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« (Israele) What’s the point ?

(economist.com, 12 gennaio 2013)

On the face of things, it looks like an exercise in futility. At every Israeli general election hundreds of thousands of Arabs cast votes for parties that do little to improve their lot. The socio-economic gap between Jews and Arabs, who make up one in five Israelis, is widening, and Arab political parties have signally failed to defeat a raft of laws detrimental to them that Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has passed in the outgoing parliament. “The more visible we are, the more they discriminate against us,” says a voter in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab-populated town.

Many Arab Israelis no longer bother to vote. Turnout has fallen from 75% in 1999 to 53% in the last election; this time it could fall below half, says Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, who recently oversaw a survey of Arabs’ voting intentions. There are at present 17 Arabs in Israel’s 120-seat parliament; at least six are Druze, including a member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Some Islamists and a few Arab intellectuals have campaigned for a boycott, arguing against doing anything to legitimise what they decry as a democracy for Jews only. But despair is the main reason for abstention. No Israeli government has ever included an Arab party in its coalition; even if it tried to do so, it is unlikely that any Arab party would accept, unless Israel first resolved its conflict with the Palestinians. “They couldn’t sign up to the bombardment of Gaza,” says Mr Ghanem.

The results of this Arab retreat from national politics can be seen in the deep ruts in the streets of Kufr Qasem, the Arab-Israeli town closest to Israel’s metropolis, Tel Aviv. The town of 20,000 has no police station. Gangland gunfire often shatters the night. Unemployment among Arabs nationwide is twice as high as among Jews; 66% of Arab children are deemed poor, compared with 24% of Jewish children.

Few Jewish parties seem keen to reverse the trend; they largely avoid campaigning in Arab towns. Twenty years ago more than 60% of Arabs voted for Jewish parties; last time fewer than a fifth did. As the Jewish electorate grows more sectarian and hawkish, fewer of its politicians try to win Arab voters back. The handful of Arab members of parliament representing Jewish-led parties looks set to halve.

Many Arab voters despair of their own politicians for focusing on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, whereas 92%, according to Mr Ghanem’s survey, put welfare, discrimination and rising crime as their main concerns. Arab-Israeli politicians also seem prone to infighting. The three Arab-led parties, which won 11 seats in the last election, say they stand for competing Islamist, nationalist and communist ideologies. But clans and personality clashes probably have more to do with it. If Arab Israelis all voted for a single list, turning out at the same rate as Jews, they would have Israel’s second-largest party.

A few smaller Jewish parties try to woo frustrated Arabs. An ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, which represents Jews who originated from the Arab world, is canvassing vigorously for Arab votes. Dressed in black gabardines, its Arabic-speaking parliamentarians tour the villages of Galilee, where Arab Muslims, Druze and Christians are a majority, promising to increase municipal spending. A left-wing Jewish-led party, Meretz, has also promoted Issawi Freij, an accountant from Kufr Qasem, to a slot high on its list. He promises to tackle local rather than national issues. “How can we defend someone else’s house,” he asks, “if we can’t even repair our own?”

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