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Israel’s Arab Citizens Seen as Swing Vote in Election

Times Staff Writer

Some Jewish political leaders believe that the shape of Israel’s next government may be decided by its Arab population--a sort of Middle East variation of the tail wagging the dog.

Top politicians from both the Labor and Likud parties--major contenders in what has been billed as the pivotal Israeli election of Nov. 1--have campaigned vigorously among Israel’s 330,000 adult Arab citizens.

Mayor Tareq Abdel Hai of Tira--an Israeli Arab town of 15,000--is cynical about the campaigning, saying with a dismissive wave of his arm: “We’re used to these pre-election visits. They come every four years, they leave quickly, and they forget us the rest of the time.”

Cynical or not, these Arab citizens represent what Jewish leaders see as one of the nation’s most important but little-understood voting blocs.

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Scores of Villages

Historically, the more dovish Labor Alignment has fared better than its rightist rivals in the scores of Arab towns and villages that dot the Israeli landscape. In the last elections, in 1984, the Arab vote meant three of the 120 seats in the Knesset (Parliament) for Labor and Yahad, a small faction that subsequently merged with Labor.

This was not enough to allow Labor to form a government, but it did mean that party leader Shimon Peres had enough of an upper hand in negotiations with Likud that he became the first prime minister in the so-called national unity government that has ruled ever since.

Many analysts believe that Labor badly needs at least as large a boost from Israel’s Arab voters in next month’s balloting if it is to have any chance of winning. At the very least, it hopes that any Arab votes it loses will go to parties further to the left, helping to prevent Likud from forming a governing majority of rightist parties. While two of the far-left parties are considered taboo as coalition partners, Labor assumes that if Likud is blocked, it could tempt the religious parties to join a Labor-led coalition.

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Campaign Mystery

Labor’s nightmare is a boycott by Arab voters, which could open the door to a Likud victory. Ironically in this heavily polled society, almost no one tries to sample Arab opinion. As a result, the probable leanings of the Arab vote are one of this campaign’s great mysteries.

“It must be borne in mind that we are polling only the Jewish population,” Elihu Katz, director of the Continuing Survey project, wrote in a recent analysis of the electorate. “Unfortunately, our survey does not reach Arab voters, and the irony is that the Arab vote--how many vote and for whom--may be the determining factor in the election.”

Labor paid for a private survey of Israeli Arab voting intentions a few weeks ago, but the results were reportedly disappointing, and the party is now sponsoring a second survey.

Great Change

Interviews with Israeli Arabs make it clear that the community is undergoing great social and political change, influenced by the ongoing uprising by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. And the change suggests why Labor is nervous.

Israel’s Arabs have long been a Middle East anomaly. While hundreds of thousands of their fellow Palestinians either fled or were forced out of their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, they held fast. After the truce in 1949, they found themselves citizens of the new Israeli state, cut off from Arab friends and relatives who in some cases were only a few hundred yards away, across the so-called Green Line in what was then the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.

The Palestinian refugees and many other Arabs often viewed the Israeli Arabs with a combination of jealousy and contempt, as somehow disloyal for staying on under Jewish sovereignty.

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Potential Bridge

After Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in another war, in 1967, things began to change. But while Israel’s Jewish politicians liked to talk about the country’s Arab citizens as a potential bridge to the hostile Arab world around them, it has not been quite that simple.

“As soon as there was contact, (West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians) realized we hadn’t integrated into Israeli society, that we had kept our Arab loyalty,” said Tamim Mansour, a teacher in Tira and an activist in the Progressive List for Peace, a predominantly Arab party supportive of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “We learned a lot from West Bank Palestinians. Culturally, we got a lot of books. We got much more nationalist.”

Second-Class Citizenship

But Israel’s Arabs absorbed much from Israel’s Jews as well. As a result, they tend to be more politically agile and less culturally conservative than their West Bank peers. They are particularly sensitive to what even many Israeli officials admit is their second-class citizenship.

While Israel’s Arabs are better off than their peers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in many Arab countries as well, there is nevertheless a clear gap between them and Israeli Jews in terms of education, housing, health and social services.

Their infant mortality rate is double that of Israeli Jews. And Israeli Arab towns and villages typically get only a fraction of the government financial support given to Jewish towns of similar size.

Most Israeli Arabs, for security reasons, are exempt from service in the army. But as a result, they cannot get the more favorable mortgages or qualify for thousands of higher-paying jobs available to veterans. According to a recent study, more than 40% of Haifa University’s Arab graduates in the past five years are either unemployed or working in menial jobs.

