Arab Views on Israel's Election

Friday, January 18, 2013 |  Elizabeth Blade

With elections in Israel just around the corner (January 22nd), the Arab world holds its breath in anticipation to find out who is going to win in the polls.

More than 30 parties compete for their place under the sun in Israel’s 120-seat parliament (the Knesset). Like in the United States, Israel’s parties fall into the left or right (even though a new trend of centrist parties is also emerging).

The right-wing camp is largely dominated by a joint party of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Called Likud-Beiteinu, it is poised to take up to 34 seats. On the left of the spectrum is the Labor party (that promises to address Israel’s economic woes) with up to 21 spots, followed by Netanyahu’s former adviser, Naftali Bennett, and his Jewish Home Party (that speaks out against freezing settlement activity in the West Bank) that’s predicted to win up to 15 seats.

To form a government in the Jewish state, a party would have to win a 60 percent ruling majority, something that no bloc can currently boast; meaning that whoever wins the elections would have to form a coalition. According to some experts, the possibilities here are limited. If Netanyahu gets re-elected (as most polls predict), he might want to side with either other right-wing parties (like Bennett’s) or a mix of religious and centrist blocs.

Israeli Arab Apathy

This could explain why many Arabs inside Israel prefer to give up on voting, saying they don’t believe it’s going to change things on the ground. According to a report by theworld.org, nearly 80 percent of Arab voters took part in the national election only a decade ago. This time around, however, less than 45 percent are expected to turn out.

Arab World Not Optimistic

Israel’s neighbors are not optimistic about the results either. Amr Zakariya, an Egyptian scholar and a founding member of Afaq, an institute for Middle East Studies in Cairo, who is also known for his Facebook page “Talking Peace,” said Israel-Egypt relations would not improve following the elections.

“Nothing will change and everyone knows it. This topic is not even covered by the Egyptian media because everyone knows the outcome. It's not the first time that Israel goes for elections, and it's not the first time that Netanyahu wins. That’s why a change in foreign policy is out of question,” he told Israel Today, adding that even though Israelis are now more concerned with the economy than with security, they are still most likely to prefer Netanyahu over any other candidate.

“He is a strong leader. But he might need to side with other parties (including the religious Shas) to form a government, he is still the one that has most chances to win”.

Addressing the preferences of both the Egyptian government and the people, Zakariya said that Cairo didn’t see much of a difference between the parties.

“For Egyptians, it doesn't really matter who comes to power, they are all the same. The change of the government (even if it does take place) will only shift actors but the show will remain unaltered,” he charged, conceding that it would still make more sense for Egyptian policy makers to support a strong party like Likud-Beiteinu rather than one that doesn’t have the backing of the people.

Strained Israel-Egypt Relations Regardless

Could Israel still hope to be “on friendly terms” with Egypt regardless of who wins the election? Zakariya was skeptical. “The Egyptian government will not hold talks with any Israeli government. Negotiations and friendly chitchats like those held under Mubarak are not going to happen under the current regime dominated by Islamists”.

However, Zakariya also conceded that some joint projects were still possible. “We could still coordinate our efforts in the field of security, especially in the Sinai that has lately seen increased terrorist activity. But I don’t think cooperation between the two states would extend beyond that. So it doesn’t really matter which government comes to power, Egypt’s top-brass is not going to favor it”.

Familiar Scapegoat

Analyzing what he says is the root of the problem, Zakariya insisted that Israel’s mistake came from its desire to make peace with each Muslim country separately instead of tackling what most Arabs claim is the core issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “What Israelis fail to understand is that all Muslim states are united. Peace with us will only be achieved if Israel solves the Palestinian issue,” he summed up.

Palestinians See Gloomy Future

Will Israeli-Palestinian peace happen after January’s elections? Dimitri Diliani, a spokesman for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, didn’t pin his hopes high, saying the situation was unlikely to change after the polls.

“There is a huge difference between hoping and being realistic. We hope that the Israeli public will choose to oppose the radical right, which bogs down any progress in both the country’s security issue and its technological, cultural or economic development. Unfortunately, Israel’s public is detached from realities of the Middle East, being brainwashed by the right-wing dominated media and its radical thinking,” Diliani claimed.

Addressing the possible outcome of the elections, Diliani was certain that even if Netanyahu remains in power, his government won’t last long. “Israel's isolation is going to increase and this will have a negative political and economic effect on the citizens of Israel. Why would Israelis want to deliberately suffer by choosing such government?” Diliani said as he parroted left-wing Israeli talking points.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

What will these elections mean for average Palestinians? Not much, according to Diliani. “If you are a Palestinian who doesn't believe in a two-state solution, then the coalition of Netanyahu-Lieberman is the best thing you can possibly wish for. But that’s radical thinking. Only a minority of Palestinians supports such a view.”

If that’s the case, then any improvement in Israel-Palestinian Authority relations (or Israel and the Arab community in large) is nowhere in sight. “Even though I don't think that our relations will improve after the right wins the elections, Palestinians will continue their struggle to establish a state,” stated Diliani.

Message for Israelis

Despite his gloomy predictions, Diliani said he had a message for Israelis: “The Israeli public should know that voting for the radical camp is voting for instability and economic degradation. But it’s hard to point the blaming finger at the Israeli public. My people also made a mistake, choosing Hamas [in the 2006 Palestinian general election]. Sometimes emotions overwhelm the mind; it’s only natural. But we [Palestinians] learnt from past blunders. We hope that the Israeli public will do the same”.

[Editor’s note: It should be pointed out that Diliani’s Fatah party has an ongoing rivalry with Hamas, which colors his viewpoint. The fact is that most Palestinians do not view their voting for Hamas as a mistake.]

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