Roundtable: Reading the Results of the Israeli Elections (March, 2009)

On Tuesday March 3rd, 2009, Mada al-Carmel held a roundtable seminar to analyze the results of the elections and their ramifications for Arab citizens of Israel.
The seminar was opened and facilitated by Mr. Mtanes Shihadeh, a researcher at Mada al-Carmel. The participants were Dr. Amal Jamal Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Tel Aviv, political and social activist Afnan Aghbariyah, and Muhannad Mustafa and Anton Shalhat, both researchers in Israeli affairs.
In his opening remarks, Shihadeh stated that the recent elections gave new consideration to the ideological dimensions of Arab political parties and underscored the political divisions between them. He then outlined the most significant outcomes of the elections, which included the success of the Kadima party in maintaining its strength, the growing power of Avigdor Lieberman’s party, the return of the Likud to the political foreground, the decline of the Labor Party, and the collapse of the last remaining stronghold of the Zionist left, represented by Meretz.
Mr. Anton Shalhat stated that the recent elections came unexpectedly. He described the war on Gaza as an important event in the run up to the elections that induced the Arab parties to shift their election campaigns away from their political platforms, and not to approach voters on the basis of these platforms. Shalhat considered this to be, “a dangerous paralysis of the local political process, one which encourages patterns of non-political voting.”
Moreover, Shalhat asserted that the fact that a united Arab list was not formed can be attributed to the political divisions between the main Arab political parties. He then presented his analysis of the political platforms adopted by the Arab parties. He contended that the United Arab List lacks any political program, and that the only platform that does exist belongs to one of the list’s member parties, namely the Arab Movement for Change. This platform takes the form of an article written by the head of the movement, MK Ahmed Tibi, and sets out the party’s objectives, the first of which calls for the spreading of democracy in the Arab world. Shalhat stated that the political platform of Tajamoa has been published and made publicly available, and that it connects the battle for survival to the battle for rights. The platform of al-Jabha is available in Hebrew but has not been published on the party’s website in Arabic. Shalhat stated that, “Al-Jabha resolved to run in this election contest as a leftist Israeli party. In its election campaign it tried to reproduce old myths, such as the myth of breaking through into Jewish society, the myth of the Arabs being a reserve for the Israeli left, and the myth that Israeli fascism will first of all hit the Arabs, but then also the Jews. This is, of course, a fabrication, because here fascism strikes the Arabs and does not affect the Jews.” As regards the overall outcome of the elections, Shalhat stated that, “The election results are an indication of the depth of the Israeli political crisis, which has become more acute due to Israel’s failure to impose its dictates on the Palestinians, and because of the continuing [Palestinian] resistance and its success in achieving gains. The achievements made by the resistance have intensified the Israeli political crisis.”
Ms. Afnan Aghbariyah stated that the war on Gaza had a major impact on the elections process, and created two attitudes among Arab voters: either to vote only for an Arab party or to boycott. However, following the attempted disqualification of Tajamoa and the United Arab List, the boycott lost ground. Ms. Aghbariyah then discussed the election campaigns of the Arab political parties, distinguishing between two kinds of campaigns: the first of which respected people’s intelligence, and the second of which belittled them. She drew attention to the attempts made by some parties to stifle and avoid political debate, and argued that pressing issues such as “the two-state solution” and “the rebuilding of the High Follow-Up Committee” were not discussed as they should have been during the election contest.
Mr. Muhannad Mustafa discussed the boycott movement within the Arab community, describing how it began to organize itself in 2001. He stated that the boycott can be divided into three kinds: an ideological boycott, for which a rejection of the current political regime constitutes the point of departure; a political boycott, which, he explained, is essentially based on protest; and a boycott that is driven by political inertia.
Mustafa further contended that the extra-parliamentary Islamic current was a tireless and active part of the boycott movement in these elections, and that it holds up direct elections to the High Follow-Up Committee as an alternative to running for the Knesset. This current has a different political view of how to deal with the Israeli regime from that of other national and Islamic movements, he stated.
He then clarified that the Islamic Movement makes a direct and clear link between elections to the High Follow-Up Committee and the boycott, which in his opinion does not further efforts to turn the committee into a directly-elected body, since not all of the members boycott the elections, and not all boycotters support elections to the committee. Mustafa further stated that the boycott has been transformed into a political issue, which will create new political divisions within Arab society, and contended that, in order to succeed the boycott movement must be associated with a clear political agenda to assure the people of what awaits them after the boycott, which has so far been unforthcoming.
Dr. Amal Jamal stated that a distinction must be drawn between the various patterns of voting among Jews on the basis of two factors, one ideological and the other psychological. He contended that the ideological factor places emphasis on the political divisions between the parties, on differentiating among the Zionist right, center and left, and between the tactics and strategies of the various parties. The psychological factor is a circumstantial one stemming from the war on Gaza and the security situation, as portrayed by the Israeli authorities. Dr. Jamal also stated that during the elections the psychological factor translated into a strengthening of the settlement project and greater legitimacy for the settlers. He then discussed the rising power of the right-wing in Israel, stating that it will have dangerous repercussions for Arab citizens and Palestinians in the 1967 Occupied Territories. He also contended that the election results are indicative of a chauvinistic, ethnic Jewish tendency and a racist Jewish tendency.
Dr. Jamal then stated that the elections results reflect a state of political instability and disorientation within Israeli society – a kind of loss of direction. He said that this clears the space for the rise of fascist political parties, and closely resembles the political situation in Germany shortly before the rise of Nazism. “Voting within Jewish society is identity and ethnic voting. The results reveal that Jews voted on the basis of ethnic belonging,” asserted Dr. Jamal.
With regard to Arab citizens, Jamal pointed to the increase of Arab representation in the Knesset. He stated that Israel deals with Arab political participation as an anomaly that must be resolved. He also warned of the attempts being made by Israeli leaders and political parties to delegitimize the Arab vote and representation using dangerous means, in particular following the failed attempts to disqualify the Arab parties through the available legal channels.