By Mohammad Darawshe (for Safe Democracy)

Mohammad Darawshe discusses the implications of the results in the recent March 2006 Israeli parliamentary elections and states that the elections increased the Arab minoritie’s representation in Israel’s Knesset, thereby winning ten percent of Parliament seats. Darawshe explains the three factors that contribute to the Arab lower share of voters in terms of their actual population and they are: lower turnout rate, age, and citizenship status. According to him, the Arab political parties must unite to form one coalition (rather than four, separate parties) in order to establish legitimacy as a true option and not simply remain an opposition voice.

darwashe.jpg Mohammad Darawshe is a political analyst. He is cofounder of One Voice Movement, for peace.

THE MARCH 2006 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL resulted in furthering the representation of the Arab minority in Israel’s Knesset. For example, the number of Arab representatives increased from 9 in the 16th Knesset to 13 in the current 17th Knesset.

This is the second time in which the representation reaches such high grounds, giving the Arab community 10 per cent of the seats in Israel’s parliament. Still, this is far from the potential, which must be achieved in order to strengthen the principle of democracy and appropriate representation.

The Arab population in Israel numbers approximately 1.3 million residents, constituting 19 per cent of Israel’s population. Still, their share of voters is about 14 per cent of the population due to the following:

1) Lower turnout rate (actual utilization of the right to vote) reaches only 56 per cent, compared to a national average of 63 per cent (in both cases the numbers are at their lowest ever).

2) The Arab population is a younger community than the Jewish majority in Israel, due mainly to the immigration waves of Jews to Israel which bring older residents, and also due to a higher birth rate among the Arab citizens, compared to Jewish citizens.

3) Approximately 220,000 of the 1.3 million Arabs in Israel do not have Israeli citizenship, but only have residency status (East Jerusalem residents annexed to Israel in 1980).

The Arab population presented 4 different lists to the elections, showing a significant fragmentation, which lead to the low turnout rate. Three of those lists passed the threshold needed to enter parliament, which is 2 per cent of the actual voters. There was a serious danger that one or more of those lists would not pass the threshold, endangering the number of Arab representation in the Knesset. Mainly personal, not ideological, differences are the reasons for this fragmentation, and those parties were lucky that this time the national turnout was so low. The call for unity of these parties is stronger today than ever before, since gambling with the representation of the minority voice seems to be too dear to lose.

Still, in the days following the elections, these parties are not on the radar screen of the candidates to form a coalition. This has been the case since Israel’s creation in 1948. The Arab participation in forming a government and being part of it seems to be a non-legitimate matter in the eyes of the larger, national political parties.

The closest these parties were to a coalition government was during Rabin’s second term as prime minister in the early 90’s, where they used their 5 only seats in order to help form a block of 61 seats against the 59 seats of the right wing.

This time, despite having 12 seats, only 3 of them could be represented in the coalition, that is, those who are part of the larger, national parties (Kadima with 1 and Labor with 2) and not the sectorial parties.

There is a need for the Arab political parties in Israel to unite under one list, and therefore, become a true option for partnership in a coalition instead of remaining the eternal opposition voice. This way they could represent the interests of their voters’ de-facto, in daily life issues, instead of only being a loud voice making noise about their suffering.

Furthermore, large, Israeli political parties should mature to become more Israeli and less ethnic in their political behavior, by giving the right to Arab political parties to become part of the decision-making process in the state. After all, democracy is not only about being able to get elected, it is also about being able to have representation in the decision making process.