Despite little hope, Israeli Arabs get out the vote

UMM EL-FAHM, Israel — On the surface, Tuesday seemed like any other election day in Israel's Arab communities: The streets were covered with posters advertising the various Arab lists, and cars waving party colors of red, yellow or green were circulating, urging residents to vote.

But there was one significant difference from the last elections in February 2001: This time, people were voting.

Israeli Arabs largely boycotted the 2001 vote to protest the police killing of 13 Arabs rioting in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada, and what they felt was then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's cavalier attitude toward the country's 1.2 million Arabs.

The Islamic Movement and the radical Sons of the Village organization called for another boycott this year to avoid conferring legitimacy on the Jewish state.

Earlier in the campaign, analysts had predicted a modest 60 percent to 65 percent voter turnout, because of growing disenchantment with the political establishment and the performance of Arab legislators.

The trend was strengthened following the Central Election Committee's decision to prevent Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Beshara from running in the elections. However, when the Supreme Court overturned the CEC ruling it changed the mood among Arab voters, who then wanted to demonstrate their power.

Polling stations in Umm el-Fahm, near the border with the West Bank, and Tirah, near Israel's coastal plain, remained relatively empty until the afternoon. But analysts attributed that to Arab voters' habit of sleeping late on the extra day off, and voting late in the day.

Unlike previous elections — when Arab voters felt they could tip the scales in favor of the left — a Likud victory was considered a foregone conclusion this time. Consequently, the main competition for Arab votes was among the various Arab parties, with Jewish parties largely abandoning the field.

In Umm el-Fahm, for example, there were no signs of left-wing Jewish parties such as Labor or Meretz.

In Tirah, Labor activists had hung a huge poster of party leader Amram Mitzna, with his name written in Arabic. But Labor's popularity among Arab voters has plummeted.

"I will not vote, because I think these elections only serve the Jews," said Ibrahim Mansour, the owner of a shoe shop in downtown Tirah. His is a refrain frequently heard in Arab areas, where residents complain that neither left-wing nor right-wing governments attend to the problems of Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens.

"But had I voted, I would have voted Sharon," Mansour continued, referring to the incumbent prime minster, Likud Party head Ariel Sharon.

"Who made peace with Egypt? Menachem Begin. Who returned Hebron to the Palestinians? Netanyahu," he explained, citing two former prime ministers from the Likud Party. "Labor is all talk and no action."

However, Arabs who were voting for the Arab parties often did so despite — not because of — their parliamentary performance.

The Arab public largely has been disappointed by their Knesset representatives, accusing them of spending too much time on the Palestinian cause and ignoring voters' local concerns.

This time, as in the past, the Arab lists failed to unite. That left Arab votes fragmented among three major bodies — the United Arab List, dominated by the Islamic Movement; Hadash, the former Communists; and Balad, a secular Arab nationalist party.

One exception to the general trend was Abu Ghosh, a largely Christian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, noted for its good relations with Jews since Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

Abed Uthman, owner of a local mini-market, was wearing a T-shirt for Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, the immigrant rights party led by Natan Sharansky.

"Many of our Arab brethren regard us as collaborators with the Jews," Uthman said, "but the truth is that most of our neighbors and most of customers are Jews. This is the ultimate example of coexistence."

Some other Abu Ghosh residents said they would vote for Shas, a party composed mostly of Sephardic Orthodox Jews.

But Shas in recent years has controlled the government's Interior Ministry, a rich source of funds for local municipalities.

That diversity shows the difficulty of stereotyping Arab voters. In Umm el-Fahm, a center of the fundamentalist Islamic Movement, a young woman wearing the traditional head scarf of religious Muslim women stood outside the headquarters of the Communist-oriented Hadash Party.

"I vote for Hadash," said Jaliya Mahamid, a young mother of five. "True, I am religious, but I am not fanatic. I voted according to my conscience.''