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Every vote counts more than ever

13 March 2015

Peace in the Promised Land needs active voters, says Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko

AT THE Seder meal on the first night of Passover (which coincides this year with Good Friday), the Jewish community asks: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Next week, Jews and others around the world will also be asking, as the Israeli elections approach, "Why is this election different from all other elections?"

Possible answers include the fact that a new, centrist coalition is currently running neck-and-neck with a right-wing coalition of parties, and the outcome of the contest could very well determine the future of the peace process. Another reason, no less significant, though less discussed, is the changing dynamic of voting patterns among Arab citizens of Israel (Muslims, Christians, and Druze).

Twenty per cent of Israel's population are Arab citizens who define themselves as "Palestinian Israelis", as opposed to those Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza who do not hold Israeli citizenship. This figure includes two per cent who are Christians. Despite their being Israel's largest minority group, however, the past decade has witnessed a worrying downward trend in the participation of the Arab community in Israeli politics, most strongly evidenced by the sharp fall in turn-out at general elections.

Voter turn-out fell from 75 per cent in 1999 to 53.5 per cent in 2009. The 2001 elections marked a turning-point, as Arab leaders called for a boycott following the events of October 2000, when 13 Arab citizens were killed during clashes with Israeli police at the outset of the Second Intifaada. This set a precedent for future boycotts.

The expected turn-out of Arab citizens of Israel in this election is 66.4 per cent; so what has changed? First, there is the possibility of a unified bloc of Arab parties and candidates, which would wield significantly more power in coalition negotiations - an inevitable result of the Israeli system of PR. Second is the impact of recent events, including the war in Gaza; growing racism and violence towards Arab citizens of Israel; statements in the political arena, and perceived threats, such as the controversial Jewish State Law, still under discussion.

Interestingly, the figures suggest that these negative developments, unlike previous elections, have actually increased the desire to vote, as Arab citizens seek to take an active part in shaping and protecting both their rights and their future. But the same survey found that positive comments about the Arab community by the major Jewish parties could also increase turnout - not necessarily in support of the parties who make the statements, but rather for voting in general, particularly in relation to social-welfare issues; to a final settlement on East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian State; and a commitment to inviting Arab parties to participate in any future coalition negotiations.

In recent years, the Abraham Fund (a non-governmental Israeli organisation promoting the rights of Arab citizens of Israel in areas of education, employment, and leadership development, often supported by relevant Israeli government bodies) has implemented a multi-pronged strategy to increase the Arab vote, and amplify the voice of Arab citizens. This has included outreach and dialogue with political parties across the spectrum, to encourage them to address the needs and concerns of the Arab communities, and also to emphasise the importance of including Arab representation in any future government coalition. Outreach has also included voting simulation in Arab schools, and a Young Political Leaders' training course.

The development in Arab voting patterns is critical, not only in enabling the voice of Palestinian Israelis to be heard at a crucial moment in Israel's political history, but also in reinforcing Israeli democracy in general, for the benefit of all its citizens, at a time when many Arab citizens fear that their rights and civil liberties hang in the balance, dependent upon the results of the election. There is huge potential in the Arab community to further enhance Israeli life and society. But, to fulfil this potential, the gaps in social welfare and other resources need to close quickly, and social stigmas to be lifted. This can be achieved only through greater political participation.

Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko is a Trustee of the Abraham Fund and Deputy Director of the Council of Christians and Jews.

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