Vote crucial to Israeli Arabs

Politicians focus on ethnic loyalty, voter turnout in bid to maintain national influence

March 22, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

QALANSUWA, Israel -- Striding past drab concrete homes, shuttered businesses and dusty coffee houses where old men played backgammon, Ibrahim Sarsur, leader of Israel's new united Arab political party, appeared determined on a recent afternoon to lift the flagging spirits of this poor Arab farming village.

Young campaign volunteers waved green flags representing Islam. Arabic music blared from loudspeakers. Shouting into a microphone, Sarsur urged residents to remember to vote next week in Israel's parliamentary elections and, above all, remember who they are when they cast their ballots.

"The Israelis will always look out for the interest of the Jews and will not look at you with respect," Sarsur told a gathering of about 100 men seated in plastic chairs in an empty lot, listening to him describe the goals of the United Arab List. "We should defend ourselves. We should defend our identity."

With national elections taking place Tuesday, Israel's Arab parties are battling to hold on to their small slice of power in Israeli politics.

As a minority group in the Jewish state, Arabs have long struggled for equality in jobs, pay, housing, benefits and government attention. But in these elections, Arab leaders are feeling increasingly vulnerable, afraid they could lose what little representation they have in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Israel's Jewish or Zionist parties are seeking to woo Arab voters who have grown frustrated by the failure of the Arab parties to deliver significant improvements to Israeli Arab communities.

In a survey of Israeli Arab voters by Tel Aviv University, only 50 percent were projected to support Arab parties in the election, down from 64 percent in 2003. Arab political parties also face having to secure a larger number of votes than in the past to win any given seat, reflecting growth in the country's population and in changes to election rules.

Most worrying, analysts and Arab politicians say, are signs of increasing apathy and resentment by Israeli Arabs about the coming elections, which may drive a huge bloc of potential voters to boycott the election.

Campaign basics

These trends have forced Arab parties to go back to the basics of campaigning, focusing on voter turnout and ethnic and communal loyalty.

"I don't recall an election campaign where the Arab parties invested this much energy in launching a campaign against Zionist parties and trying to convince voters to come to the ballot," said Elie Rekhess, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Looking to re-energize Arab voters, Sarsur's United Arab List also relies on another, relatively new influence in political campaigning: Islam. Inspired by the success of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that swept elections in the West Bank and Gaza, the United Arab List is giving its rallies a distinctly Islamic feel.

In Qalansuwa, the campaign rally began with a muezzin reciting selections from the Quran. Green Islamic movement flags - the same flags as those visible during Hamas rallies - surrounded the stage. Supporters cried out "God is great!" during the rally and passed out green armbands. Only men attended the rally.

"The only solution is Islam," Sarsur said in an interview. "Islam will bring 1.4 billion people to stand directly with us in our challenges. They have the capacity to contribute in building the most tremendous and marvelous human society."

Sarsur's United Arab List is a coalition of his own Islamic Movement and two nationalist parties. But his is not the only advice Israeli Arabs are hearing. He is leader of the southern Islamic movement in Israel. The leader of the northern faction, Ra'id Sallah, has called on Israeli Arabs not to participate in the election. Other predominantly Israeli Arab parties include Israel's small Communist Party and traditional nationalist groups, all of which are participating in the campaign.

Collectively, those parties hold eight seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament. Although powerless to enact meaningful legislation on their own, they have proved to be crucial on key votes such as the decision to evacuate the settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's right-wing parties pushed unsuccessfully last month to disqualify Sarsur's party from participating in the elections after the Israeli press quoted him as saying that he wanted to create an Islamic state on Arab land in Israel. Sarsur said he was misquoted, saying what he wanted inside Israel was equality.

Minority status

The 1.3 million Israeli Arabs account for about 20 percent of the country's population. Although they are full citizens, they have longed faced discrimination in land rights, health, education and employment, and complain they are no better than second-class citizens.

"My people have been here for a thousand years, but someone who arrived two days ago from Ethiopia or Russia has more rights than me," said Khalil Abu Ras, 48, a secretary at the Qalansuwa high school.

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