By Ray Hanania
Israel’s Central Election Committee (CEC), which oversees the country’s election process, last month ordered that two Arab political parties and one candidate for a third party be banned from participating in Israel’s April 9 elections.
The ruling was reversed by the Israeli Supreme Court this week, giving Palestinian voters a chance to strengthen their voice in Israel’s Knesset — a voice that shines a powerful spotlight on the government’s apartheid practices. But, if voting apathy among the Palestinian population in Israel continues, they may never be able to change the country’s policies or even oust the right-wing governments through coalitions with the more liberal Jewish parties.
Israel’s government is based on a parliamentary system in which political parties present slates of candidates to run in elections. The percentage of the vote that a party receives determines how many of its slate qualify for seats in the Knesset. The only requirement is that a party must receive a minimum of 3.25 percent of the votes cast in order to qualify.
Many political experts believe this form of parliamentary process is intended to undermine the power of minority parties, which in Israel consists of Palestinians and non-Jews, who struggle to maintain a meaningful voice in Knesset proceedings. In 2015, for example, a unified slate of all the Arab parties resulted in the election of only 13 of its candidates to the Knesset, far below the 20 percent of the population that Arabs represent.
In each election, many Israeli politicians on the far right have used the threat of Palestinians’ votes to fearmonger Jews into rejecting the liberal parties, which often partner with Arab coalitions to form governments. This year has been no different, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have warned voters of a potential surge of Palestinian influence that they said will undermine the Jewish identity of Israel.
Netanyahu recently declared that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” adding that “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and it alone.” The meaning was clear to all: That, despite holding citizenship in Israel, Palestinians living there are not equal and pose a threat to Israel.
It was in that context that the CEC banned two Arab political parties, Balad and the United Arab List, from slating candidates in the election. The CEC also banned Ofer Cassif, an Israeli Jew running on the joint list of the predominantly Arab alliance of the Hadash party and the Ta’al faction. Cassif has been a strong critic of Israeli government racism and the 65-plus laws that discriminate against non-Jews. Had the CEC ruling remained, the Arab representation in the 120-member Knesset would have been cut from 13 to less than six seats.
Although even 13 Palestinian members of the Knesset is not enough to drive legislation to overturn the Israeli government’s racist policies, their voices have put a spotlight on the discrimination that Palestinians living in Israel have argued, since the formation of the Israeli state, is “policy, practice and reality.”
By reversing the CEC ruling this week, the Israeli Supreme Court has given Palestinians in Israel one more chance to increase their representation. They could do a lot better than 13 seats if they were better organized and overcame their internal divisions.
Israel’s non-Jewish population is 20 percent of the total. If they all voted for parties representing their community, they could secure at least 24 seats in the Knesset. This would make an Arab/non-Jewish party one of the most influential single parties in Israel. In the 2015 election, the two largest parties were Likud with 30 seats and the Zionist Union with 24.
Palestinians living in Israel have been plagued by rivalries and political divisions. In 2015, all of the Arab parties came together under the banner of one slate, the Joint List, which won the current 13 Knesset seats. One motivation was not unity, however, but rather survival, as that was when Israel’s government imposed a new regulation intended to weaken the smaller parties and alliances; requiring that they must receive 3.25 percent of the total votes cast to be eligible to sit in the Knesset. Previously, the minimum was only 2 percent.
Even though the Supreme Court reversed the CEC decision, the 3.25 percent minimum requirement poses a threat to the six Arab parties who will this time run on separate slates, risking seats and weakening their voice in the Knesset.
Imagine the political earthquake that would occur in Israel if every Palestinian living there who can vote actually voted on April 9? That, combined with a unified diaspora, could put into question Israel’s illegal settlements’ policies and give Palestinians a powerful voice to demand justice based on the 1967 borders.