x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Israel's veer to the Right alienates Arab-Israelis ahead of vote

Tuesday's election looks likely to continue the trend of a decrease in Arab-Israeli participation in elections, which has seen participation plummet from 70 per cent to 53 per cent in 2009. Hugh Naylor reports from Umm Al Fahem, Israel

A commercial poster for an Israeli school with the manipulated image Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu hangs on a bus stop ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images
A commercial poster for an Israeli school with the manipulated image Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu hangs on a bus stop ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

UMM AL FAHEM, ISRAEL // Campaign posters and billboards plaster much of this mountainous city on Israel's eastern hinterland, suggesting high anticipation and voter turnout here for Tuesday's parliamentary elections.

But ask Umm Al Fahem's some 50,000 residents about their thoughts on the ballot, and a gloomier picture emerges, one depicting deep alienation and uncertainty in an Israeli political system drifting further to the right.

They are Arab citizens of Israel, a population of 1.5 million who vote, represent their people in parliament and study and work in Israeli institutions. They also are a minority ever more at odds with an increasingly nationalist Jewish majority and a government they resent as negligent and outright discriminatory. That may explain why those in Umm Al Fahem, such as Ghazi Aghbaria, flatly dismiss the elections.

"Why would I vote?" said the 62-year-old businessman as he walked last week through the city's decrepit streets lined with ramshackle apartment buildings. "I used to vote, but now they're all liars and thieves!"

He views are no exception elsewhere in Israel. Arab-Israeli participation in elections has plummeted in recent years, falling from an average turnout of roughly 70 per cent to 53 in the 2009 campaign.

Tuesday's elections look even less promising.

A survey conducted last month by a political-science professor at Haifa University predicted 51 per cent turnout for Arab citizens, who will likely see Benjamin Netanyahu re-elected to the premiership with an even more right-wing coalition of religious and ultranationalist parties.

Mr Netanyahu's Likud party has merged with perhaps the most concerning of parties for Arab citizens, the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman. Known for his anti-Arab views, the former foreign minister has proposed stripping Arabs of citizenship and forcing them into a future Palestinian state, campaigned four years ago on a "no loyalty - no citizenship" message and once quipped about drowning Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

That has not fostered relations, which the International Crisis group warned in a report last year "have deteriorated steadily for a decade" because, in part, the Jewish majority views Arab citizens as "subversive, disloyal and - due to its birth rates - a demographic threat".

Also because Arabs "are politically marginalised, economically underprivileged" and "ever more unwilling to accept systemic inequality", the report warned "localised intercommunal violence should come as no surprise".

Still, surveys show a yearning to be engaged by the system. The Haifa University poll last month say about 47 per cent are concerned primarily by social and economic gaps.

Some Israeli-Arab politicians have campaigned on addressing these issues, such as more than half of their community living under the poverty line, compared to the national average of 20 per cent. Or an unemployment rate five times higher than the average, which has contributed to rising crime in their communities.

"We are a normal community and, just like people anywhere in the world, people in our community say their biggest issue here is economic," said Jamal Zhalkha, who leads Ballad, an Israeli-Arab party that holds three seats in the Knesset, or parliament.

Arab citizens are descendants of the Palestinians who stayed in what became Israel during its creation in 1948, unlike the some 700,000 who fled or were expelled abroad by Jewish forces. That shattered their community and long made them wary of provoking their new Jewish-Israeli rulers, who placed them under military rule for the first 19 years of Israel's existence.

But they have become more assertive with their Palestinian identity and ties with the broader Arab world. Increasingly, they vote for all-Arab parties instead of Zionist ones and prefer to be called Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Encouraging this has been what Arabs consider rampant discrimination, encountered in hiring, and a number of recent laws they call racist. They include legalising "admissions committees" in some communities that could be used by Jews to vet would-be residents for being, among other things, Arab.

"Part of our struggle is part of the Palestinian struggle against Zionism, because the definition of Israel as a Jewish state is the essence of Zionism and, therefore, we must instead struggle for democracy and for equal rights," said Haneen Zoabi, another parliamentarian from the Ballad party who is running for re-election.

She sees Israeli Arabs as inextricably tied to the fate of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. She opposes Israel's status as a Jewish state and wants to make it "democratic and equal for all citizens", and encourages Arabs both to vote in parliamentary elections as well as to stage "civil disobedience", such as not paying taxes.

Back in Umm Al Fahem, few would disagree with Ms Zoabi's critique. But those such as Mustafa Ghalioun, the city's deputy mayor, doubt voting can rectify their grievances. In fact, he said, it could backfire by lending legitimacy to Israeli policies against Arabs that resemble those in the occupied Palestinian territories, such as elaborate landownership restrictions or outright expropriation in the name of "Judasing" Arab areas, especially in the Gaililee and Negev desert.

A feeling of racial marginalisation has consequently turned many here for political succour to a grassroots Islamic movement that refuses to engage in Israeli politics.

"Look, a Jew is here in Israel," Mr Ghalioun said, holding his hand above his head. Then, putting it closer to the floor, he said: "We're down here."