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Chances for true partnership between Arabs and Jews

Efforts are underway by Arabs and Jews to reverse the trend of Arab voter apathy

“You have no reason to apologize,” my conscience tells me. “But,” it hastens to add, “it wouldn’t hurt to do so.” Go figure. By the way, this is an ongoing debate between my conscience and me, and not only over the decision of the Central Election Committee to disqualify the candidacy of the Arab-Israeli Balad party MK, Hanin Zoabi, a decision that was overturned by the Supreme Court.

These decisions came against the backdrop of widespread calls by Israeli Arabs to boycott national elections. It’s well known that the Arab voter turnout is shrinking. In the past, close to 80 percent of eligible Arab voters cast ballots. Before we get nostalgic for those bygone days, however, we should admit that the high turnout wasn’t exactly a show of democracy in action. Arab functionaries for the Zionist parties used to get even the dead to cast their ballots. In many places, the village elder would collect the ID cards of all the women and most of the men and vote on their behalf, with a proportional quid pro quo: The village head would get work permits from the military government, sometimes even gun permits, and occasionally manage to land a “job” in the education system.

This style too has yet to disappear altogether. Rumors still fly of ballot boxes full of pre-stuffed ballots during the primaries.

According to a survey by the Abraham Fund Initiatives as well as internal party polling data, a month before the upcoming elections, only 41 percent of Arabs voters were sure they’d go to the polls, while 42 percent had already decided not to vote. An additional 17 percent were undecided. In breaking down the results among those who decided not to vote, only seven percent cited ideology as the reason they would not be participating in elections. The rest planned to stay away mainly in protest: against the government’s discriminatory policies and the corresponding belief that the Arab vote cannot change the situation (35%); against the conduct of Arab Knesset members (34%), or against the failure of efforts to unite the Arab parties into a single bloc (12%). Six percent do not see the importance of voting (what can my one vote accomplish). Five percent declined to answer.

The northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, led by Sheikh Raed Salah, and the “Bnei Hakfar” radical nationalists welcomed these survey results, waving them as evidence of Arab ideological opposition to the State of Israel. This, despite the fact, as noted above, that only seven percent of those planning to stay away – which constitute less than three percent of the Arab population – will do so for ideological reasons.

Not surprisingly, these results also play well to extremist parties in Israel, especially those who supported banning MK Hanin Zoabi for her participation in the Gaza flotilla in 2010.

To counter the trend of boycotting elections, Arab activists are conducting a major get out the vote campaign. Movingly, they are also being joined by Jewish partners, who have recruited prominent Jewish Israelis – from left and right – to entreat Arab voters with a petition entitled “We want you as partners: come vote.” This call acknowledges the prolonged discrimination suffered by the Arab population, and recalls the events of October 2000 (in which 13 Arab protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli police) as a major rupture that precipitated the plunge in the will to vote. But it also sees the separatist trend as posing a grave danger to the mutual interests of the majority of the two communities.

True partnership between Jews and Arabs is possible, as happened during the second Rabin government. Even if there is not always agreement between the groups – and after all, that’s the nature of democracy – it is imperative that all citizens take part in shaping the future together. This is the first step towards the establishment of a politics that respects the needs and identities of the majority and of the minority.

So, getting back to my conscience, yes, there is an apology, even a twofold apology: one for the behavior of MK Zoabi, and one for that of her detractors.

Zoabi has every right to think differently and act differently. But when she conveys indifference towards Israeli society, makes no effort to appeal to the Jewish street and takes a politically militant line, she not only feeds extremist Jews and gives them an excuse to go wild at her expense, she also affects her immediate community, Israeli Arabs, many of whom simply do not agree with her. For that, it’s worth apologizing to Arabs as well as to Jews.

And yet, as citizens of this country, I and my conscience also apologize on behalf of and in the name of democratic values, to all Arabs in Israel affected by the campaign of incitement against Zoabi and the decision to ban her. As demonstrated by the Supreme Court decision, a democratic country does not disqualify a candidate from running just because of extremist statements or actions.

About the Author
Nazier Magally, a writer and journalist who lives and works in Nazareth, is a fellow at the Shacharit public policy think tank. He served as editor-in-chief of Al-Ittihad, Israel's only Arabic-language daily and is presently a member of the editorial staff of Eretz-Aheret, a columnist about matters of Israel for the London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat, and the host of several news magazines on the Second Channel of Israeli television. Magally teaches at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, and has taught at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. In 2003, he led with Father Emile Shofani a delegation of Arab and Jewish notables to Auschwitz.