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Israeli Arabs threaten vote boycott
Disillusioned with right and left,Israeli Arabs threaten to sit out vote
By Gil Sedan
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 30, 2001
JERUSALEM For the first time in Israel's history, most
Arab voters appear ready to
boycott the upcoming elections, a protest that may play a large role in
determining the country's next prime minister.
Generally considered a safe vote for the Labor Party, Israel's nearly
one-million-strong Arab population -- a
sixth of the country's population -- has played a pivotal role in past
Israeli elections, which sometimes are decided
by fractions of a percent.
When Israel goes to the polls on Feb. 6, however, it appears
increasingly likely that Arab voters will stay
home, disillusioned with both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader
Ariel Sharon and increasingly
radicalized in their attitude toward the Jewish state.
The roots of the problem are complex, lying both in Israel's historical
discrimination against the Arab
minority and unresolved issues of Palestinian identity that have cast doubt
on Israeli Arabs' loyalty to the state.
The issue came to a head in late September with the outbreak of the
``Al-Aksa Intifada" in the West Bank,
Gaza Strip and within Israel proper. Israeli Arabs joined in the first days
of violence, rioting in the streets of their
cities and towns, attacking passing Jewish cars, setting forest fires
throughout the Galilee and attempting to burn
down neighboring Jewish communities.
Thirteen Israeli Arabs were killed in the ensuing clashes with police,
and community leaders accused the
state of reacting with an excessive force born of racism. The government has
appointed a commission of inquiry to
examine police actions, but the standoff deepened the Arab community's sense
Their quandary is heightened by Palestinian accusations that the Israeli
response to the past four months of
violence -- such as assassination squads targeting leading Palestinian
militants -- makes Barak a ``war criminal."
``When the Palestinian Authority describes Barak as a war criminal, this
is a problem for us," said
Mohammad Amara of Bar-Ilan University. ``How can we vote for someone who is
considered a war criminal by the
Of course, many Arabs also consider Barak's opponent, Ariel Sharon, a
war criminal for leading Israel into
the Lebanon War in 1982 and for failing to prevent Israel's Lebanese
Christian allies from massacring Palestinians
in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Having convinced themselves that the choice is between two evils, many
Israeli Arabs are trying to decide
whether to stay at home on election day or cast a blank ballot, which will
not be counted.
``The choice we will have to make on election day will not be between
Barak and Sharon," said
Mohammad Dakhleh of the civil rights organization Adallah, ``but rather
between spending the day at the Sea of
Galilee or at the Sakhneh park."
That's bad news for Barak. With Sharon holding a double-digit lead in
opinion polls, Barak's only chance
of victory may be a sudden change of heart among the Arab public.
Last week, however, leaders of the Arab community meeting in Umm al-Fahm
unanimously, to boycott the elections. This marked perhaps the first time the
community has reached a wide
consensus on a national issue.
Barak received 95 percent of the Arab vote in his May 1999 race against
Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu. This time around, however, it appears that Israeli Arabs want to
get rid of Barak at any cost, even if it
means making the hawkish Sharon prime minister.
Ahmad Tibi, a Knesset member and former adviser to Palestinian Authority
President Yasser Arafat, stood
at a Tel Aviv University symposium last Sunday and, with tears in his eyes,
explained why Barak should be
``There is no other place in the world where the state shoots at its own
citizens," Tibi said, referring to the
deaths of the Israeli Arabs in the fall riots. Moreover, Tibi said, Barak was
responsible for the order this winter to
assassinate Thabet Thabet, a Tibi friend and Palestinian Authority official
who headed the Tanzim militia in the
``Whoever annihilated my friend," Tibi said, ``I will annihilate
The Arab community's disappointment with Barak is proportional to the
expectations they had when he
was elected. Like Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Arabs are
not impressed with Barak's claims that
he ``turned over every stone" in the pursuit of peace.
Barak's concessions in the peace talks were unprecedented for an Israeli
leader, but Israeli Arabs say he did
not really mean business because there were some Palestinian demands that he
refused, and because he responded to
Palestinian violence with force.
After months of claiming that Barak is no different than right-wing
Israeli leaders, the Palestinian Authority
this week implored the Arab community to vote for Barak, realizing that
Sharon probably would be far less pliable in
Though his situation seems desperate, Barak has not yet given up on the
Arab vote. The inquiry
commission established after the fall riots has not even begun its hearings,
yet Barak publicly expressed sorrow for
the Israeli Arab deaths, a declaration interpreted as indirect criticism of
Cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Matan Vilnai spent much of their time
this week running from one Arab
village to another, urging Arabs to cancel their proposed election boycott.
Sharon, on the other hand, is not wasting the energy. His only support
in the non-Jewish sector is among the
Druze, and Druze former army officers orchestrated minor efforts in their
villages so that Sharon supporters will
remember to vote on Feb. 6.
In one sense, the Arab election boycott is not just Barak's problem, but
the problem of all Israelis.
For the first time, the Arab community may deliberately pull itself out
of the political game, potentially
heightening its growing conflict with the state.
Knesset member Talab a-Sana of the United Arab List said the boycott was
not a passive, but an active,
``We are the ones to decide when we materialize our right to vote, no
one else will decide for us," a-Sana
said. Once the Jews ``have learned the lesson, in the next elections our
leverage will be stronger."
However, Mustafa Kabaha of the Open University in Tel Aviv, concedes
that the boycott represents a
breach in the historic tie between the Arab community and the Israeli left.
Even the positions of the left -- opposition to Palestinian refugees'
right to return to homes they left in Israel
in 1948, support for a firm hand against Palestinian violence, an
unwillingness to dismantle the Jewish symbols of
the state -- are proving too Zionist for an Arab community increasingly
identifying as Palestinians.
The Arabs now propose to form ``a third option" in Israeli politics,
overcoming their internal divisions to
maximize electoral potential and seat up to 14 Arab Knesset members.
Despite great enthusiasm for this ``third option,'' however, Arab
Knesset members could not overcome
their personal differences to agree on an Arab candidate for prime minister.
Such a candidate would have stood little
chance of winning on Feb. 6, but he might have forced a runoff, highlighting
the community's influence.
Boycotting the elections, however, leaves the Arab community to walk a
fine line between demonstrating
its strength and marginalizing itself altogether. It also raises the risk of
further radicalizing the community,
potentially aiding the push to delegitimize the Israeli political system
promoted by part of the fundamentalist Islamic
Movement, one of the ascendant forces in the Arab community.
Yet some Israeli Arabs, such as Arab Democratic Party activist Mohammad
Darawshe, say a boycott is
merely a tactical measure to express displeasure with Barak, not a watershed
event in the community's relation to the
Like other Arab political activists, Darawshe sketches the following
scenario: Sharon wins the elections,
but the days of his coalition are numbered. Early elections for the Knesset
are inevitable, perhaps as soon as next
By then, Darawshe predicts, the Israeli left will have learned its
lesson and will understand that it must pay
a high political price for the Arab community's support.
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.