Should Palestinian citizens vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections?

13 April 2009

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The recent Israeli elections witnessed a revival of the debate among the Palestinian citizens of Israel concerning the meaning of their participation, or the lack thereof, in the electoral process. The disqualification of Arab parties by the Knesset’s Central Elections Committee and the subsequent reversal of the decision by Israel’s high court led to two paradoxical results: on the one hand, it strengthened the doubts of some Palestinians vis-a-vis the fairness and effectiveness of the parliamentary presence of Palestinian representatives; on the other hand, it seems that these events mobilized more Palestinians to vote in order to defend their representation. Nevertheless, the steady decline of the Palestinian turnout in the national elections in recent years maintained its momentum: only 53 percent of the eligible Palestinian voters voted in the February elections. On the backdrop of the falling percentage of turnout and the rise of the Zionist far right wing, explicating and assessing the main positions in this debate — in particular the voices calling for a Palestinian boycott of the Israeli elections — becomes vital.

Obviously, broaching the question of boycotting the parliamentary elections requires one to touch on a range of issues that are difficult to cover adequately in a brief article. Nonetheless, I believe that viewing the elections as a crutch that cannot be dispensed with in any circumstances (i.e. as a necessity), as some seem to think, is shortsighted. Nor do I believe, as others do, that boycotting the elections is a simple, magical cure for the multitude of difficulties that the Palestinian citizens face inside Israel. These are the two prevailing approaches within the Palestinian community inside Israel.

The proponents of the first approach have used in recent years many slogans to articulate their position. These slogans include: “There is no neutrality in hell,” “Not voting is self-marginalization,” “I vote so I have a say,” and “I vote … therefore I am.” The second approach is a sort of seasonal slogan for groups that are active primarily during the elections.

Historically speaking, the first approach has led to justifications for Palestinian citizens of Israel voting for the candidates of the Zionist establishment, such as Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999. It has also led to a perception of parliamentary elections as the main arena for political action, thereby making the political parties represented in the parliament the main, indeed the only, political actor in the eyes of many Palestinian citizens in Israel. This view has persisted in spite of the emergence of national organizations from the 1970s onwards that do not enter into the fray of parliamentary elections and the steady increase in the number of active, national civil society associations in the 1990s. Of course, the equation that “to vote is to have an influence” (or vice versa), confounds, be it intentionally or unintentionally, merely voicing the slogan with putting it into practice. Obviously, one can have an influence either through the vote or without it (i.e. from outside the electoral process). But the basic question remains: what do those who raise this slogan mean by influence? It is clear that influencing the Israeli political decision-making process or entering into government coalitions are not serious realistic options or even worthy of consideration. Hence the situation becomes dangerous due to the discrepancy between the slogan and its actual application. Thus, the vacuous slogan becomes a cover for a reality of exclusion that is packaged as inclusion. Indeed the extra-parliamentary Islamic Movement, under the leadership of Sheikh Raed Salah, has proved that it is possible to have an impact without entering the Knesset.

In addition, justifications that have been articulated recently, such as, “Despite the massacres that have been committed in Gaza, and notwithstanding attempts to eliminate Arab representation in the parliament, but rather because of them, we must vote and in large numbers,” send out the message that voting is a sacrosanct strategy that should not be relinquished under any circumstances. Contrary to this view, I believe that it is a mistake in principle to make the elections an end in and of themselves, as opposed to a tool with which to achieve collective goals. This error is evident from the practices of those who raise these slogans, such as their willingness to forge various, sometimes conflicting alliances from one election campaign to the next to guarantee their entry into the parliament. It should be noted that the expression “electoral battle” has become an integral part of our recurrent political discourse, as has the catchphrase, “These elections come at a critical juncture,” or “an historic turning point,” etc. Similarly, the slogan “there is no neutrality in hell” portrays reality as a fixed, immutable set of facts, by oversimplifying reality, as if it proceeded according to the logic of either/or, with no means of creating a viable third option. Thus, the parliamentary election process becomes both a foundational and an extraordinary event, and desperately clinging on to parliamentary seats is justified.

The second approach proposes boycotting the elections as a solution to the question of legitimacy (i.e. that the Palestinian citizens in Israel lend legitimacy to the state simply by voting in the parliamentary elections). It also demands that the High Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Citizens in Israel be rebuilt as an elected representative body. The problem lies in the first half of the argument, which regards legitimacy as a direct product of the voting process, or lack thereof, without taking into consideration other factors that influence legitimacy. Some of these factors are not necessarily directly related to Arab citizens or their political behavior (such as the state’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community or from the perspective of its Jewish citizens). While other factors do have a direct link to political behavior, the latter cannot be reduced to the voting process itself. In other words, the state’s legitimacy from the viewpoint of its Palestinian citizens themselves is related not only to whether they vote or not, but even more so to their consciousness. Hence the question arises: How do they view the state, irrespective of whether they vote or not? Do they view the voting process and representation in the parliament as a means or an end? And how can one influence this perception?

