North Africa, West Asia

Stark symbolism in the Israeli election campaign

All over Israel, we met Palestinians and other Arabs anxious to find meaningful ways of engaging with political questions broader than their own self-interest.

Nancy Hawker
11 March 2015

Ayman Odeh talks to Dov Khenin, March 2015.

Ayman Odeh talks to Dov Khenin, March 2015. Demotix/ Mahmoud Illean. All rights reserved.Earlier this year there were two billboards glaring at drivers from the verge of Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv bearing messages intended to scare them into voting in the Knesset elections on 17 March 2015. One said, sarcastically, “Thank you, Salim”, and displayed a diabolically smirking Avigdor Lieberman. The other, identical in tone and design, stated “Thank you, Bat-El”, and showed a gleefully laughing Hanin Zoabi. Underneath each face was the explanation: “When you don’t participate in elections, your vote goes to someone else.”

It is understandable why the prospect of Avigdor Lieberman continuing to find a place in the government of the country would be alarming for someone with an Arab name like Salim. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party’s proposed solution for the territorial conflict between the Palestinians and Israel involves stripping some Palestinians and other Arabs living in the state of their Israeli citizenship, and demanding that those who do want to retain the ‘privilege’ of citizenship express loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. One version of a proposed bill requiring the identification of Israel primarily as a Jewish state rather than a state of its citizens was approved in a symbolic gesture by the government on 23 November 2014.

On 26 February in a televised election debate, when presented with the fact that 20 per cent of Israeli citizens are Arab, he muttered, “for now, for now.”

Hanin Zoabi is the queen of symbolic gestures. She sailed with the Gaza blockade protest ship, the Mavi Marmara, in May 2010, on which nine Turkish citizens were killed by the Israeli navy. Many Israelis seem to wish that the sea had drowned out her voice. When that wish was not granted, her Knesset colleagues on the Central Elections Committee banned her from running as a candidate on 12 February 2015; this ban was overturned on appeal to the High Court of Justice on 18 February. She had already spent six months since the end of July 2014 suspended from her parliamentary post, barred from addressing any Knesset debate, while she faced an investigation. Among the reasons: at a demonstration in Nazareth in summer 2014 she had called Arab citizens serving in the Israeli police “traitors”, after she had witnessed, as she reported, scenes of police violence against young demonstrators.

As a member of a small opposition party, the National Democratic Assembly, she has little other than symbolically loaded words at her disposal. Even if she is elected, Zoabi will not be in a position to propose bills that will be approved by the government, even symbolically. The words she uses seem to have consequences mostly for herself.

The parallel with Lieberman, who has enjoyed his four years as Minister of Foreign Affairs, is misplaced, though it could be argued that Lieberman has also recently had little effective power, since Benjamin Netanyahu decided to do the all-important job of irritating Barack Obama himself. The hypothetical Jewish voter, the Bat-El of the billboard, is assumed to be generally annoyed, not alarmed, by the prospect of Zoabi getting into the Knesset and thus gaining access to a platform for her gestures. Annoyance and alarm, then, is what apparently propels voters to the ballot box.

The underlying premise of the billboards is that the electorate and the elected are divided ethnically, or nationally. The Joint List has brought together four parties which attract Palestinian and Arab votes, comprising the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, the heir of the Communist Party, which includes Jewish members, the Arab Movement for Change, the Islamists, and the aforementioned National Democratic Assembly. The Joint List was created in response to the raising of the electoral threshold from 2 to 3.25 per cent last year in a law passed in the name of “governability” as a euphemism for shutting out annoying vocal Palestinians. Ironically, it might be Yisrael Beiteinu that does not pass the threshold on 17 March.

The Joint List does make appeals to Jewish Israeli voters, offering its list as a response to racism and as an address for social justice for all disadvantaged citizens, but the opening of its Arabic campaign in Nazareth on 14 February was at least ten times better attended than its Hebrew presentation in Tel Aviv three nights earlier.

The Joint List’s aim is to garner what they call “fifteen Arab seats”, forgetting that the eighth spot on their list is held by a Jewish candidate, Dov Khenin. So if all goes as they hope, they will have fourteen Arab seats in the Knesset, and one Jewish seat. Dov Khenin works hard for his daily bread: he travels up and down Israel visiting excluded communities beyond the reach of the press; he studies human rights reports, and speaks intelligently in Knesset committees. It would be unfair to call him the token Jew on an Arab slate, though appearances mislead that way.

