Magazine article The Middle East

The Dye Is Cast: The Israeli Elections Are over, the Votes Counted and the Results Announced. but What Happens Now? Can the Region Hope for a Change of Direction from Tel Aviv with Regard to the Palestinians and International Foreign Policy, or Are We Doomed to Four More Turgid Years of the Same? Sharif Nashashibi Reports, with Additional Analysis by Lawrence Joffe

Magazine article The Middle East

The Dye Is Cast: The Israeli Elections Are over, the Votes Counted and the Results Announced. but What Happens Now? Can the Region Hope for a Change of Direction from Tel Aviv with Regard to the Palestinians and International Foreign Policy, or Are We Doomed to Four More Turgid Years of the Same? Sharif Nashashibi Reports, with Additional Analysis by Lawrence Joffe

Article excerpt

PRIOR TO ISRAEL'S GENERAL ELECTIONS IN JANUARY, CENTRE-LEFT political parties signed a covenant pledging "to initiate promoting real equality so that within m years discrimination between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority will disappear." It also demands that the state invests 2.5bn shekels (more than $680m) annually over a decade to achieve that goal.

Signatories include representatives from the recently-formed Yesh Atid, now the second-largest party in the Knesset after the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list; Labour, the third-largest party; and Kadima, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. None of the ultra-Orthodox or right-wing parties took part.

The covenant says Israel must "foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants." Such sentiments, while laudable, are nothing new. "We have experienced talk and declarations that were never implemented," said Ramiz Jaraisy, the mayor of Nazareth--dubbed "the Arab capital of Israel," and the largest city in the north of the country--and chairman of the committee of Arab local authorities. As such, the timing of the covenant arguably warrants more attention.

It is not outlandish to believe that its main purpose was to galvanise Arab citizens--those of Palestinian origin--to vote, in the knowledge that their participation hinders right-wing parties. Some of the speakers at the signing ceremony urged Israeli-Arabs, who comprise more than 20% of the population, to do so in larger numbers than before. Whether this covenant is sincere, or simply an electoral ploy, remains to be seen. "I don't expect a change in reality," said Jaraisy. "Prove to me differently."

To vote or not to vote?

Several Israeli newspapers published opinion pieces calling on Arab citizens to vote, with the liberal Haaretz even printing an editorial in Arabic. The campaign by Israeli Jews and Arabs to get the latter voting was met with an opposing campaign to boycott the elections. It is a difficult dilemma experienced by communities in any country that have a deep-seated sense of disenfranchisement and alienation. Do they try to change a flawed system from within, while running the risk of legitimatising it, or is their disaffection better noticed and addressed by boycotting it altogether?

"On the face of things, it looks like an exercise in futility. At every Israeli general election hundreds of thousands of Arabs cast votes for parties that do little to improve their lot," The Economist said in an editorial in January. "Arab political parties have signally failed to defeat a raft of laws detrimental to them that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government has passed in the outgoing parliament." Arab "despair is the main reason for abstention."

Discrimination

The treatment of Arabs as second-class citizens goes against Israel's Declaration of Independence, which says the state "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex," and "will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."

Such treatment is no longer portrayed as simply a point of view, but widely acknowledged as fact, though that has not improved the situation. Hence the need for this covenant, which states that the Arab minority "suffers from discrimination relative to other population groups in the distribution of state resources in society and development."

The New Israel Fund (NIF), which describes itself as "the leading organisation committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis," notes: "In every Arab community, and in the five mixed cities where both Jews and Arabs live, de facto discrimination is readily apparent."

Arab citizens "vote, pay taxes and speak Hebrew, yet suffer pervasive discrimination, unequal allocation of resources and violation of their legal rights," adds the NIF. …

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