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Israeli Arab poll turnout set to be the lowest ever

Mixed feelings on election, with many believing right-wing Jewish hardliners will win regardless.

TEL AVIV // Soul Haj and Bassem Zrik, two Israeli Arabs from the town of Jaffa, cannot agree on whether to cast their ballots in Israel's general election next month.

Ms Haj, a psychology student, said she and her friends may hang "Vote Here" signs on rubbish bins throughout Jaffa ahead of the January 22 election.

"My vote is as good as trash - with or without the votes of Israeli Arabs, the Jewish majority will be the one to make all the decisions," said the 23-year-old, taking a break from waiting on tables at a cafe in the centre of Jaffa.

Mr Zrik, a 50-year-old kiosk owner, said he urges all of his friends in Jaffa to vote. The father of three, leaning against his glass counter filled with lottery tickets and speaking above the squawking of caged parrots in the store's corner, said: "I tell every Arab that he has to vote because if he doesn't, it'll help strengthen the ruling Jewish right-wingers."

Such divisions reflect an intensifying debate among members of Israel's Arab minority on whether to boycott a political system that is increasingly dominated by the Jewish, anti-Arab right.

A survey released last week showed that Israeli Arabs' turnout in next month's ballot may be about 51 per cent, the lowest ever. Their previous record-low turnout was 53 per cent at the last election in 2009, which gave rise to what many experts describe as the country's most right-wing government and parliament since its creation in 1948.

Asad Ghanem, a political-science professor from Israel's Haifa University who conducted the poll, said the turnout may be even lower because many of those who tell researchers that they will vote often do not. Before the 2009 election, about 70 per cent of Israeli Arabs said they planned to vote, he said.

Mr Ghanem said many of Israel's Arab citizens are distressed by the increasing influence of the Jewish Right over Israeli government decisions.

They are also disappointed with the achievements of the two Arab parties, Balad and Raam-Taal, and the joint Jewish-Arab party, Hadash, in the country's 120-member parliament and the latter's' inability to influence policies, he said.

Bolstering their claims was a decision last week by Israel's central election commission - which left-wing critics say was dominated by right-leaning members - to bar Hanin Zoabi, a prominent politician from Balad, from running in January's ballot. That was mainly because of Ms Zoabi's controversial move in May 2010 to board a Gaza-bound flotilla that challenged Israel's blockade of the Palestinian enclave and was intercepted during a deadly raid.

Israel's outgoing cabinet is governed by the Jewish hard-line party Likud, whose joint ticket in the upcoming election with the ultranationalist movement Yisrael Beitenu is predicted by all polls to emerge victorious.

Many members of Israel's Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of the country's 7.8 million population, say they increasingly feel alienated by the government and by the Jewish majority and discriminated against in areas including jobs, education and health.

The income gaps between Arabs and Jews have widened in the past decade, with a study last March by the research company Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute showing that 53 per cent of Israeli Arab families lived in poverty in 2010, compared with 14 per cent of Jewish families.

Arab politicians are worried about the potentially low voter turnout in their communities.

Ibrahim Sarsur, a member of Raam-Taal, said that the three Arab parties had bolstered their cooperation in this election campaign in a bid to persuade Israeli Arab voters to cast their ballots.

Asmara Aghbaria Zahalka, the 39-year-old Arab Israeli head of the Daam Worker's Party, which is trying to pass the required threshold of two per cent of the total vote to get into parliament, accuses Arab politicians of wrongly focusing on issues such as a Palestinian state rather than the dire economic conditions facing Israeli Arabs.

That accusation is supported by Mr Ghanem's survey, which showed 47 per cent of Arab citizens were most disturbed by social and economic gaps. Only 8 per cent were most concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ms Zahalka, whose supporters include both Arabs and Jews, said that during a meeting with residents of the northern Israeli Arab community of Kafr Qara last month - at the height of Israel's deadly eight-day attack on the Gaza Strip, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed - not one question was asked about her stance on the Gaza strikes.

Instead, the participants focused on their economic troubles.

"There is no doubt that following the Arab Spring revolutions, Israeli Arabs will eventually also take to the streets in mass economic demonstrations," said Ms Zahalka.

"The choice by many of them not to vote seems like a passive protest, but inside they are burning with anger."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae