When it comes to the elections among the Arab voters, it seems that reality has stood still: as if we are not in the midst of the Arab spring, as if hundreds of citizens are not being slaughtered in Syria daily. Thus, the vast majority of the Arab voters voted for the same three traditional Arab parties: The Islamic – Tibi Bloc, The National Progressive Tajamu and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE, also known as Hadash).
In the 70’s of the last century, when progressive and liberating voices were strong, Arab voters challenged the traditional clan vote, which was aligned to the Zionist Labor Party (in the 60’s called Mapai), and instead backed DFPE and others that supported the PLO. In Nazareth the DFPE coalition included Moslems and Christians.
But as the winds of freedom and revolution ebbed in the 90’s, voters turned back to the traditional lines. DPFE lost its dominant role (in the elections in 1977 it got 51% of the Arabic vote while today it gets 23%). DFPE changed its character and adopted the same tactic as the other parties: using clan and family affiliations.
As a result the Arab public is divided again among parties that buy votes and exert social pressure. The decisive factors in the parties’ election campaigns were the strengthening of the Israeli Right, the threat of one party’s disqualification by the elections committee, house demolition plans, the Occupation and the war with Gaza. All of these are real issues, but the role of political parties that wish to represent an oppressed minority is to provide a road map to change reality. None of the three parties has put forward a program for genuine change.
The axiom prevailing among the parties is that there is no possibility of changing anything, hence all what we need is “not to compromise”, not to “give up”, “to be strong”, along other clichés coming at the expense of a political program, practical work and an action plan.
The political standstill in the Arab street is expressed by the fact that once again the same Arab lists ran in these elections. There was no change in their leadership and political line relative to previous election campaigns: The Islamic Movement Bloc (A.M) won 4 seats; Tajamu ran Hanin Zuabi as its symbol, because of her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza, and got 3 seats ; DFPE took 4 seats. In contrast to the drama in the Israeli political arena following Kadima’s disappearance, the rise of Yair Lapid, the Likud’s decrease and the strengthening of Labor and Meretz – as well as the impact of campaigns of Daam and Eretz Hadasha – no change was noted in the Arab sector.
The conventional wisdom that Arab politics lacks influence
The campaign in the Arab street was sleepy two or three weeks prior to the elections. Then came signs of arousal made by vote contractors and party activists, who set up temporary offices in city centers, and who wandered about with cars and fuel vouchers, distributing promises for student stipends, and so on.
What characterized the Arab campaigns were billboards, advertisements and interviews bought from the media, where only issues specifically related to the Arab population were featured, thus stressing its segregation. The Arab parties’ messages were alienated from the daily problems the public is coping with. The prevalent sense was that no one represents the problems of the poor, the unemployed, the workers, the young temporary and manpower workers who had finished their studies but could find no path, including academics who could find nothing suitable to their education.
Arab politics is portrayed as inefficient. Since October 2000, a deep rift has opened between Arab society and the Israeli establishment. The Labor Party, the pragmatic element in the country’s leadership, once served to some extent as an address on which the Arab leadership could exert pressure, gaining partial achievements. But Labor has turned its back to the Arabs. As a result, the Arab parties and the local Arab leadership, including the High Monitoring Committee for the Arab Citizens of Israel, lost their influence. Thus, the Knesset elections became unimportant, and the political center shifted to local elections, where the fight is over jobs and dominance. Discussion on how to influence governmental policies does not exist on the agenda of the Arab parties.
In order to save their parties’ diminished prestige, some Balad and DFPE activists (including several Jewish leftists) have promoted an initiative to merge the parties in one electoral list. The indifferent reaction to this initiative, as well as the decision of DFPE to preserve its former list of candidates (while rejecting the call to place a woman in a realistic slot), revealed the fact that there is nothing new in these two parties. This failure has demonstrated that the party leaders take care of their seats and status, not the public interest.
Public opinion surveys were predicting a high abstention rate in the Arab sector. A Haifa University survey held in early December 2012 indicated that half of the potential Arab voters would not show up. Among the abstainers, it showed, one third of eligible voters never vote and another third boycott the elections for ideological reasons. (These are the supporters of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch and of the Abnaa el-Balad movement.) However, the survey identified another third, i.e. above 100,000 eligible voters, who wish to vote but do not know for whom, because they have lost faith in the existing parties.
