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Apathy cannot be Arab-Israelis’ most vocal political movement

Protest poster in London against Israel's Nation State Law [Apaimages]
Protest poster in London against Israel's Nation State Law [Apaimages]

Jewish Israeli voters and the country’s right wing seem more concerned about the impact of an Arab voter surge in the 9 April General Election than the Arabs are. There is actually a debate among Arab citizens of Israel about whether they should vote or not.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life, using provocative, racist anti-Arab campaign slogans to scare his right-wing supporters into increasing their turnout on polling day. One of those campaigns slogans was fashioned by Netanyahu himself: “It’s Tibi or Bibi” makes reference to Netanyahu’s nickname and the surname of one of the leading Arab Israeli Knesset members, Ahmad Tibi.

He clearly wants to spread the notion that if Israeli voters don’t back “Bibi” they will get “Tibi” and thus allow Arab Israelis to forge the country’s future. That may even be a future that would give Arabs greater leverage over Israel’s policies and undermine the aggressive pace of illegal settlement construction.

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This is really ironic. While the Israeli right is fear-mongering to get its voters to the polls and give Netanyahu a fifth term as Prime Minister, their Arab fellow citizens are doing just the opposite. They are generally lethargic, apathetic, uncaring and unmoved by the prospect of voting.

Opinion polls suggest that Arab Israelis, who represent 20 per cent of the population, may not vote and so their impact on the election will be weak. Turnout might be even lower than the 2015 election, resulting in even fewer Arabs serving in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

A poll conducted by the Yapa Institute and summarised this week in Haaretz, the left-leaning daily newspaper, concludes that “half” of Arab Israelis who are eligible to vote on 9 April will not do so, a drop of 19 per cent from the last election. That’s when 63 per cent of the Arab citizens of Israel cast their votes and achieved their largest-ever representation in the Knesset, with 13 MKs.

With elections weeks away, Israel pounds Gaza - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

With elections weeks away, Israel pounds Gaza – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

I think this is shocking news. Every day we hear the tragic stories of Palestinians being murdered by Israeli snipers along the nominal border with Gaza. We hear about the Israeli government violating international law to pass legislation that undermines the rights of its Arab citizens; to declare illegally that Jerusalem is its “undivided” capital; to annex lands occupied in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, such as the Syrian Golan Heights; and to steal more and more Palestinian land to build and extend Jew-only, racist, illegal settlements.

Is there nothing that can prompt Arab Israelis — Palestinians one and all — to wake-up and do something? They have several political parties which struggle in every election to ensure that they have a “place at the table” where these and other illegal laws are decided. At the very least, their voices are heard, if not listened to.

READ: UN body demands Israel address discrimination against non-Jewish citizens 

As a parliamentary system, members are elected to the Knesset based on a system of “slates” containing the names of candidates under different party banners. The slates which receive the most votes, get the most seats in the 120-member Knesset. The Arab population has historically failed to secure its full representation, although they came closest in 2015 when all of the Arab slates united under one banner called the “Joint List”. They were pushed to do this because Israel’s apartheid government voted to increase the minimum threshold of votes that a slate must receive to get a seat in the Knesset to 3.25 per cent of the total vote cast. Any slate attracting fewer than 3.25 per cents of the votes does not qualify for a Knesset seat. Israel’s Central Election Commission has also tried to ban some Arab parties from even running in the election.

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When you think about it, the lack of motivation says a lot about the Arabs. We love to complain. We love to blame everyone else. We wrap ourselves in emotion and anger rather than roll up our sleeves to achieve positive change.

Is it because Palestinians lack faith in what they can do? We Arabs sometimes think so little of ourselves and our rights, our culture and our history that we allow ourselves to become apathetic, preferring to yell and be negative rather than doing something positive.

Palestinians seem to have nurtured a culture of apathy to such an extent that their most vocal political movement is “The Apathy Party”, whose slogans might well be, “We complain but we do nothing” or “Israel has undermined our rights and we accept it”. Or how about, “It’s better to be a victim, which requires no real hard work and no real effort at all, than to fight the oppressor”?

If the Yapa poll results are accurate, the figures reaffirm that the Palestinians are their own worst enemy; that they enable Israel’s racist and discriminatory policies by being uninvolved and staying at home on polling day.

The Palestinians in Israel have a lot of potential, and yet nothing seems to move them. They are 20 per cent of the population which means that, technically, they should have 20 per cent of the seats in the Knesset. That means 24 seats, taking them up there among the country’s most powerful voices.

Modest Netanyahu – “I am ready to leave my position tomorrow as prime minister, but I have no one to leave the keys with” – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

As a Palestinian American activist and writer, I have seen this apathy at work. It is a factor that empowers the fanatics and extremists, who don’t need to do much in order to stay in power, just point out the suffering, shout the loudest in massive rallies and keep the community wringing its hands in anguish. The extremists can be failures and achieve very little, simply because the community is apathetic and undemanding of change, success or powerful goals.

That’s why the extremists have power. They use suffering like a narcotic to push the Palestinian public into a delirious state of do-nothing anger where, instead of fighting for their rights, they stay home and suffer, and complain about not having rights.

We have to blame the “leaders”, for if we ever had a peace accord in which Palestinians were to get a sovereign state, the extremists would become unemployed. What would they have to scream about if Palestinians won their rights, peace and a state?

The first challenge for the Palestinians in Israel and in the Diaspora is to wake up and end the “State of Suffering” that we have allowed ourselves to inhabit. We need new leaders willing to work hard to find creative strategies to improve Palestinian lives, rather than just sitting back and moaning. And we must recognise that we have the power to bring about change.

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If the Arab Israelis wake up, they could reorganise themselves into a powerful voice. Taking control by democratic means of one-fifth of the seats in the Knesset could lead to political power and the ability to repeal the 66 laws that discriminate against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. Even if they can do none of this, their very presence in such numbers in parliament would create a major platform from which they could educate the world about Israel’s contempt for international law and its many atrocities.

Indeed, the Palestinians could then forge a powerful movement that could change their destiny by embracing the leadership of the Diaspora and the Palestinian leadership under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and those basically imprisoned in the besieged Gaza Strip. Alternatively, they can just stay at home on election day, 9 April, complaining about all of the terrible things that Israel has does to them, sipping traditional coffee, puffing on hookahs and playing the local variation of backgammon.

Of course, in most democracies, not voting is one of the choices that voters can opt for. Arab Israelis could make that decision if they truly don’t care about their future. Or they could get out there and make real change. It’s a no-brainer really. Apathy cannot become Arab Israelis’ most vocal political movement.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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