pointed to a lack of campaigning in Palestinian communities, apart from the billboards. "It's almost as if the [Palestinian] parties themselves are too embarrassed to show their faces by electioneering."

He also noted a frankness among people stating that they would not be voting. "Among the youth this trend is especially strong. They are clear that the Knesset and the [Palestinian] parties do not represent them."

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This is an assessment even the parties themselves are prepared to concede. Jamal Zahalka, head of the NDA's Knesset faction, said: "We're trying to encourage Arabs to vote because it's important, but you can't blame them when they see how little power we have in parliament." ("Israeli Arabs unenthusiastic about Jan 22 vote," The Huffington Post, 19 December 2012).

Mostly out of view, the parties have been deliberating how to deal with the rapid decline in turnout. The posters featuring Lieberman, Ben Ari and Marzel -- part of the NDA's campaign -- were intended to play on the community's fears of the far-right.

But according to surveys, the most likely way to increase voting would be for the parties to present a joint list for the Knesset. Back in October, when the election was announced, a campaign on social media was launched urging the parties to cooperate more closely so that they could win a larger number of seats and have a greater influence.

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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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