Examining the issues that preoccupy the Arab public, the survey found that above all they care about economic and social problems. A full 47% of respondents said that they were highly concerned about unemployment, housing, and the poor state of the education and health systems. Another 26% expressed their concern about inequality between Arabs and Jews, as embodied in the State’s Jewish nature. 19% stated that they are very concerned about the violence in Arab towns. Only 8% expressed concern about the relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Against this background – and following indications of support for Daam Workers Party in the Jewish street as a Jewish-Arab party combining a political and social platform with proofs of grass-roots work – the Daam campaigners foresaw an opportunity to forge a new current in the Arab street. The vacuum created by the Arab parties, the economic and social troubles left unattended, could have been a good basis for building an innovative political force.
Although the Arab press ignored the existence of Daam, its campaign – launched in websites and the local press – succeeded in reaching a great number of youth who joined its Facebook page. The coverage of Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka in the Israeli press contributed to the campaign. The total amount of Likes reached its peak at the beginning of January with 500-1,000 new Likes per day. There were appeals to support the party from young people; they saw a fresh new message that reality can be changed.
Election day as a reflection of the social crisis
That said, the street remained indifferent and passive. The vast majority of the Arab citizens was not interested in voting and went to the polls under social pressure or material temptation. During the morning and noon hours, the voter turnout was very poor, even in comparison to previous elections. According to a report published at 17:00 on Ynet, Israel’s leading news website, the voter turnouts in Nazareth were about 30%, in Sakhnin – 33%, in Taybe – 28%, in Tira – 25%, Kfar Qasim – 38%, in Jaljulia – 20%, in Qalansawe – 27%, and in Umm al-Fahm – 21%.
Then the mechanisms of the Arab parties and the establishment went into action, working from the mosques and in the streets, arguing that there is a patriotic duty to bring the Arab parties into the Knesset, and at any price. According to Ynet’s report, in a Sakhnin ballot box examined by the Central Elections Committee, the number of ballots was higher than the number of voters. In another ballot box, the deficiencies led to a police investigation. According to media reports, the police got the instruction that keeping peace and order was its most important task, and not the prevention of forgeries and irregularities. Hence, a person protesting forgeries becomes a problem that must be silenced.
It is important to note that while we take into account the fact that the Arab parties gained 300,000 votes, the voting for these parties did not stem from personal decision. For the vast majority it was not a political, principled voting but an act attributed to traditional social and group affiliation.
In Haaretz (Feb. 5, 2013), Salman Masalha described this reality well: “In Umm al-Fahm, the city where ‘the opium of the people’ is given abundantly, it suddenly appears that its inhabitants discovered Marxism – half of them voted for Hadash [DFPE – ed.]. If this change was genuine, it is certain that Hadash would have won the city’s mayoral post in the municipal elections, rather than the Islamic Movement. The explanation of the vote for Hadash is tribal: remove from the list Afu Agbarieh, a Hadash candidate [a resident of Umm al-Fahm – ed.], and there would be no trace of the imagined Marxist consciousness in the Islamist city.”
In his Haaretz column, Jackie Khouri equated the Arab voting to a referee’s warning to a soccer player before removal from the field. He wrote: “Indeed, Arab voters finally went to vote without making accounts with the parties, but their conduct during elections day indicated indifference, depression and mistrust in the system. It was a kind of yellow card given by the Arab voter to the Arab parties, a hint saying, ‘Do not threat us every time with the Right. Talk with the field and not just with the activists; do some self-criticism; pour new blood into the parties; present a clear agenda and a unified front, promote social issues.”
The Arab Spring creates a chance for change
In spite of the small number of votes given to Daam in the Arab sector, as well as the general population, Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, its leading candidate, holds that “based on numerous meetings I have had with Arab youth, I recognized encouraging signs of rebellion and a thirst for a new voice. Facebook was very helpful, because it connects hundreds of thousands of youth, almost without intermission, based on uncensored social networks. If in the past the exposure of a party like Daam depended on the approval of newspaper editors, TV and radio stations, now we reach tens of thousands of people behind those editors’ backs and with no need for anyone’s approval.”
“The dozens of activists who joined our ranks during the elections are a harbinger. We realize that thousands of people are looking at Daam as an address and keep following us, till the opportunity to join the party. We’re sure that the message of Daam, coming out strongly against the isolationism and segregation of the Arab parties, addresses the Arab public, the tens of thousands of Arab workers, women and youth who suffer from discrimination. Moreover, the changes taking place in the region, especially the revolutions made by youth in Egypt and Tunisia, may become an enormous catalyst for the creation of new, open political forces even among the Arab population in Israel.”
— Translated by David Merhav