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Jewish Journal

Voter Apathy High Among Israeli Arabs

by Eric Silver

January 23, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Israeli Arab parliament member Azmi Bishara holds a press conference in Jerusalem on Jan. 9 after Israel's Supreme Court overturned a ban on Bishara and Ahmad Tibi running in the Jan. 28 elections.

Israeli Arab parliament member Azmi Bishara holds a press conference in Jerusalem on Jan. 9 after Israel's Supreme Court overturned a ban on Bishara and Ahmad Tibi running in the Jan. 28 elections.

Omar Baransi, a 71-year-old retired building contractor with a lined, leathery face, brags that he won't be voting in Israel's general election on Jan. 28. "We don't trust anyone these days," he said, "not even the Arab candidates. We've been citizens for 55 years and nothing has changed."

Abdul Halim, 42, a school janitor in a gray track suit, joins the table at a coffee shop in Taiba, a sprawling Arab village one mile from the West Bank border east of Netanya. "People here are very frustrated," he said. "They are disgusted by the situation in Israel and the West Bank."

He said he will vote for Azmi Bishara, the radical philosophy professor who scandalized Jewish Israelis by going to Damascus and praising Hezbollah. The Supreme Court overturned a ban on Bishara's running for the Knesset. "At least he's an Arab," the janitor explains. "We have to stand by him, even if I know he won't do anything to help us."

The pair are not alone. Aas Atrash, an Israeli Arab pollster, expects more than 30 percent of the 550,000 Arab voters (out of an electorate of more than 4.7 million) to stay away. Of those who do vote, he predicts that more than 60 percent will support Arab parties.

In 1999, when they could vote separately for parliament and prime minister, Labor's Ehud Barak won 95 percent of the Arab ballots. Now that Israel has reverted to a single vote for party lists, Atrash thinks Labor will get barely 10 percent. "If the Arabs compare Amram Mitzna to Ariel Sharon," he said, "they prefer Mitzna. But they won't vote for him."

Nihad Massarweh, a 36-year-old restaurant owner, was one of those voted for Barak. This time, he said, he's not voting for anyone, Jew or Arab. "I don't see any of the candidates who are willing to make peace -- and even before that to look after their own citizens," he insisted. "They're remote from us. They don't understand our needs."

Taiba is the home of Ahmed Tibi, another Arab legislator whose candidacy was reinstated by the Supreme Court. But local ties don't seem to help. "None of the candidates are worth getting up in the morning and voting for," Kais Baransi, an angry 25-year-old computer engineer in designer shades and faded jeans, said with a snort. "What have Tibi and Bishara achieved? Nothing. They're just talk. I don't trust them. Even the Islamic Movement only wants to build mosques."

The same jaundiced response could be heard everywhere in a day's pre-election drive around the "Triangle," a cluster of Arab towns and villages that are nearer Palestinian Tulkarem and Qalqiliya than Israeli Netanya and Kfar Saba.

People feel isolated and neglected, doubly so since the police shot dead 13 young Arab citizens in pro-Palestinian riots in autumn, 2000. With the intifada literally within earshot, there is little trust on either side.

Jews no longer come to shop in the Arab markets or nibble kebabs and hummus. Tawfiq Ghaneim, the genial deputy mayor of Baqa el Gharbiya, confides that he doesn't go to Jewish towns very often either. "There's a bad feeling," he said. "The Arabs might bomb me, and the Jews think I'm a terrorist."

Jewish businessmen are shying away from joint ventures. Ghaneim estimates unemployment among the town's 20,000 inhabitants at 35 percent, three times the national average. Arab graduates say they find it hard to make a career in the public service.

The deputy mayor complains that the government doesn't give the council enough money to build a sewage purification plant or to maintain roads. Many children go to school in rented apartments, he said, because there aren't enough classrooms.

Kifah Massarwi, Baqa's community development officer, is active in Arab-Jewish reconciliation groups. But, like the men in the Taiba coffee shop, she said she couldn't bring herself to vote Labor. It's not just because the party was in power when the police shot the young Arabs. The 35-year-old Haifa University graduate is not convinced that Ehud Barak was really seeking an agreement with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000.

"He didn't handle the negotiations well," she said. "He didn't mean to give and to compromise. At the same time, he couldn't manage the economy or our social problems. He had lots of good ideas, but he didn't know how to put them into practice. He didn't know how to be a prime minister."

Massarwi acknowledged former mayor Mitzna's successful integration of Haifa's Arab minority, but insisted: "Mitzna still represents the Labor Party. Two months ago, they were part of the government. Labor's Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was defense minister. He said he was defending the Israeli people, but for us, the army was hurting our people." 

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