The results of the Israeli elections have just been announced, and Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud have won a decisive victory. In the international media, much of the coverage of the Israeli elections has been centred around speculation over whether Netanyahu would survive to be Prime Minister for a fourth term. There has been little mention of the Palestinian citizens who make up 20% of Israel’s population, and their precarious place in Israel’s electoral theatre. The lack of coverage of the Palestinian context in the international media reifies the notion that Israel is a democracy. On further inspection, it becomes clear that Israel is a democracy for the few.
1. Not all Palestinians living under Israeli rule are eligible to vote.
Only one in seven Palestinians as a whole hold Israeli citizenship and thus are eligible to vote in the Knesset elections. This means that only a third of Palestinians living under official, or de facto, Israeli rule have a voice in the elections. The 4.5 million Palestinians who have been living under Israeli military occupation since 1967 are not eligible to vote.
Similarly, the disenfranchised Palestinian refugees, whose fates are inextricably linked to Israeli politics and many of whom would have to be given Israeli citizenship upon their return, are not allowed to vote. While Israel and its supporters pat themselves on the back while proclaiming Israel is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, it is important to bear in mind that the benefits of this ‘democracy’ are extended only to people with the ‘desirable’ ethnic background. The elections may give the international community the idea that Israel is a democracy, but it remains a state built on, and sustained by, systematic racial discrimination and continued ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population.
2. Incitement wins votes.
Many Israeli politicians have both directly and indirectly incited against Palestinian citizens of Israel in an attempt to prove that they are serious about maintaining a ‘strong’ Israel. A ‘strong’ Israel is, of course, an Israel with the maximum number of Jewish Israelis and the minimum number of Palestinians.
This election has seen Avigdor Lieberman, the current Foreign Minister and head of far-right party Yisrael Beitenu, openly suggest that “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel should be beheaded; Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the settler-loving Jewish Home party release a campaign video suggesting that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are the only thing between the enlightened West and the barbarian Arabs; and Benjamin Netanyahu announce that there will be no Palestinian state. It is an indicator of the unacceptable level of racism in Israeli society that politicians consider making threats against 20% of the population as an easy vote-gain tactic.
However, it is also emblematic of the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not have a citizen-state relationship with Israel, but rather a threat-state relationship. The system in Israel treats Palestinians as a threat (perhaps best indicated by the texts Likud sent out to party members on election day which read ‘Hamas is telling the Arabs to go to the polls and vote!’ in response to the higher-than-average Arab turnout in the elections. The Israeli state is not a state designed for Palestinians, and its institutional structures view them as a problem to be mitigated – their citizenship is inherently flawed because they live in a state which rejects them. A good example of this is the continued demolition of Bedouin villages in the Negev desert, or the village of Dahmash which is the only Arab town in central Israel and faces constant demolition threats. Holding Israeli citizenship does not mean that Palestinians living in Israel are treated as equals with their Jewish counterparts.
3. Arab parties were almost prevented from running in the Knesset elections.
The little election coverage which has focused on Palestinian citizens of Israel has mainly centred around the Joint Arab List, which saw the main Arab parties unite. This has been touted as an example of Israel’s democratic character; that Arab parties can be represented in the Knesset. However, the decision of the Arab parties to unite came under coercive circumstances as last year the electoral threshold was raised from 2% to 3.25%, a move which was made to prevent the Jewish left and the Arab parties from making substantial gains in the Knesset. The leadership within the Joint Arab List (comprised of communists, nationalists and Islamists) is not cohesive or genuine. The presence of Palestinian members of the Knesset gives the illusion that Palestinian citizens in Israel are safe, and acts as a method of pacification for the Palestinian community.
Furthermore, while the Joint Arab List builds an image of power and genuine Palestinian representation in Israeli politics, in reality Palestinian members of the Knesset are extremely limited. Whether or not there are Palestinians sitting in the Knesset, there are material constraints on Palestinian citizens of Israel, with discrimination in housing, employment and education. These are social issues which will not be solved by token Palestinian MKs. Additionally, Palestinian representation in the Knesset feeds into the colonial tactic of ‘divide and conquer’, creating micro-identities to separate the struggles of Palestinian citizens of Israel from the struggles of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and the wider diaspora. This dilutes the need for unity among Palestinians, which is necessary in order to achieve the goals of national liberation.
The author conveys special thanks to George Ghantous.