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Likud Plus makes itself unmoveable

The 5-party coalition government in March 2013. Picture by Haaretz

Why the electoral threshold stokes internal conflict

By Dahlia Scheindlin, +972
March 12, 2014

A half-empty Knesset voted Tuesday to approve an electoral reform bill theoretically intended to stabilize governance in a country with a notoriously unstable system by raising the voting threshold to 3.25% from the current 2% (itself an increase from earlier years), among other reforms. To understand why change elicits such visceral reactions, it should be viewed in the context of three aspects: the Israeli political system, Jewish-Arab relations, and majority-minority relations more broadly.

The Israeli political system

No party in Israel has ever won an absolute majority in the Knesset, and there has always been a governing coalition. Those coalitions depend on small parties – usually ultra-Orthodox, with a few exceptions including the current government, in which Shas is in the opposition. Arabs in Israel are also represented by small parties, traditionally they support three different lists: Hadash – a Jewish-Arab list; Balad; and the United Arab List. Together, these parties currently have 10 seats in Knesset.

Arab parties have never been genuine coalition partners. Thus ultra-Orthodox parties (who represent about 10% of Israeli society at present) have had disproportionate power throughout Israel’s history, while Arab parties, representing over 20% of the population, have effectively no influence on governance in Israel.

Current coalition members argued that the higher threshold would discourage the proliferation of tiny parties and sectoral fragmentation. Arab representation need not be harmed, as their parties can simply merge. This is a strange argument coming from a coalition whose leading party Likud-Beitenu just two weeks ago proposed a bill that would mandate separate representatives for Christian and Muslim Arabs on an equal employment commission. That was considered deeply offensive to Arabs, a transparent and racist “divide and conquer” effort when in fact Christians and Muslims are discriminated against quite equally.

Further, when parties merge in Israel, they usually lose. Merged parties almost always receive fewer seats than the two separate parties combined (the election results for the merger of Likud and Israel Beiteinu is a good example: the two parties held 42 seats in the previous Knesset, and 31 as a merged party). The coalition partners surely know this.

In response, Arab leaders insist on their political diversity, and their right to be represented by a range of parties rather than forced political uniformity.  It is true that I have in the past also heard some Arabs express the desire for their political parties to unite and end political squabbling.

The point is, a Jewish government should not tell Arab citizens how to represent themselves at all.

Jewish Arab relations

The new law arrives after the previous Knesset went on an unprecedented legislative assault on Arabs. It passed the Association law, which allows discrimination in housing. It passed the Nakba law, telling them that their historical experiences,  memories and national narrative are not legitimate in Israel. The anti-boycott law currently under debate is a signal to them too, that non-violent political protest on behalf of Palestinians under occupation is a civic offense.

The current government seems committed to continuing this feverish mission of alienation. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has normalized the idea of stripping Arabs of their citizenship, and the government is now forcing political uniformity on them at best, or curtailing representation at worst.

At the same time, the previous government did make some significant progress on economic integration of Arab society. More recently, the Justice Ministry has been running a series of public service announcements against discrimination in general, and specifically in the workplace. This gives the nasty impression that the Israeli government in fact seeks economic contribution and political suppression.

Majority-minority relations

In divided societies, there will always be tension between representation and stability. But it is also the case that a healthy dose of representation contributes to stability – by giving minorities a genuine role in shaping society.

Balad party billboard, January 2013.

At present, as noted, Arab parties are represented in legislature at less than half their proportion in Israeli society (20%). In the judiciary, a 2011 Haaretz report observes that they are eight percent of judges, a major improvement from the past.

Arab parties have no representation in the executive. There have been two Arab ministers (one was Druze) in Israel’s history; now there are none.

Yet Liberman accused the opposition of hysteria, and insisted that it’s perfectly logical to adopt an electoral threshold similar to Austria, Norway, Sweden, Germany and New Zealand. (He also proved himself again to be unhinged, by calling the opposition: “whiners, post-Zionists, and terrorist representatives.”)

The comparison is badly misleading. Israel is a deeply divided society, in the words of Arendt Lijphart, the political science guru on power sharing models. It’s more like Belgium, Bosnia, Switzerland or Lebanon, with a significant indigenous national minority, yet unlike those others it has no model of power sharing or recognition of collective rights. New Zealand too has undertaken specific policies to ensure parliamentary representation to proportionally reflect the Maori minority in its population.

At present, Israel has neither sufficient representation nor political stability. Daniel Friedman, a controversial former Minister of Justice, argued that the new law will bring neither, because coalitions are not toppled by parties that received 2-3.25% of the vote. Indeed, the smallest party in the executive today, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, got 5%  of the vote – and she’s not the one threatening to bolt.