On 17 February in Khashem Zaneh, a Bedouin village of 2,400 inhabitants in the Naqab/Negev desert, which lacks official recognition and so has no running water or electricity and is threatened with demolition, the locals greeted Dov Khenin as a familiar sympathetic face. Dov Khenin introduced his fellow Knesset candidates for the Democratic Front, Palestinian townspeople from Galilee - Aida Touma-Sliman, a feminist activist, and Yusif Jabarin, a lawyer, who are as foreign among the Bedouin as a Jewish Israeli. Touma-Sliman and Jabarin promised the villagers that they will compete with Dov Khenin over the number of visits to the Naqab/Negev.

As Dov Khenin ascended to the stage in Nazareth’s meeting hall on the Joint List’s opening night, the sound system played “Imagine” by John Lennon. All the other candidates sorted their speech notes to the background sounds of Arab and Palestinian patriotism; only once, apparently by mistake, was one introduced to the tune of a Lebanese pop song by Julia Boutros which was quickly faded out before the hackles of the Islamists’ beards rose too visibly. These men and two women, headed by Democratic Front chair Ayman Odeh, present themselves as the only option for the Palestinian and other Arab citizens wanting to engage in the Israeli political system.

What the Joint List is choosing to ignore is that tens of thousands of Palestinian and Arab votes go to other parties on the spectrum towards Yisrael Beiteinu. There is a Palestinian candidate for the dovish Meretz, Isawi Freij, who also stands for the recognition of Palestinian national minority status, the fulfilment of equal civic and human rights, and a just two-state solution to the conflict. One would be hard put to find a significant difference between the electoral programmes of Meretz and of the Joint List. At Meretz’s Arabic campaign launch in Tamra near Haifa on 12 February, the songs were no less patriotic than at the Joint List’s, and they additionally brought out dabka dancers in embroidered dress. Dabka is a Palestinian village dance but was presented here in its modern version, with women as well as the traditional male dancers, and the Jewish Israeli Meretz candidates present, most of them women and many of the human rights lawyers, swayed along somewhat awkwardly to its rhythms, hoping not to look like orientalist tourists. No Islamist hackles were there to rise.

To avoid misunderstandings, Meretz does not translate its name into Arabic, though it is canvassing for Arabic speakers’ votes: “meretz” means “vigour” which can be translated as “hamas”, and their party colours are white and green like the eponymic Palestinian nationalist Islamist movement’s. Campaigning ads of Israeli parties from Netanyahu’s Likud and to the right of it have been all too happy to equate Israeli left-wingers both with Nazis and Islamist terrorists.

Another Palestinian candidate stands for the Labour party, Zuheir Bahloul; one Arab, Akram Hasson, for the centrist Kulanu party; Ayoob Kara for the Likud; and the despised Hamad Amar for Yisrael Beiteinu: the last three probably truly tokenistic. Several Bedouin we spoke to in the south said they were considering voting for Meretz, which has set as one of its goals the official recognition of the 36 villages, home to some 100,000 residents, which are excluded from state planning and services.

The Bedouin are upset that one of their favourite Bedouin representatives, Talab al-Sana, did not make it to the top candidate spots in the Joint List. And Bedouin concerned by the status of women in their communities are hesitating to vote for the Joint List because two of the candidates engage in marital polygamy. Other Bedouin expressing their views at hustings signalled that they would not vote for the Joint List because it includes Christian and Jewish candidates. This list, ostensibly the one address for the Palestinians and other Arabs in Israel, definitely cannot please all the Bedouin all of the time, but is aiming for the support of a few of them. And we haven’t even mentioned the Druze, also Arabs, who are equally internally fragmented in their attitudes towards institutions in Israel.

