On Tuesday, voters in Israel go to the polls in the “only democracy in the Middle East” to choose their new leaders. There are 34 parties competing for 120 seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).
For many, many years Israel has touted its status as the “only democracy in the Middle East” to curry favor with the U.S. and other Western countries. I can imagine Israeli leaders saying something like:
“Look — we’re like you; your friend and ally; your only line of defense in this barbaric region which doesn’t respect due process, the rule of law, or the enlightened processes found in democratic institutions.”
That message is falling on deaf ears now, as western governments (except perhaps the U.S.) are all too well aware of the sordid track record Israel has as an occupying power failing to protect Palestinian human rights and fulfill its obligations under international law.
Anyway —- back to the election on Tuesday.
In contrast to the dismal 50% of eligible voters who bother to cast a ballot in the U.S. presidential election, 65-70% of eligible voters are expected to show up Tuesday, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is on course “to head a more hawkish and pro-settler government, even though final opinion polls show a drop in the number of seats his right-wing electoral alliance is expected to win.”
This prediction is based on the conservative, ultra-orthodox, ultra-religious voters turning out in much greater numbers than the youth and Arab voters. A recent news story provides a good description of the lopsided voter turnout in Israel, available here. If this continues, the minority is going to be the majority, at least in the Knesset.
An Israeli-Arab female politician is hoping to be re-elected to the Knesset on Tuesday, and she is trying hard to rally the Arab voters to show up.
In the past four years, Haneen Zoabi has been threatened, spat at, manhandled, accused of being a terrorist and subjected to attempts to expel or disqualify her from the Israeli parliament. The vilification of the feisty Israeli-Arab politician comes mainly as a result of her participation in the flotilla of ships attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza in 2010.
Haneen Zoabi sounds courageous. She is not timid about calling the current occupation an apartheid regime. She says:
“If the definition of apartheid is to preserve privileges for one people at the expense of another people, in terms of land, resources, citizenship laws – then this is apartheid. There are differences between South Africa and Israel. But apartheid is how to control, how to keep the dominance. Even if apartheid is a narrow definition of segregation, you can still find a lot of apartheid policies in Israel – roads, land confiscation, checkpoints.”
I hope she is re-elected, but that will depend on the GOTV (get out the vote) campaign, just like in American elections.
On January 15, one of Israel’s leading papers published an editorial in three languages urging Israeli-Arabs to vote on Tuesday. The editors noted the decline in their participation at polls.
But ever since the second Rabin government, which relied on the votes of the Arab population’s representatives in the Knesset, the right has worked systematically to deny the legitimacy of Arab participation in making diplomatic decisions. Today, this effort finds expression in a campaign of incitement against Arab Knesset members and in anti-democratic legislation.
And on the other side, the forces that pretend to pose an alternative to the right generally ignore the Arab population’s existence. To change this situation, greater Arab representation in the Knesset is needed.
The full editorial in English is available here.
Of course, Palestinians in the occupied territories (West Bank and Gaza) are not allowed to vote in Israel’s election, even though the policies and actions of the Israeli government have a direct impact on their lives. Israel controls nearly every aspect of their lives.
An initiative this year that pairs Israelis with Palestinians in order to give them their vote may be only symbolic and have no practical impact on the election results, but I think it is extremely important. Here’s the story.
Aya Shoshan does not look like the kind of person who would give up her right to vote.
Besides being a politics student at Ben Gurion University, she is a member of an organisation helping struggling Palestinian communities in the South Hebron hills benefit from renewable energy sources. In short, she is an informed, concerned Israeli citizen.
At some point, however, her concerns made her doubt Israel’s very idea of democracy. “I believe that the act of voting is far less important than that of creating public awareness.” She says “There are almost four million Palestinians living under Israeli rule with no civil rights and in a state of shocking inequality.”
I am sitting in Cairo and, hopefully, will be watching the returns on TV Tuesday night. While I’m dreaming that Netanyahu gets trounced, I know it won’t happen. Will Israel’s “democracy” survive another four years under his leadership?