Elections in Israel

How Israel’s Arab Citizens Vote

12.27.12 5:00 PM ET

A new poll by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Israeli NGO working to promote coexistence and equality among Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel, reveals a startling decline in voter participation among Israel's Arab minority. Seventy-five percent of the Arab population of 1.63 million participated in the 1999 election that swept Labor's Ehud Barak to the premiership, the vast majority supporting the winning candidate. By the 2009 election of Benjamin Netanyahu—after the second Intifada, the killing of Arab protesters by the Israeli police in 2000, and wars in Lebanon and Gaza—participation plummeted 20 points to 53.4 percent.

The numbers are dire and it is not hard to understand why. The survey demonstrates that many Arab citizens, who together make up just over 20 percent of Israel's population, are frustrated with pervasive inequality in Israeli society and feel that voting in the past has not translated into influence over government policy. Given the seeming inevitability of Netanyahu's reelection on January 22, why would Arab citizens vote at all?

A large part of the answer is a commitment to democracy among Israel's Arab minority. While 51 percent of survey respondents indicated they will not vote in January, this high rate of abstention does not mean that Arab citizens are giving up on democratic values; in fact, just the opposite is true. Arab citizens want real democracy, which is much more than just voting on election day. They want the proper, and just, reward for their democratic participation: power sharing in government. "Now people are saying: we're going to pull back as a punishment to the political system," said Mohammad Darawshe, the co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives. "Unless you deliver on the power sharing, we're not going to play the game of just decorating Israeli democracy."

This democratic commitment is even clearer among the 43 percent of respondents who said that they will definitely vote, in spite of skepticism regarding what good will come from it. Most indicated that they will do so in order to realize their individual rights as citizens and their collective rights as a minority group. They want to participate as equals, at least in the democratic process itself. Only 33 percent of those intending to vote gave practical reasons for doing so, such as strengthening their political party or improving their lives. "I am here in this state and I have to vote," said one student from Umm al-Fahm. "I'm not nothing."

Even as participation in national elections for the Knesset has declined in recent years, Arab citizens vote in exceptionally high numbers in other elections. Almost 88 percent of eligible Arab voters participate in municipal races, as opposed to less than 50 percent for the country overall. These numbers testify to the value of democracy within the Arab community, and the reason they are so high is clear. "In municipal elections," Darawshe explained, "people can see that engaging in the democratic game can actually get you some results."

The decline in participation of Arab citizens is directly connected to the lack of equality and unfair allocation of resources in Israeli society. The main factor in how the Israeli elite makes policy and politics is national affiliation, not citizenship. According to this criterion, Arab citizens, affiliated with the Palestinian people, inevitably lose out. However many voters go to the polls, the political deck is stacked against them. "I think Arab citizens take their citizenship seriously, but the state doesn't," said Tel Aviv University professor Amal Jamal. "So if the state doesn't respect citizenship, if it doesn't respect the grounds on which all could be equal, then why take it seriously?"

Many look back to Yitzhak Rabin's 1992 government as the golden age for Arab citizens in Israel. Ruling with a minority coalition of 56 seats, Rabin aligned with the five Arab Knesset members, in what was known as the preventive block, in order to maintain a 61 seat parliamentary majority. Their crucial support translated into participation in government decision making as well as state investment in Arab communities, in particular in infrastructure and education.

As the various center-left parties struggle to build support in the weeks before the election, they would do well to remember Rabin's model. If the opposition demonstrates to Arab citizens that they are committed to equality and real power sharing, not only will the rate of participation by Arab voters increase—it also just might help these parties win the election. "If the Arab population is an active partner in the formation of the government, I think that these parties can defeat Likud," said Odeh Bisharat, a novelist and journalist. "It’s important to say to the forces who are not Likud, not Lieberman, and not the right: You need to wake up. Without the Arab population you can't gain power in Israel."