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Thus, for Israeli Arab voters there are two primary issues in this election: equal rights for themselves and self-determination for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.

Discrimination Cited

The two are linked, Mayor Hai said, adding: “As Arabs in Israel we will never get our full rights unless there is first a just peace. The reason we are being discriminated against is because we are Arabs. And as long as Israel is in a state of war with the Palestinians, this will be true.”

Ten months of the anti-Israeli uprising in the occupied territories, in which at least 275 Palestinians have been killed, has further alienated the Israeli Arabs.

Israeli leaders are acutely sensitive to the danger that the uprising will spread across the Green Line into Israel proper. Arabs say they see increased suspicion toward them. They report more frequent roadside security checks, and dozens of Israeli Arabs have been detained. At least nine were arrested recently for allegedly leading nationalist songs and collecting money at weddings to support protesting West Bank Palestinians.

There have been two Israeli Arab strikes in support of the uprising, occasional stone-throwing incidents along key roads through Arab towns and a few firebomb attacks on Jewish targets. But while supporting the uprising politically and financially, most Israeli Arabs have been careful not to step over what Mayor Hai calls the “red line” of national security.

“We had two choices,” teacher Mansour said. “Either to be involved in political activity and convince the Israelis of the justice of our cause or to be involved in stones and commit suicide.”

Parties Called ‘Racist’

A large majority of Israeli Arabs clearly want to keep on working for change within the system, but they are increasingly loath to do so by supporting mainstream Zionist parties.

“For us, both Labor and Likud are racist parties and repressive parties,” Mansour said. “Our aim is to increase the size of progressive elements in the Jewish community that support Palestinian rights.”

A peculiarly Middle East version of pork-barrel politics ensures that even Israel’s National Religious Party, which traditionally controls the Interior Ministry and therefore Arab village budgets, will continue to get some Arab votes.

“They have vote contractors, (Arab) family heads who contract with them to get so many people to vote for them,” Mayor Hai said, referring to the mainstream Jewish parties. "(The contractors) get money for however many voters they bring. It’s habit here. It’s well known.”

But the old system, under which the clan voted as its leader dictated, is eroding as new generations of better-educated, more politically active Israeli Arabs reach maturity. And traditional voting patterns are changing as well.

Iron-Fist Policy

Labor received only 21% of the Israeli Arab vote in 1984, down from 27% four years earlier. And it is likely to lose even more this time because of the iron-fist policy applied in the occupied territories. Likud received 4% of the Arab vote four years ago.

If, as expected, the Zionist parties lose more ground next month, the biggest gainers are expected to be the Communist-dominated Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, of which Hai is a member, and Mansour’s Progressive List. Both are considered too far to the left to be acceptable to any Zionist party as a coalition partner.

The Democratic Front received 35% of the Arab vote in 1984 and won four seats in the Knesset; the Progressive List ran for the first time that year and received 18% of the Arab vote and two Knesset seats.

The Arab Democratic Party may also be a factor. It was formed earlier this year when Wahad Daroushe, an Arab member of the Knesset, left the Labor party over the government’s handling of the anti-Israeli uprising.

Another uncertain element in the equation is a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement among Israeli Arabs. The fundamentalists boycotted the 1984 elections, along with the radical Sons of the Village movement. But this time, Islamic leaders have told their followers to “vote your conscience.”

Fundamentalist Vote

However, some young Islamic leaders are ideologically opposed to the Communists and reject both Labor and Likud as well. How the fundamentalists eventually do cast their ballots could swing the result for at least one seat in what promises to be a very close election.

Meanwhile, the big parties are trying to buck the trend with political advertising campaigns in the Arabic press.

“Labor--for a just peace and full equality!” Labor urged in a recent front-page ad in the mass-circulation newspaper As Senara. “The alternative is the Likud and the ‘transferist’ right-wing extremists,” the ad continued, using a euphemism favored by some rightists for purging Israel and the occupied territories of all Arabs.

“The Likud doesn’t make high-sounding promises in the air,” countered an ad on the back page of the same newspaper. “But the Likud works in sincerity and justice. . . . Everyone recognizes that Likud is the party that will bring peace.”

Hai takes another view, one that is common among Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians.

“Solving the Palestinian problem has nothing to do with the Israeli elections anyway,” he said. “It depends on the American elections. The United States is supporting Israel politically, economically and militarily, and whatever the U.S. decides, Israel will follow. The American people and government have to take responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy. Unless there is a decision by the Americans to solve this problem, it won’t be solved.”


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