Another Israeli election: Why aren’t Palestinians interested?

Many Palestinians with Israeli citizenship will not vote on November 1, feeling their politicians have failed them.

An Arab-Israeli man casts his ballot as he votes in Israel's general election, in Kafr Manda, northern Israel March 23, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
A Palestinian man casts his ballot in Israel's general election, in Kafr Manda on March 23, 2021 [Reuters/Ammar Awad]

When on November 1, Israel holds its fifth election in less than four years, most of the world will see it as yet another sign of division in Israeli politics. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s struggle to retain power and dodge prosecution on corruption charges encouraged political fragmentation and produced a series of unstable governments.

But while on the surface Israeli politics may appear plagued by instability, there has been remarkable political consensus on key issues in security, economic and foreign policy. True disunity, on the other hand, has reigned in the Palestinian community in Israel.

Indeed, the mood among us, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, has been quite gloomy ahead of the vote. According to a recent survey, no more than 39 percent of Palestinians who have the right to vote in Israel will show up at the polls. This could have a serious effect on results, potentially bringing down Palestinian parties’ votes below the threshold needed to enter the Knesset.

So why are we, Palestinians, so reluctant to go to the Israeli polls? Much of it has to do with the strategies of our parties that have failed to produce any meaningful change in the precarious situation we find ourselves in.

A change of direction

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have had the right to vote in Israeli elections since the founding of the state in 1948.

Palestinian parties, even as they multiplied, stayed ideologically close to each other and understood their role as giving voice to the Palestinian community, bringing attention to the injustices it has faced, and opposing Israeli governments of any political leaning and their Zionist policies.

That was very much the case until 2015, when the Joint List was formed by a coalition of Palestinian parties. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the new formation, envisioned the Palestinian presence in the Knesset as playing a role in building a large liberal-democratic base in Israel. That year, it won 13 seats in the Knesset vote and managed to mobilise some 63 percent of eligible Palestinian voters to go to the polls – 10 percentage points more than in the previous election.

In the September 2019 elections, the Joint List again won 13 seats, becoming the third largest force in the legislative body. The alliance’s success came as Netanyahu led a toxic, anti-Palestinian campaign, hoping to hang on to power.

Odeh felt confident after these results and decided to take sides in Netanyahu’s face-off with his opponent, former army chief Benny Gantz. As a result, after the election, he announced the Joint List was going to back Gantz for the prime minister’s post – the first time a Palestinian party was participating in recommending a Zionist premier.

Gantz not only failed to form a government but also rhetorically rejected the Joint List’s support. After the March 2020 election, in which the Joint List won 15 seats, the Knesset was again hung, and again the coalition of Palestinian parties backed the former army chief against Netanyahu. This time Gantz’s “betrayal” was even bigger, as he decided to form a unity government with his adversary.

A year later, Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, decided to take Odeh’s strategy a step further. He took his party out of the Joint List coalition ahead of the March 2021 elections and set out to engage even more with Israeli parties.

“I do not want to be part of any bloc, right or left. I am here another bloc that elected me to serve my people and tasked me with presenting the demands of the Arab public,” he said after the election in which his party won four seats.

The argument Abbas was making was that the Palestinians need to get out of their political self-isolation and be more engaged in the formation of the Israeli government, regardless of its ideology. Doing so would gain them more political leverage and the opportunity to defend their interests at the government level.

In pursuing engagement with the Israeli political parties, however, Abbas made a number of problematic statements. He said “Israel is a Jewish state and will remain Jewish”, and refused to describe Israeli settlers as “violent”. In addition, he said he did not accept calling Israel an “apartheid state”.

Failed strategies

The change of strategy proved disastrous for the Joint List. It deeply disappointed many Palestinian voters who saw that Palestinian parties should not be backing a Zionist prime minister, much less one accused of war crimes against Palestinians. That was reflected in the 2021 Israeli elections, when it gained just six seats.

On the surface, Abbas’s strategy may have seemed more successful, but in reality, it has not been so. The fragmented Knesset and his willingness to engage with the Israeli parties made him a kingmaker in the fraught government formation process in 2021. He struck a deal with the Israeli coalition, which formed the next cabinet, to secure more funding for Palestinian communities in Israel, a pause on demolitions of Palestinian homes and the recognition of Palestinian Bedouin towns.

Three villages were indeed “legalised”, but that was in exchange for Abbas and his party agreeing to the creation of new Israeli settlements in the Naqab desert. Palestinian homes continue to be demolished by the Israelis and no major change has been seen in education, health, infrastructure and other sectors in Palestinian communities.

For many Palestinians, Abbas gave up too much for too little. He reneged on long-held Palestinian positions against the Israeli occupation and apartheid in exchange for temporary relief rather than structural solutions to major problems the community faces.

His controversial stances have also undermined the Palestinian standing in Israeli politics, tying the legitimacy of Palestinians’ demands to their acceptance of Zionism rather than their rights as a community that has lived on this land for centuries.

Both Abbas and Odeh’s strategies have been criticised, even by former colleagues in their coalition. Sami Abou Shehadeh of the National Democratic Assembly (Al- Tajammu’) has suggested that Palestinian parties should go back to their opposition stance.

But that strategy has been ineffective because it also functions within the limitations of the Israeli political space which is very much an apartheid one. For more than seven decades, voting and having Palestinian members of the Knesset has not stopped Israeli dispossession of Palestinians, violence against Palestinians, or the passing of anti-Palestinian laws.

Palestinian communities in Israel are overwhelmingly poor, deprived of resources, underdeveloped and neglected. Infrastructure is crumbling, crime rates are high, unemployment is overwhelming, and poverty is pervasive.

We, Palestinians, know that there is no hope for change with what our politicians offer at the moment. As the November 1 vote approaches, I, like many Palestinians, am asking myself, why vote and act like we have rights or equal citizenship?

I will be one of the many Palestinians who will not cast a ballot. My hope is that the low turnout will be a wake-up call for the Palestinian political class and trigger an important open debate within the community for the way forward.

If nothing has changed in the past 70 years for us and the situation is only getting worse, clearly, we are in need of a radical overhaul of Palestinian politics in Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.