Finally, Israel cannot afford to ignore the root causes and sparks of ethnic tension and even state break-up in other regions. The deepest grievances among minorities tend to be actions that push them out instead of drawing them in. These often take legislative form: language laws, such as in Ukraine (and Moldova before that), or limitations on minority political representation, such as Cyprus in 1963 – which touched off the 50-year (and counting) secessionist conflict.

People sometimes forget the basic fact that up to now, Israel’s Arab population has been integrationist rather than isolationist (like Haredim), and has never been secessionist.

It’s simple: people who feel alienated might eventually opt out. For the first time I can remember, an op-ed in Haaretz by Khaled Titi said that the legislation expressed hopes that the Arabs will put themselves on a course toward political autonomy.

Don’t pretend we didn’t see it coming.

Israeli government’s ‘package deal’ hinders democracy and peace

The three bills are significant enough for coalition members not to have to indulge in political horse-trading.

Haaretz Editorial

March 10, 2014 

Coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin. No opposition within the coalition. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

Coalition chairman Yariv Levin sent a letter Sunday demanding that the coalition parties support all three of the government’s flagship bills up for a vote this week: the bill raising the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent from 2 percent, the bill on drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the Israel Defense Forces, and the bill requiring a referendum before land under Israeli control is given up.

Levin’s letter is part of a package deal designed to blur some parties’ opposition to the legislation. And the coalition chairman has another tool to ensure that the bills pass. He has invoked Clause 98 of the Knesset regulations, which has hitherto only been used in debates on the state budget and in rare cases such as the 2005 Gaza pullout. The clause dramatically shortens the length of debates and compromises the opposition’s ability to voice objections.

Tying the bills together is not only a procedural issue or a way to muzzle the opposition. Unlike the bill on drafting Haredi Jews into the military, which has been debated at length publicly, the other two bills are being voted on without all objections being aired.

And though it could be legitimate to raise the electoral threshold gradually following a true dialogue, a jump to 3.25 percent would sink small parties, especially the Arab parties. The claim by the bill’s initiators that the Arab parties can unite presumes that there is no value to a variety of opinions in the Arab community, as opposed to the Jewish community.

The referendum bill, which would require a referendum on territorial compromises, is designed to shackle the peace process during this Knesset and the following ones. In fact, the question arises as to how a coalition seeking to strengthen itself (via the threshold bill) is proposing to weaken itself (via the referendum bill).

There’s a difference between good government and political wheeling and dealing. The three bills are significant enough for coalition members not to have to indulge in political horse-trading. Levin’s package should be taken apart.

Governance Bill is a game-changer for Israeli politics

Behind the scenes and into the weeds of Tuesday’s passage of the most dramatic electoral reform in decades

n Minister Avigdor Liberman with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset as it votes on the Governance Bill, March 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset as it votes on the Governance Bill, March 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

By Haviv Rettig Gur, Times of Israel
March 11, 2014

The most dramatic electoral reform in decades passed into law Tuesday morning after a fight that saw opposition MKs boycotting the debate in the Knesset plenum.

The Governance Bill, the term used to refer to a series of measures changing, among other things, the electoral threshold parties must reach to enter the Knesset, passed unchallenged in the plenum by 67-0 because of the opposition’s absence.

The bill also limits the size of the cabinet to 18 ministers and makes it more difficult to pass no-confidence votes to topple a government mid-term.

The bill needed 61 votes, a majority of all Knesset members, to pass into law, instead of a majority of lawmakers present during the vote, because it included several changes to Israel’s Basic Laws that define the structure of government.

The Governance Bill is one of three legislative measures which appear set to pass in a marathon debate and voting session that started Monday and is expected to end on Thursday morning. The other two proposals are the Equal Service Bill to draft ultra-Orthodox men into national service and a Basic Law requiring a national referendum for withdrawal from Israeli sovereign territory in the framework of a peace agreement.

The opposition’s boycott of the votes was a remarkable show of unity for a fractured opposition that includes parties representing communities as disparate as ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab nationalists and left-wing Israelis.

What united them, according to opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor), who led the walkout, was not the substance of the votes underway in the plenum, but the way in which they were brought to a vote. The push to pass all three bills in one week, ahead of the start of the spring recess later this month, was preventing serious debate on the measures.

“We haven’t even talked about the content of the bills,” said Eyal Shviki, Herzog’s spokesman. “The big story for us is the bullying way in which everything is being passed in three days, as though this was an emergency. We’re not opposed to the draft law; we support drafting Haredim,” Shviki added.

Opposition MKs meet Sunday night ahead of a boycott of three bills in the Knesset. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Opposition MKs meet Sunday night ahead of a boycott of three bills in the Knesset. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Indeed, the measure that passed Tuesday morning, which raised the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, was similar to a bill presented by Herzog himself raising the threshold to 3%. Many members of the opposition who chose to boycott the vote, including Herzog, Labor Knesset faction head MK Eitan Cabel, Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on and others, are themselves signed on to similar bills to increase the threshold.

