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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 1/20/13

Palestinian Citizens Wearily Eye Israeli Elections

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Cross-posted from Electronic Intifada

"Who are you leaving it to?" asks a billboard erected by a Palestinian party in Israel.  ( Atef Safadi  / EPA/Newscom )

As Nazareth, the capital of Israel's Palestinian minority, gears up for the country's general election next week, the most common poster in the city features three far-right leaders noted for their virulently anti-Arab views.

The posters, paid for by one of the largest Palestinian parties, are intended to mobilize the country's Palestinian citizens to vote.

The most prominent of the faces staring down from billboards is that of Avigdor Lieberman, the recently departed foreign minister who is under police investigation for fraud but still heads Yisrael Beiteinu. His party wants to strip some of Israel's 1.4 million Palestinians of their citizenship by redrawing the boundary with the West Bank, while the rest would be forced to take a loyalty test.

Alongside him, wearing his trademark grin, is Michael Ben Ari, a former leader of the outlawed Kach movement, which demands the expulsion of Palestinians from both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel. He won a parliamentary seat at the last election for the similarly racist Strong Israel party (Otzma LeYisrael).

Between them is the bearded Baruch Marzel, also a former Kach official who leads the extremist settlers occupying the center of the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. He has repeatedly made headlines by organizing provocative far-right marches through Palestinian towns inside Israel. (He staged a special election one this week in the village of Musmus, close to Umm al-Fahm.) Marzel is expected to enter Israel's parliament, the Knesset, for the first time, joining Ben Ari in Strong Israel.

The posters around Nazareth pose a blunt question in Arabic: "Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?"


Polls suggest that on 22 January, Israel's Jewish majority will elect the most right-wing Knesset in Israel's history, returning prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power in a coalition packed with ultra-nationalists. For Israel's Palestinian citizens, comprising nearly a fifth of the total population, the dilemma has been how to respond to this all-but-inevitable outcome.

Lieberman, Ben Ari and Marzel are part of ever-widening circle of right-wing politicians who want an "Arab-free" Knesset.

The share of the Palestinian electorate prepared to cast a ballot for one of the Zionist parties has shrunk dramatically over the past 15 years. In 1999, 31 percent still voted for a Zionist party; by 2009 the figure had fallen to 17 percent, with more than half that number accounted for by Druze and Bedouin communities that serve in the army.

Instead, the overwhelming majority vote for one of three Arab or Arab-dominated parties (two other Arab parties are not expected to pass the threshold). Over the past 15 years these Palestinian parties, though without influence in the political system, have grown increasingly noisy in demanding equal rights for their constituents. They may not be able to effect change, but they have shown a talent for embarrassing their Jewish colleagues by using the Knesset -- and platforms outside it -- to express truths Israeli Jews would prefer remained unspoken.

The continuing presence of Palestinian representatives in the Knesset is threatened by two related developments: a consensus among the dominant right-wing parties that the Arab factions are a "fifth column"; and an internal debate among the Palestinian electorate about the value of taking part in national politics given the current climate.


The Zionist parties, especially on the right, have been formulating ways to silence the Arab parties, along with human rights groups and what is seen as the too-liberal Israeli high court. On the issue of the Arab parties, they have found support from Israel's domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, which has warned that the Palestinian minority's demands for equal rights -- encapsulated in its program for a "state of all its citizens" -- constitutes subversion and that Israel should act in accordance with the principle of a "democracy defending itself" ("Democracy for Jews only," Haaretz, 30 May 2007).

The three main parties vying for Palestinian votes can be described as loosely representing the communist, nationalist and Islamist streams, with each party historically winning three or four seats in the 120-member Knesset.

All have faced attacks from the Zionist parties and more widely from the media for what is seen as their "treasonous" behavior in supporting the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But even in pursuing their domestic agenda -- the campaign for equal rights -- they have found themselves accused of acting as a "Trojan horse": that is, seeking to undermine Israel as a Jewish state on behalf of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. It has been this paranoid perception by the security establishment that has increasingly fueled demands from the Israeli government that the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks.

In the increasingly hostile climate in Israel, the Communist Front has fared best, even though its leader Mohammed Barakeh has been subjected to a series of dubious legal actions by the state and is currently on trial for allegedly assaulting a soldier during a West Bank demonstration.

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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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