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Beyond the ballot box: how Israel’s “Arab voters” are second-class citizens

On Monday, newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed regretfor his now notorious remarks on polling day last week, when he warned that Israel’s Palestinian citizens were coming out to vote “in droves.”

Netanyahu did not actually say sorry; he merely noted that what he had said “hurt some Israeli citizens”, and added that he sees himself as the prime minister of “each and every one of you…without differentiating between religions, races and sex.”

In the words of one journalist, Bibi’s comments were “like publishing a one-column-inch apology on the obituary page for deliberately libelling a person on Page 1.” The Joint List also rejected the non-apology, noting the prospect of further “racist and marginalising legislation” in the next Knesset.

Netanyahu’s anti-Arab incitement received widespread condemnation, including from many Israel supporters. In the U.S., the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly said the video statement was “unacceptable” and “undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”

President Obama, meanwhile, described the Likud leader’s “rhetoric” as “contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions.” As these examples show, Netanyahu’s remarks were critiqued by Israel’s allies as an aberration; this kind of racism, they suggested, is contrary to Israel’s past and present values. But they are wrong.

Indeed, the election has demonstrated the weakness of one of the talking points repeated ad nauseam by Israel’s spokespersons – that charges of systematic discrimination are somehow ‘disproved’ by the fact that Palestinian citizens can vote and run for the Knesset.

First, this is not even the first instance of its kind for Netanyahu. As prime minister in 2010, Bibi told a government meeting that a Negev “without a Jewish majority” would pose “a palpable threat.” As finance minister in 2003, Netanyahu called Palestinian citizens the real “demographic problem.”

This racist rhetoric is par for the course in Israel. In 2009, the Netanyahu-appointed Housing Minister declared it a “national duty” to “prevent the spread” of Palestinian citizens. It wasShimon Peres who told U.S. officials in 2005 that Bedouin citizens in the Negev constituted a “demographic threat.”

As mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert said it was “a matter of concern when the non-Jewish population rises a lot faster than the Jewish population.” The current mayor, Nir Barkat, states openly his intention of maintaining a Jewish majority in the city.

Second, this most recent election illustrated with crystal clarity that even as they head to the polls, Palestinians are reminded how they are ‘outsiders’ in their own land, excluded within a state that defines itself as Jewish – rather than one of all its citizens.

And it wasn’t just Netanyahu’s last-minute video. As legal rights group Adalah hasdocumented, the elections “saw an unprecedented level of racist incitement against Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel” in the form of “threats, intimidations, and attempts to delegitimize…their political participation.”

In the lead up to the vote, the Central Elections Committee disqualified MK Haneen Zoabi, a decision subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court. During the committee’s hearings, Zoabi was called a terrorist and, when Zoabi spoke in Arabic, a Likud party member yelled: “I am scared that you are going to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ and blow yourself up!”

Even the Labour party’s Isaac Herzog, heading up the Zionist Union ticket, broadcast a campaign video featuring Israeli army veterans lauding him as someone who “understands the Arab mentality” and “has seen Arabs in all kinds of situations” – including “in the crosshairs.”

On the day of the election itself, far-right Jewish settlers from the West Bank sent 1,500 volunteers to voting stations in Palestinian communities. The organiser of the initiative commented: “Wherever there are Arab villages, there is fraud.” The ‘monitors’ were accompanied by “an armed group.”

Third, while the Joint List’s success is a breakthrough for Palestinian representation in the Knesset, the limits of their potential were immediately apparent. Even before the election, Moshe Kahlon of ‘centrist’ party Kulanu said that he “would not sit on a government that relied on the Arabs.”

It was an echo of comments made after the 2013 elections by another so-called centrist, Yair Lapid, when the Yesh Atid chair said he would “not join a blocking majority with Haneen Zoabis.” In fact, no Arab party has ever been part of a ruling coalition – and Israel has only ever had two non-Jewish ministers (out of around 600 in 33 governments).

So while the Joint List may have 13 seats in the new Knesset, they will face long-standing restrictions on their ability to challenge the structural, legal discrimination facing Palestinian citizens in Israel. They may be inside the process – but they are outside of power.

Knesset rules of procedure mean that proposed legislation deemed to undermine Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people are thrown out. Meanwhile, Palestinian MKs are targeted for politically-motivated persecution – both inside the Knesset itself, as well as in the courts.

Remember that in 2007, Israel’s internal security agency stated it would “thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law.” The following year, the Shin Bet’s then-chief told US officials that many of the “Arab-Israeli population” are taking their rights “too far.”

Finally, aside from the attempts to undermine the political representation of, and mobilisation by, Palestinian citizens – beyond the ballot box – Israel maintains a legal and political framework of racist privilege that Israel’s apologists would consider beyond the pale anywhere else.

As I detail in my book, ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy’,Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens in every area of life (and recall that for almost two decades after Israel’s creation, they were subjected to military law).

There is no guarantee of full equality for Jewish and Palestinian citizens by law, while bodies like the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund, bodies intended to privilege Jews, are granted responsibilities normally performed by the state.

By the mid-1970s, the average Palestinian village in Israel had lost 65 to 75 percent of its land. Admission committees filter residents in 70 percent of Israeli communities (a role legislated for in around 42 percent of communities), and are “used to exclude Arabs.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands live in “unrecognised villages” in the Negev and elsewhere, with many threatened by new plans for forced displacement. According to the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Israel pursues “a land development model that excludes, discriminates against and displaces minorities.”

This is by no means a comprehensive list. To respond by saying ‘Arab Israelis can vote’, ‘there are Arabs in the Knesset’, or ‘an Arab is a Supreme Court judge’ is no response at all: it is cynical tokenism, or, at best, a demonstration of a profoundly shallow understanding of what constitutes ‘democracy’ and what defines the relationship between a state and a citizen.

As Adalah’s summary of the Israeli elections put it, “racism was the most victorious ballot.” Contrary to what some have maintained, this is no betrayal of Israel’s ‘principles’ and ‘traditions’, but entirely consistent with them. Yes, Palestinian citizens can vote – and they are also second-class citizens in a ‘Jewish state’.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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