What the Joint List is not ignoring is that in the last elections, in 2013, 44 per cent of the Palestinian and Arab citizens did not turn out to vote at all. The state-wide average participation rate was 64 per cent: 36 per cent of eligible citizens stayed away from the polling stations. Then, the parties that now form the Joint List collected a total of 348,919 votes which amounted to 7.64 per cent of valid ballots cast and earned them 11 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. This time they want 15 seats; the more they accrue, they contend, the fewer will go to Jewish ultra-nationalist parties. They take very seriously the task of keeping what they call “the fascists” at bay, which at the moment resembles the effort of trying to fend off a hurricane with a straw hat. As they cannot poach voters from each other, being joined, the obvious way to get the numbers up is to argue against those who boycott Israeli elections on principle and to raise awareness amongst those who are apathetic.

The boycotters too base their position on symbols. The participation of Palestinian citizens in the Israeli elections gives symbolic legitimacy, they say, to the government’s self-serving claim that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East”, regardless of the fact that the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the establishment of the state has not been redressed, and that this state controls the lives of 4.4 million fellow Palestinians in the Occupied Territories who are disenfranchised from all relevant decision making.

The elections are part of the legitimation propaganda for the Zionist project, which is colonial in its essence, the boycotters say, and they wash their hands of it. It must feel nice to be politically clean, but what about the rest of the world which has to live with the consequences of “the fascists” taking more Knesset seats, is the objection.

The apathetic ones, as in all liberal political systems which are based on supposedly representative balloting, will only raise their heads from their mobile ‘phone screens to say that Palestinian and Arab citizens have never benefited from voting. All governments composed of whichever parties are the same, and have actively furthered the discrimination in housing and employment, etc., that they experience in their daily lives. Why bother trying to distinguish between them? At the same time, opinion polls show increased appetite for participation, and all over Israel, we met Palestinians and other Arabs anxious to find meaningful ways of engaging with political questions broader than their own self-interest. A handful of them have expressed this by joining ISIS abroad; Ahmad Tibi, another, popular, Knesset member and candidate for the Joint List, representing the Arab Movement for Change, addressed this phenomenon directly, saying repeatedly that their communities need these young men to stay, alive, and make their society stronger, rather than dying far away, broadcast back to their homes in horrific images that go against the values they were raised on.

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, introduced his party’s understanding of these values at the campaign launch by saying that the Palestinians in Israel are heirs to an ethical tradition. “What I am going to say might sound unconventional,” he told his constituency, “but I ask you to open your hearts, in the name of our humanist principles, to the poor Jewish woman in an emergency room in Rambam Hospital [in Haifa] and to the desperate Ethiopian, and the Jewish immigrant from the east, who don’t trust the Joint List, and tell them not to be afraid of voting for us. […] To change the institutions in this country we will represent the alternative for Jewish citizens too. We need 31 per cent of citizens who are Jewish to join the 20 per cent of citizens who are Palestinian to form a majority for change in this country. On the basis of universal values, following the thinking of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, and the thinking of our land, our fifteen seats will stand for justice for the poor and oppressed everywhere in this country. We are the alternative to the racism and wars of Lieberman, Netanyahu and [Naftali] Bennett; we stand for equality, peace and democracy.” Odeh delivered these words convincingly, and gained enthusiastic applause.

The Ayalon highway billboards exhorted citizens to vote on the basis of fear of the electoral choices of members of the other ethnic or national group. The contradiction this posed to the expression of citizenship in Israel remained prominently unresolved. However, it did so in Hebrew only, although the “thank you, Salim” was a transcription of the Arabic “shukran Salim”, in grotesquely arabesque Hebrew lettering. This indicates that the billboard was not really addressed to the hypothetical Arab or Palestinian voter, Salim, but to the Jewish Israeli majority, again; reading as: “beware, Jewish citizen, the Arabs around you will vote for the annoying Zoabi, so you had better vote for Lieberman and those like him who act to restrict their rights”. In a different conception of citizenship, the billboards could have symbolically featured bilingually ambiguous names, such as Yossif or Sara, or even better, Hanan, which is a woman’s name in Arabic and a man’s name in Hebrew. All are citizens; and some Jews vote for the Joint List and many Arabs vote for Likud. 

Facing these facts beyond the symbols would redefine what citizenship could signify in Israel and everywhere in crumbling liberal representative political systems where civic engagement is in question. There are partial and oblique answers to be found in the Israeli election campaigns, by the motorways, in Bedouin shelters and in meeting halls, of all places.

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