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Israeli Arabs Feel Little Stake in Vote

Times Staff Writer

Lounging in the doorway of a dress shop just down the street from the towering Basilica of the Annunciation, Majdoline Mimo shook her curly head and clucked her tongue at the mention of Israel’s elections Tuesday.

“I’ll cast a blank ballot,” the young Israeli Arab woman said, as her girlfriends nodded in agreement. “I don’t see any party that really represents my goals.”

Arab citizens of Israel make up 13% of the country’s eligible voters, and if numbers alone were what counted, they would be a powerful political bloc, eagerly courted by all sides. Instead, the mood among the Arab electorate is largely one of listlessness. Pollsters are forecasting that their turnout will be low, and those who do vote are likely to divide their support among a number of small Arab parties.

In Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab-dominated city and the town where Jesus is believed to have spent his boyhood, nearly all those asked said they felt cut off from the Jewish state and its institutions. But according to the polls, up to one-fifth of Arab voters will nonetheless cast ballots for one of the mainstream Israeli parties.

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Israel’s left-leaning Labor Party is expected to attract considerable numbers of Arab voters, in part because of its leftist platform and in part because it is headed by Amir Peretz, a Moroccan-born Jew whose native language is Arabic.

“Everyone is saying we should vote for the Arab parties, because they are our own people, but to me it is throwing the vote away,” said Azhar abu Hamad, 19, in Nazareth. She said she would vote for Meretz, the most leftist of what people here call the “Zionist” parties.

Three Arab parties are likely to divide the rest of the Arab vote among themselves, for a total of about 10 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, or parliament.

A political bloc of that size can often wield disproportionate clout under Israel’s parliamentary system by positioning itself as a swing vote. But the Arab parties tend to be sidetracked by their differing ideologies, which run from Islamist to communist.

“If we ran a single Arab list of candidates, everyone would have to pay more attention to us in the parliament,” said Yusef Habiballah, a student from a village outside Nazareth. “But it seems we can’t find a way to unite.”

Some commentators have predicted an “echo effect” from the triumph of the militant group Hamas in January’s Palestinian elections, with a surge in support for Islamists. But others say they do not see these candidates winning a much larger following than usual -- in part because the Islamic movement is split into two factions, one of which is boycotting the balloting.

In Nazareth, where tensions between Christians and Muslims occasionally boil over into violence, many expressed nervousness over a vote boycott called by a little-known Islamic group calling itself Ansar Allah, or Followers of God. The group distributed fliers describing the Knesset as a defamer of the prophet Muhammad.

Boycott calls have come from secular Arabs as well, including some intellectuals who see the vote as an exercise in colonialism because Israel’s Arab citizens are a downtrodden minority.

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Joblessness and poverty rates are much higher among Israeli Arabs than among the Jewish majority. Arabs as a rule do not serve in the Israeli army, which gives many young Israelis a boost in their career prospects.

Arab cities and towns inside Israel receive substantially less funding than Jewish municipalities. And a poll last week suggested that a majority of Israeli Jews regard Arab citizens as a threat to national security.

“People feel disaffected, certainly,” said Sammy Smooha, a University of Haifa sociologist who specializes in Israeli Arab issues. “Many Arab citizens feel that Jews view them as disloyal to Israel.”

Most of the Arab candidates use their campaign appearances to drive that point home. At a town hall-type gathering in a Nazareth neighborhood last week, Azmi Bishara, a candidate for the nationalist Balad party, told the crowd: “Israel sees you only as a demographic liability.”

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“Our situation today is that of citizens without true citizenship,” Ahmed Tibi, running on the ticket of the Arab Party for Change, told the Haaretz newspaper.

Most Israeli Jews paid little attention to campaign events on the Arab side. Somewhat tellingly, the debate among the main candidates of the Arab parties took place not on Israeli television, but on Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel.

This month, the government of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed an initiative to guarantee more civil service jobs to Arab citizens, a gesture that even Israeli media described as an election ploy.

“Whenever the elections approach, the political establishment suddenly remembers that a fifth of the country’s population is Arab, and that they are deprived,” the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper said in a commentary. “So all of a sudden, a program is devised for aid, rehabilitation, recovery.... It is very doubtful that even a small portion of this money finds its way to the Arab sector.”

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All the Arab parties have their own take on what is a central dilemma for Israeli Arabs: whether they should identify more strongly with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or seek to strengthen their own identity within Israel.

Balad, for example, calls for Israel to recognize Arab citizens as a national minority and grant them control over their own governing and cultural institutions. The communist-inspired Hadash party has advocated changing Israel’s exclusively Jewish national symbols, including the Star of David on the flag.

But as the elections approached, many Arab voters acknowledged an overpowering sense of weariness with the political process.

“There are so many problems for which there seem to be no real solution,” said Ayad Mahroun, a young Nazareth woman who said she would vote for Hadash, but only because she felt it was her civic duty. “We are looking for equality,” she said, “and no election will bring that.”

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