The Palestinian vote is very significant in the Israeli general elections. The next elections will be held in September 2019. These elections are the second general elections within six months after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition in April 2019 led him to dissolve the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) within a few weeks of the elections.
The Palestinian citizens of Israel (as opposed to the Palestinians living in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967) enjoy the rights of equal citizens including equal voting rights, and the right to political representation. Because Palestinians constitute about 20% of the voters, one might expect them to have enormous political powers in a state whose regime is based on a government formed by a coalition of parties.
In practice, the Palestinians have been pushed to a position where the political representation they receive in the Knesset is disproportionate to their weight in the population, and these representatives are also excluded from the decision-making circle.
The Palestinian representation in recent years consists of a number of parties representing the several strains in the Palestinian public – nationalists, Islamists, communists, who were forced to unite on a “Joint List” due to the raise of the electoral threshold in Israel in 2014 to 3.25%. This raising of the electoral threshold, initiated by Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman, a politician known for his opposition to representatives of the Palestinian public in the Knesset, may have been intended to reduce Palestinian representation.
In practice, this move forced the Palestinian public to unite into one “Joint List,” which had a fine achievement in the 2015 elections – 13 seats from a 120-member Knesset.
It has been proven that the union results in higher voting percentages, and thus the Joint List has been able to get more voters to vote than its components separately in previous campaigns. When the party disbanded for the April 2019 elections, and its members contested separately, the number of seats they received fell to 11. Ahead of the September elections, the lists were rejoined. The leader of the Joint List is the popular lawyer Ayman Odeh, of the Communist Party, who is expected to bring many voters to the polls this time.
This success is a threat to Israeli right-wing politicians, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling Likud Party. It is unclear what the nature of the threat is, as Palestinian parties have never attained any real power, were not members of any Israeli coalition, and never nominated a minister on their behalf.
Palestinian Representation in the Knesset Began in the 1940s, when the leaders of the new state decided to give the remaining Palestinian minority within Israel’s borders after the 1948 war (a war that led to the exile of some 80% of Palestinians who had previously lived in the same territories) political representation in the Knesset. In the early years of the state, the authentic representative of the Palestinians was the Communist Party, with some Palestinians being members of Satellite Parties formed by the ruling party Mapai (now the Labor Party) lacking their own independent policy.
The Communist Party was in perpetual opposition. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Communist Party’s monopoly on Palestinian representation was broken, and nationalist or Islamic parties were formed and competed for the voice of the Palestinian voter. These parties remained in opposition, and the Palestinian representation in the Knesset was viewed as challenging the Zionist consensus.
A shiver of hope for change occurred with the rise of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. Although the Palestinian parties did not participate in Rabin’s coalition, their voice was needed to sustain the coalition, which without the Palestinian voice did not have the necessary majority for its existence. This coalition has made great historic moves, most notably the Oslo Accords with the PLO.
The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a Jewish terrorist in 1995 brought an end to this arrangement, and instead of advancing to a situation in which not only the voice of the Palestinians was counted, they would also be given influence, recognition, and legitimacy, the Palestinians were again excluded, and no coalition in Israel has ever relied on the support of Knesset members belonging to Palestinian parties.
The September 2019 elections are not likely to bring about a significant change in this situation. The two major parties, the Likud ruling party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the opposition blue-and-white party led by Benny Gantz, will not rely on the Arab parties to form a coalition.
Netanyahu has a long history of making statements against the Palestinian public and its representatives. His government has enacted the “Nation-State Law” that defined Israel as a Jewish state and forbade every mark of Palestinian national identity. Thus, the Arabic language has lost its stand as an official language, a status granted by the British monarch George the 5th in 1922, during the British Mandate. This legislation is seen by the non-Jewish public in the State of Israel as offensive and discriminatory.
Gantz, former commander-in-chief of the Israel Defense Forces, is seen as having central positions and is deeply rooted in the Zionist consensus. Joining these non-Zionist parties would require a major ideological change for him. His party member, Yair Lapid, once expressed disdain for these parties and refused to cooperate with them. He nicknamed them “Zoabi’s” after the Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi, who was perceived in Israeli center and right circles as an extreme figure who should not be cooperated with.
It seems that no matter what the outcome of the elections is, whether Netanyahu wins or Gantz wins, the “joint list” will remain outside the sphere of influence. This outlook does not explain Netanyahu’s tremendous efforts to cripple Palestinian representation and to prevent the election of members of the “united list” to the Knesset.
In 2015, Netanyahu incited his constituents by claiming that the Arabs rush to the polls by buses funded by the new Israel fund (a non-government human rights organization), and therefore, Likud voters must also rush for the polls and vote for him. This statement was seen to negate the legitimacy of the Palestinian vote in the elections, and Netanyahu quickly apologized for it.
In the April 2019 elections, Likud observers were caught at polling stations in Palestinian communities photographing voters.
Apparently, this was a widespread phenomenon initiated by the Likud party headed by Netanyahu. The (unproven) argument was that in the Palestinian sector, there are many counterfeits in the polls and the cameras were designed to maintain the integrity of the elections. In fact, this was seen in the Palestinian public as a rude attempt to intimidate Palestinian voters, who are suspicious of the government’s actions, and many Palestinians may not be willing to vote if they know they are documented in the voting act.
It should be made clear that the vote itself is behind a curtain, and there was no intention to document the very act of voting, thus preserving the ‘elections confidentiality’. But even the record of voter arrival at the ballot box can cause many Palestinian voters to abstain from voting. The Likud party intends to reiterate this act in the current elections.
In recent days, the Likud party has joined the far-right party, “Jewish Power”, demanding that the Election Committee not allow the “Joint List” to run in the elections. “Jewish power” is the most radical party in the Israeli right, and it openly supports the path of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1994.
Kahane preached the expulsion of Palestinians from the State of Israel. If the demand is accepted (and the chances are very low), the Palestinian public will not have a significant and appropriate representation in the Knesset.
Why is the Palestinian voice threatening Netanyahu so much?
Palestinians have a very low voting percentage, and their parties that do not have, and probably will not have a position of power and influence in the foreseeable future. Netanyahu, the rogue politician, and realist knows this. He also knows that the more Palestinian Knesset members in the Knesset, the harder it will be for his opponents from the center blue-and-white party, committed to their electorate not to rely on the Palestinian vote, to form a coalition.
It seems that this is an ideological position that denies Palestinian self-expression and self-identity and that the measures designed to exclude the Arab parties and not allow adequate political representation are taken for reasons of rigid ideology, rather than for “real-politique”.
One hopes that the Palestinians will indeed rush to the polls. The political inclusion of the minority is extremely important in a democratic state and moreover, appropriate political expression for the Palestinian population, access to positions of power and influence, and integration in all aspects of life in the State of Israel, are the only guarantee of the long-term existence of the State of Israel, its integration into the middle east region and its prosperity.