Efforts to bring an end to the right wing, anti-peace policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have clearly fallen short of their goals. One thing is certain, though; the blame for his survival falls squarely on the shoulders of Israel’s Arab community.
One must always take a cautious approach to anything that Israel does, including its complex election process, but the results of Tuesday’s General Election show clearly that Netanyahu’s survival is in a large part due to Israeli Arabs who somehow believed that it’s better to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the 70-year nightmare doesn’t exist than to go out and vote. Although the choice of government boiled down to two slates led on the one hand by extremist Apartheid advocate Benjamin Netanyahu, and on the other by former Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz, whose politics are very similar to Netanyahu’s, Israel’s Arab citizens could have had a say in the outcome. They fluffed it.
The Arab voters in Israel missed the obvious third alternative, to vote for their own interests in an increasingly hostile environment. In the fight to defend the civil rights of Israel’s 1.8 million Arab citizens and reverse the state’s quarter century of frustrating the peace process, Tuesday’s result is an election Nakba for the Palestinians. Netanyahu has the advantage over his rival Gantz, and his new government will be more repressive than before.
So much was at stake and yet 50 per cent of Arab Israelis eligible to vote allowed racist provocation to push them into a self-destructive protest abstention. Not only has the number of Arab parties with seats in the Knesset fallen, but voter apathy has also sent a signal to everyone that their concerns are insignificant on the road ahead. The Arab Israelis helped to strengthen Netanyahu’s grip on power. Even worse is the fact that in the face of one of the most racist, anti-Arab campaigns in Israel’s history – which is replete with anti-Arab racism in any case — the country’s Arab citizens buried their heads in the sand rather than fight for change.
Netanyahu called for the annexation of all of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and much of the available land, isolating the Palestinian population in disconnected Bantustans. Election rhetoric was filled with scaremongering about the so-called Arab voter threat changing Israel and forcing it to accept Palestinian statehood. On election day, around 1,200 Netanyahu activists were given cameras to take to polling stations in Arab areas, a disgraceful form of intimidation and bullying in a country which claims to be a democracy; indeed, “the only democracy in the Middle East”.
Netanyahu’s victory spells doom for many of the Palestinian national objectives and increases the challenges in the fight against institutional racism and the struggle for Palestinian independence.
Although Netanyahu’s Likud Party slate was thought to have tied with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan Party on 35 seats each, the final results show that Likud actually won 36 seats, one more than Kahol Lavan. In order to get the minimum 61 seats needed to form the government in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu will depend on forging a coalition with other right-wing parties.
The relative failure of Gantz in his first election campaign not only spells doom for Israel’s fast-disappearing political Left, but also means an even more gloomy future for Israel’s Arab population. This will be Netanyahu’s fifth term in office as Prime Minister. The man who helped destroy the Oslo Peace accords of the 1990s is now well placed to destroy Palestinian civil rights and bury the hope of statehood permanently.
If he succeeds in forging a coalition, Netanyahu will use it as a mandate to advancehis anti-Arab platform which includes a call to annex occupied West Bank land, while enclosing Palestinians in Bantustans which might function like mini-Gaza Strips. Although Israel withdrew its military presence and illegal settlements from Gaza in 2005, it has since maintained a smothering blockade that has turned Gaza into an open-air prison subject to Israel’s political and military whims. Both legally and practically, Israel is still the occupying state.
A similar fate lies in wait for major Palestinian population centres in the West Bank, such as Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and Jenin. Annexation, which Netanyahu’s party has advocated for years although he himself has publicly opposed it, would mean a tougher occupation with more restrictions that will push the two state solution into oblivion. It would also bury any hopes of a single, democratic state for all people living between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
Moreover, the new political reality will put pressure on US President Donald Trump to favour Israel’s political needs even more than he does at the moment. In the past year, Trump has promised to unveil a peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians described as the “deal of the century”, while simultaneously agreeing to nearly everything that Israel has demanded: Washington has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital; moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, which it has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War.
No one really knows what the Trump deal actually offers and Netanyahu’s victory gives America the opportunity to change the final details. Trump has said that he will unveil it only after the Israeli election, and now he can change the plan from one that gives Palestinians a foundation for independence to one that pushes statehood off the agenda altogether. It is possible that he will propose that Jordan and Egypt can provide land for a “Palestinian state” to be controlled by the two Arab countries. That would fall in line with Israel’s political charge to encage major Palestinian populations in the West Bank.
Regardless of what Trump unveils, his “deal of the century” is irrelevant, as it is rejected by Israel, rejected by the Palestinians and rejected by most of the Arab world. What is really relevant, though, is how the Arab countries will deal with Israel’s increased control over the Palestinians. Most of them are embedded deeply into Israel’s reality, albeit behind closed doors.
On the ground, of course, Israel has already enclosed its own Arab citizens in “virtual Bantustans” by approving almost 70 laws which discriminate against non-Jews, including the “Jewish Nation-State Law” which opened the door to a more aggressive and troubling future wherein Arab interests are undermined. Such legislation meant that ballot papers this week were printed in Hebrew only, even in Arab areas; Arabic is no longer an “official” language of the self-declared “Jewish State”. Over the past decade or so, Israel has been gradually eliminating Arabic from road signs and other aspects of public life.
Apathy on the part of Arab voters and divisions within the once powerful coalition called “The Joint List” means that Arab parties fell well short of their potential to hold 24 seats in the Knesset. Instead of the Joint List’s 13 seats, the predominantly Arab Ra’am Balad slate took just four, with Hadash-Ta’al doing marginally better with six. This weakened parliamentary representation also weakens the ability of Arab leaders to speak out against rising discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel.
Is the idea of having more control over their own destiny so very frightening for Israel’s Arabs? Or is it that the Palestinian leadership within Israel and across the diaspora is so uninspiring that doing nothing is better than fighting for one’s dignity?
The Arab Israeli response to the unprecedentedly racist election campaign was crippled by self-imposed hurdles. The Palestinians in Israel trivialised the value of their votes more than they have ever been marginalised in the 71 years of their “non-existent” existence in the State of Israel. At a time when they could easily have united to increase voter turnout, they fractured themselves and stayed at home.
It was different in 2015. When Netanyahu’s right-wing government raised the minimum threshold for party slates to qualify for a seat in the Knesset to 3.5 per cent of the vote, the Arab Israelis rose above their selfish rivalries and went to the polls “in droves”, as the racist Prime Minister described it. Despite the obvious intention to try to exclude the many small Arab parties whose representatives have been demonised, threatened with lawsuits and in some cases jailed for their criticism of Israel’s racist, Apartheid policies, the now defunct Joint List took 13 seats. Now the Arab parties have just 10.
Like all things Arab, apparently, reality outlives reason. Israel’s Arab political parties can blame the election results on Arab despair, paranoia, intimidation, oppression and racist rhetoric by the right-wing Jewish parties, but the truth is that the Arabs have no one to blame but themselves. More marginalised than ever before, the Palestinians are now reeling from an election Nakba which leaves them with no meaningful role in forging their own destiny. That’s what happens when you choose not to vote. Israel’s Arab citizens have scored an own goal of epic proportions.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.