It is clear that thus far no serious thought has been given to the boycott and its scope, or to the circumstances that mandate the type of boycott. It is also clear that the demand is tied exclusively to the issue of voting for the Knesset. Other factors that no less lend legitimacy to the state — such as: voting for local councils, petitioning the Israeli high court and using the judiciary, and carrying an Israeli identity card — seem to be beyond the bounds of serious discussion. Obviously, there is no objection to picking one’s battles on a tactical basis, and thus it is not necessary for the boycott to encompass all these components, but only some of them. I mention them here, however, to raise two issues: first, one must be clear about one’s goals, and thus the tools through which they can be realized; and second, simply not voting is not a project in itself, but ought to be one element of a wider one.

There are two major obstacles facing the call for boycott, in addition to the aforementioned. First, securing mainstream backing for the boycott among established movements of various political leanings, and thereby garnering widespread popular support for the boycott option, and guaranteeing its success when the time is ripe. Second, what will the political and popular forces do the day after the boycott succeeds? This is to say, the boycott, as should be self-evident, is the beginning of the “story,” not the end. Regarding the first obstacle, the boycott of 2001 succeeded patently because the elections were only for the office of prime minister. It was easy therefore for the Arab parties to back it since it did not exact a serious price from them or their leaders. If we take note of the fact that some Arab representatives have served long terms in the Knesset, then clearly in such cases opposition to the boycott may seem not to be a purely political matter, but also one involving vested personal interests. Thus, if there is a pressing need for as much backing as possible for such a step, then it is also the case that consensus will not be a viable possibility in any case (particularly given that there is a movement that views integration as its goal and therefore sees the boycott and institutionalized, extra-parliamentary national representation for Palestinians as an impediment to achieving this goal). Therefore, conditioning the boycott on reaching a consensus between the main political forces is a debilitating move. Finding widespread support, in the absence of a political consensus, is a necessary but insufficient condition, since there is a need — as I mentioned previously — for the organizational will and power to make the boycott succeed.

The second obstacle has to do with the need I mentioned above to link the boycott to a wider project. Evidently, nothing exists in a political vacuum. If the boycott were to mean that the political movements that initiated it would cease their grassroots action and political awareness-raising, then the parties and branches of the state would use enticement and intimidation to fill the resulting political vacuum, and they have plenty of means of achieving just that. Parliamentary representation gives a political movement prominence in the media, provides it with the resources to allow its main activists to focus exclusively on political action, and affords a degree of protection in the form of the parliamentary immunity granted to Knesset members, along with some financing to help the party apparatus and public relations to continue to reach out to and raise awareness among the people. Yet, we have already seen the beginnings of the erosion of that immunity in recent years as a result of various laws and measures, just as the importance of the print media has been somewhat worn away. What I am trying to ascertain is that the election of a representative body for the Arabs (like the High Follow-Up Committee), despite its paramount importance, is not the only important issue in this regard. Likewise, the committee needs a frame of reference or set of fixed principles to give it a national or nationalist identity.

Any convergence on a frame of reference and (long-term) project presumes a sharp and astute understanding of the current reality. As I see it, the dialectic of empowerment (among the ranks of the Palestinian citizens) and oppression (on the part of the authorities) will most likely continue to spiral, and the situation of the Arab minority will continue to deteriorate over the coming years on a number of levels, including economically and socially. Correspondingly, the occupation and colonization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories seem to be on the road to further entrenchment and it is plausible to assume that their intensity will increase. Moreover, the latest brutal attack on Gaza and the resulting political divisions might lead the Palestinian arena (including that inside Israel) into a tug-of-war between the “moderates” and “extremists” that may last for several years.

Thus, the moment in which boycott could become a serious and viable option is fast approaching, if the necessary preparations are made. Nonetheless, the boycott is not an end in itself and must not be used in the context of a feeling of resignation towards politics and the possibility of having an impact. Otherwise, it will be no more than another means of depriving the people of hope. We must distinguish between the tendency to retreat from politics and engage in self-interest at the personal level or that of the narrowly-defined group (such as the family, village or religious community), and between employing the boycott as a political weapon for achieving political goals. The boycott must be used in the context of empowerment: on the one hand, exposing the defectiveness and futility of the national political-electoral process, and on the other hand extra-parliamentary frameworks and modes of political action must be created to achieve two goals. The first goal is to enable the development of tools to fill the gap created by departing from the parliamentary arena. This requires creating a measure of economic independence that in turn allows for political autonomy (i.e. questions like: funding full-time politicians, political branch offices and publications as well as the access to the media). The second goal is for these frameworks and modes of action to attract the public, in particular young people and university students, to political action by emphasizing the idea that change is possible, by forestalling the tendency to surrender to the current reality as a predetermined fate that cannot be changed, and by resisting despair and despondency, which inexorably leads to paralysis. Reality is not a preordained destiny as much as an attempt by the authorities to impose a particular reality on the Palestinian minority. Ultimately, what will determine the success or failure of these policies is how the Palestinian citizens face and confront them.

Nimer Sultany is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School. He is the editor of Citizens Without Citizenship, Israel and the Palestinian Minority 2003, and Israel and the Palestinian Minority 2004. A version of this essay was published in Jadal issue no. 2, March 2009, a bi-monthly electronic magazine published by Mada al-Carmel - Arab Center for Applied Social Research.