North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Netanyahu vs not Netanyahu: Israel's absurd election fiasco

The country’s leaders talk of Jerusalem as an ‘undivided capital’ Yet, half of the population is denied the right to vote

Jalal Abukhater
24 March 2021, 2.55pm
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to emerge from these elections with a very slim lead
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Debbie Hill/UPI/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Another general election just concluded in Israel, the fourth in two years. Beyond the clichés of ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘election fatigue’ affecting the turnout, not many are actually talking about the utter absurdity of the whole thing.

The major election, held on 23 March 2021, which directly impacts nearly 14 million people living between the ‘river and the sea’, where over a third are denied voting rights, comes down to whether or not one man gets to remain as prime minister.

Here we are, facing a scenario in which Benjamin Netanyahu, known as Bibi, yet again emerges with a very slim lead – but in no more favorable position to form a new government than after previous elections. If anything, the Israeli electorate has chosen to veer more towards the Right, adopting more nationalist religious and Zionist lines in what is surely to be detrimental to the Palestinian populace.

While Palestinian parties in the Knesset will definitely feel the impact of their continued irrelevance, residents of Jerusalem such as myself are living out absurd scenarios. Far-Right anti-Arab parties such as the Religious Zionist party, the conservative anti-LGBT, Noam, and the Kahanist, Otzma Yehudit, are entering the Knesset with six seats together, with blessings from Netanyahu himself.

The far Right, such as Likud and the Religious Zionist party, was heavily dependent on a high turnout in my city of Jerusalem, which, in the end, did not transpire. However that turnout is almost exclusively Jewish as we Palestinians are denied voting rights.

It often fascinates me how many fail to see the absurdity of the electoral fiasco the way we see it at the centre of it all, in Jerusalem.

This could be a storyline straight out of a novel by Franz Kafka or Albert Camus.

A Palestinian backdrop

Us Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, at the centre of another election storm, find ourselves at the receiving end of campaigning pledges accompanied by all forms of hate and vitriol. Most contending Zionist parties are in agreement in considering our city as their eternal ‘undivided’ capital. They debate our basic rights and potential displacement, but never have us engage in the process. All we can do is sit back and watch as our Jewish neighbours go to the polling stations and vote extremists in.

While many of us in Jerusalem are too detached from the noise of the elections, others are anxiously anticipating an impending deadline for eviction. In Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, 28 families were handed eviction notices earlier this year. The court-ordered evictions are due to take place no later than 2 May in a move that serves the bigger plot of emptying Jerusalem of its Palestinian population.

Major Zionist parties might flirt with Arab voters, yet avoid at all costs engaging them in serious coalition dealings

Palestinians are literally a backdrop in this election. Nothing could be more symbolic of this than TV news channel 21 holding a live election broadcast, hosting leaders of major right-wing parties in a studio overlooking the Khan Al-Ahmar community, north-east of Jerusalem. The candidates lined up pledging the forcible transfer of the Palestinians living in that community, taking turns in attacking Netanyahu for so far failing to demolish the community.

We are a backdrop, denied basic rights and at the receiving end of hateful and violent policies, while Israelis cherish the process as a democratic achievement. The candidates present in that interview – Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope, Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism, and Naftali Bennett of Yamina – have accumulated nearly 20 seats in the upcoming Knesset, and are all expected to be part of the next right-wing government forming coalition.

This leaves us with nearly five million Palestinians, residents of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, whose lives are under complete and total control by Israel’s military administration. What role do they play in this whole ‘democratic’ circus? Well, besides the Palestinian labourers printing more than 500 million of the Israeli election ballot slips in illegal West Bank settlement factories, their role is close to none.

An 'undivided' capital

Many among Israel’s Jewish population viewed this election as ‘Benjamin Netanyahu vs not Benjamin Netanyahu’. It was much less about Right vs Left politics, considering Right-leaning and “centrist” parties overwhelmingly dominate the scene.

When it comes to issues of settlements, annexation, and regional security, most parties predicted to form the next coalition are in seeming harmony. It was a surprise, however, that parties of the left, Meretz and Labor, had survived elimination. The parties are en route to win five and seven seats respectively, meaning they may be the biggest beneficiaries of the ‘Bibi vs Not Bibi’ election turnout.

Leader of the right-wing Yamina party, Naftali Bennett is once again assumed to be kingmaker, with seven seats. Meanwhile, the Joint List has crashed down to six seats and is yet again irrelevant in coalition forming discussions. The same was true in the last round, when the Joint List was the third largest party in the Knesset, with 15 seats.

This is a damning statement of how anti-Palestinian sentiment dominates throughout Israel’s mainstream political scene. Major Zionist parties might mess around and flirt with Arab voters, yet avoid at all costs engaging them in serious coalition dealings.

We can also see here the result of Netanyahu’s devious scheming. He openly embraced anti-Arab politicians in order to strengthen his coalition, succeeding in helping them cross the threshold. Simultaneously, his campaign targeted voters in Arab communities, scheming with the Islamist United Arab Party, and causing a major loss for Palestinian Arab representation at the polls. Netanyahu’s actions had definitely wasted tens of thousands of Arab votes at the election as the Islamist United Arab Party split from the Joint List had significantly weakened both parties.

Netanyahu’s campaigning in Arab communities was surreal; in one video, he came out asking them to “Vote Likud, vote Abu Ya’ir”, promising direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca. And as he was making these promises we all know there are more hurdles obstructing Palestinians from praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, than there are to traveling to Mecca.

Israeli political leaders like to talk of Jerusalem as an ‘undivided capital’. Yet, half of the city’s population is denied the right to participate in elections, and is alone in facing threats of evictions and demolitions, while dealing with rampant poverty and lack of dignified living in most of our Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Israelis get to boast about going through another ‘democratic’ election, but in reality it is common knowledge to many today that an exclusive election, based on ethno-religious lines, is not a truly ‘democratic’ process. If anything, it reflects the law that rules the land between the river and the sea, that is apartheid.

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