Arab Israelis struggle to keep hold in parliament

BE’INEH — “Fifteen minutes of your time every four years is not too much to ask. You must vote,” one Arab Israeli lawmaker shouted through his megaphone.

“Vote for us or for any other Arab party,” called Azmi Bishara to a small audience in the northern Israeli village of Be’ineh-Njeidat.

Days before the March 28 election, Arab Israeli parties are struggling to ensure enough votes to keep their toehold in the Israeli parliament, battling apathy and frustration among voters as well as discouragement by some Islamist leaders.

Although Arabs make up a fifth of Israel’s six million people, parties catering specifically to Arab interests hold only eight seats in the 120-member parliament.

Many Arabs feel left out within Israel and lack confidence in the ability of often bickering Arab parties to effect change.

“People are in a dilemma, if they vote, they don’t make a difference, if they don’t vote, they lack representation,” said building worker Mahmoud Khatib, 38.

Because the threshold for any party to get a parliamentary seat has been raised to 2.0 per cent of the total vote in this election from 1.5 per cent before, Arab lawmakers worry that they may not keep their seats.

Arab politicians reckon they need at least 60 percent of registered Arabs to vote if they are to stand a chance of holding on, though they could be helped if there is a low turnout among Jewish voters.

Arab politicians are also trying hard to win over voters planning to support the largely Jewish parties — which have campaigned heavily in the Arab communities.

Uncertainty

Two recent polls suggested a drop in support for Zionist parties among Arab Israeli voters from around 30 per cent to as low as 16 per cent, but another poll suggested that it could rise to 48 per cent.

“The Arabs in Israel today are disillusioned with both the Jewish and Arab parties but the Arab parties are considered the lesser evil,” said Sami Smooha of Haifa University, who conducted one of the polls.

Arab Israelis are descended from families who stayed while hundreds of thousands fled or were forced out during the 1948 war of the Jewish state’s founding.

Arab Israelis complain of institutional discrimination, demanding more employment for Arabs in state bodies and better funding for their municipalities. Many sympathise with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.

“There is discrimination between Arab and Jew in everything but your votes, you will be shooting yourselves in the foot if you boycott,” Ahmed Tibi, one Arab lawmaker seeking reelection, told a meeting.

“Our campaigns are focused on increasing the voter turnout and on the importance of voting for Arab parties,” Tibi explained.

But Israel’s main parties are also trying hard to win the Arab vote.

In every Arab town, posters carry the smiling faces of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — in a coma since he suffered a stroke in January — and acting leader Ehud Olmert, whose centrist Kadima Party has a big lead in opinion polls.

Some Arab Israelis feel that by voting for Zionist parties that they know will win, they would have a better chance of improving their conditions than by supporting Arab candidates likely to remain on the margins.

“It is not true that Arabs would vote more for Arab parties. There is a confidence gap between them and the public,” said Majalli Wahbaa, a member of the Arabic-speaking Druze community.

As number 18 on Kadima’s list of candidates, he is virtually guaranteed to win a seat in the new parliament.

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