Top 5 Reasons Palestinian-Israelis Could shape the Israeli Election

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Israel, despite the attempts of current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cast it as a monochrome “Jewish state,” has a divided and complicated population. Some 21 percent or 1.7 million of the 8 million Israelis are of Palestinian heritage, the majority of those being Muslim. About 300,000 Israelis are not Jewish or Palestinian-Israeli, many of them being immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe who claim some Jewish antecedents but who are not recognized as Jews by the Israeli rabbinate. Of the 6 million Jews, about one million are recent immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Another 1.7 million are European Jews (Ashkenazis) who mostly came to Israel before the 1990s. Nearly 3 million are Eastern Jews originally from the Middle East or the Iberian Peninsula, called Sephardim or in the case of the Middle Easterners, Mizrahim (“Easterners”). Many Israeli Jews are secular-minded. Some 13% don’t believe in God and 24% are agnostics. But 750,000 or 9% are fundamentalist Haredis (“Ultra-Orthodox”).

Since Israel has a list-based parliamentary system, voters tend to elect many small parties to the 120-member Knesset, who then must put together a coalition of 61 in order to have a majority. In the last election, the far right Likud Party of Binyamin Netanyahu got 27 seats and the center-right Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni received 28 seats. But Netanyahu was able to get the requisite further 35 allies (and more) among the smaller right wing parties, whereas Livni was not, so Netanyahu became prime minister–even though Livni’s party had more seats.

1. That is why it is significant that the traditionally Palestinian-Israeli parties have joined together with the Communists (which are mixed Jewish and Palestinian) to form a single coalition party. They did this in part because the ruling Likud coalition passed a law raising the threshold of the proportion of votes a party list needs to be seated in parliament to 3.25%, from 2%. The threshold is intended to exclude from parliament tiny fringe parties, some of them extremists. But it could have excluded fairly mainstream Palestinian-Israeli parties because each is relatively small on its own.

2. Palestinian-Israeli voter turnout used to be 80% decades ago but has fallen to only 57% more recently. In polling they said it was because of the disunity of the parties they favored and their marginalization. Palestinian-Israeli members of parliament will be able to work against an increasing tendency in Israeli society toward discrimination against and marginalization of them. They oppose, for instance, Netanyahu’s formula that Israel is a Jewish state. Palestinian-Israeli politicians are hoping the united list will produce a much bigger turnout.

3. Because of the threat the 3.25% threshold poses, of disenfranchising Palestinian-Israelis if their parties remain small and disunited, it is possible that the Islamic Movement of Sheikh Raed salah will not boycott this election. The “Southern” branch of the Islamic Movement is already committed to the coalition. In the past Salah has held that to participate in an Israeli election is a surrender on the part of the Palestinian-Israelis to Israeli hegemony. But in parliamentary systems, boycotting the vote typically just leaves a group voiceless in government.

4. If the United List of the Palestinian-Israelis can in fact get the vote out, they could get between 12 and 15 seats. (They only won 11 seats in 2009).

5. This showing might allow them to help give a majority to the centrist coalition of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s HaTenua (she and some others on the left of the old Kadima have defected to this small liberal party). This outcome is a little unlikely but not out of the bounds of possibility.

The last time I was in Israel, I mentioned to a colleague that I thought Israel was becoming a multicultural state, what with the decline of dominance by the old Ashkenazi elite and its major institutions. He objected. “Israel already *is* a multicultural state,” he said. We’ll see if that assertion is borne out in the March 17 elections.


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4 Responses

  1. This brings to mind the statements by Labor party leaders seeking to form coalitions that the result would be a “Jewish majority.” In other words, Israeli Jews on all sides reject the idea that their majority would be dependent on the inclusion of Arab parties.

  2. There is a cultural wall that must be flattened before an Arab-backed party can play a full role in Israel’s flawed democracy. Consider:
    “In Israeli political discussions, the standard explanation for the ultra-Orthodox parties’ [typical] clout is that they hold the balance of power in parliament: since they can sell their support to a coalition of the left or of the right, they can drive up the bids from both sides. This description is misleading….The real foundation of [ultra-Orthodox] strength lies elsewhere—in the exclusion of Arab-backed parties from power. In 1992, when Rabin was elected, two parties drawing their votes mainly from Palestinian citizens of Israel won a total of five seats in parliament. By 2006, three Arab-supported parties held a total of ten seats. The meaning of Labor’s 1992 election victory was that together with the Arab parties and another left-wing party, it won a majority in the Knesset. The same was true of Kadimah’s victory. But the iron rule…is that Arab-backed parties are not candidates for the coalition and cabinet. The most polite explanation is that as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict continues, Arab-backed parties cannot be trusted with sharing responsibility for national security. The less polite explanation is that much of the Jewish majority does not see a government resting partly on Arab votes as legitimate. Coalition building is like shopping: the major party must pay its smaller partners in some political coin. If there are several potential partners, each must set a lower price for its support. Because the Arab parties are eliminated, the ultra-Orthodox can charge more.” link to

    • There are good points you are making, however even if Hadash and Arab List parties are not part of an Israeli coalition government any time soon, the Palestinians will no doubt benefit from a Labor or Hatenua Party coalition rather than a Likud-bloc-led government.

      Tzipi Livni attempted to revive the Israeli-Palesstinian peace process after official talks broke down. During Operation Cast Lead she as foreign minister advised, without success, for PM Olmert to scale down ongoing military operations in Gaza. Herzog, the current Labor Party PM candidate, has likewise in the past given support to final status negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

      The Labor Party succeeded several years ago in seating the very first Arab Muslim as a cabinet minister and would likely promote a greater Arab inclusion in Israeli government. It is an open question whether they would make Hadash or other Arab-dominated parties coalition partners in a future government.

      No Arab has ever held a seat on the powerful Defense and Foreign Relations Committee of the Knesset – and it is doubtful if one will anytime soon.

  3. Israel is a “Democracy” in the same sense that Mississippi was a Democracy in 1935.
    300,000 Jews from Russian don’t have enough untainted “Jewish Blood” to be considered “True Jews”?
    What sort of crazy racist nonsense is that? As a non Religious person, I can see no difference between the Racist Whites of Mississippi and the Racist Jews of Israel.

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