But the opposition says the speed of the vote raised a basic question of democratic procedure.

“Haredim will only be [forcibly] drafted in 2017 [under the current version of the Equal Service Bill]. Netanyahu won’t be returning territory in the next two months, before the end of the spring recess. And we’re not going to elections in that time either. So what’s the rush on these bills?” Shviki asked.

In fact, the bills were driven by “hatred, discrimination, and a desire to keep out certain parties and end debate in the Knesset,” Herzog said on Sunday when announcing the boycott, apparently criticizing the threshold increase and contradicting the later focus on procedure.

MK Hilik Bar (Labor) noted that the bills were passing despite lacking majorities in the Knesset.

“When we discovered the secret agreement, we understood the bills are being pushed through without majority support in the Knesset for their actual content,” he said. “So we decided we would boycott the plenum and hold an alternative discussion. A drastic response to a drastic move.”

The “secret agreement” in question was a letter drawn up over the weekend and signed by all five coalition party leaders that commits each to support the initiatives of the others — and highlights the disagreement within the coalition.

“In order to conclude the legislative process, strengthen the coalition and fulfill our goals and commitments to the public, we hereby commit to supporting the final passage of the three bills in the upcoming vote in the Knesset plenum,” it read.

The letter may carry legal significance – courts have already ruled that the coalition agreement establishing any given government has the weight of a contract between the coalition’s member parties – but its true importance is in highlighting the critical nature of the votes for each coalition member.

The coalition letter lays out which party requested which vote, revealing the quid pro quo nature of the proceedings.

“At the request of Yisrael Beytenu, the governance bills will come up for a [final] vote Tuesday morning. At the request of Yesh Atid, the Equal Service Bill [drafting Haredi men] will come up for a vote the following day, on Wednesday, while the vote on a national referendum will take place during the night between Wednesday and Thursday,” the letter, first publicized by the Ynet news site, read.

“If the governance and equal service bills pass in their full version (and, when necessary, with at least 61 votes), then Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Hatnua commit to have all their members of Knesset vote for the referendum bill, the third bill this week,” it adds.

The letter’s language – indeed, its very existence – highlights each party’s sense that its own legislative initiatives don’t enjoy unanimous support even within the coalition: a skeptical Hatnua was key in negotiating the new electoral threshold down from 4% to 3.25%; Yesh Atid and Hatnua do not support the referendum bill; and Jewish Home wants to moderate the Haredi draft bill.

“They understand the coalition isn’t homogeneous. They know they can’t take a chance on waiting, so they have to push everything to this week,” Bar said.

But coalition MKs were unfazed by the criticism.

“Labor didn’t want to be seen to vote on the Haredi draft, so as not to alienate Haredi support in the future,” a Likud MK suggested.

“We had debates in the first reading, debates in committee,” Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis said in the Knesset debate Monday. “The opposition’s position was heard clearly. But the opposition believes that as long as its opinion doesn’t win, then the public debate isn’t over. They need to stop being crybabies. That’s not leadership.”

Likud member Yariv Levin seen during an assembly session in the plenum hall at the Knesset on February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Likud member Yariv Levin at the Knesset on February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who is set to leave the senior parliamentary role by the end of the month, promised on Monday that there would be meaningful discussion on the measures, which have been debated in committees for months.

“There will be a full, comprehensive, serious discussion [in the Knesset plenum], and at its end, a vote,” he said. “We are on the eve of a recess. Our duty is to hold an appropriate process, and then to allow [the Knesset] to make decisions and hold votes.

“Not only was this not pushed through without the opposition. How many bills have been debated as deeply, as specifically over dozens of meetings and long months in committees, and in the public debate as these three bills? What claims are left to be examined or raised?”

Other coalition MKs, especially MK Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid), one of the Governance Bill’s sponsors, noted there were over two dozen committee meetings and a debate over the past 10 months during which the opposition had many opportunities to change the bill.

“The bill started at an electoral threshold of 4%,” noted one coalition MK. “It was negotiated down in the committee process to 3.25%. So how can the opposition say it wasn’t involved?”

Yet despite the comments from Levin and Hoffman, delivered Monday in the plenum, it was actually coalition MKs who noted they found much to disagree with in the new bill, but would vote in favor for coalition reasons.

“Nothing will change if we don’t institute regional representation,” Hatnua Knesset faction chair MK Meir Sheetrit told the plenum on Monday.

Jewish Home MK Nissan Slomiansky noted that some coalition parties may rue the day they voted for the higher threshold.

“This won’t just hurt small, fringe parties,” he said. “Serious, mainstream parties also go through crises. My own party, the National Religious Party constituted today as Jewish Home, has been around since the founding of the state and represents a significant part of the public. But it went through a crisis [with just three MKs in 2006-2009] that would have wiped it out completely if this threshold [3.25%] had been in place.”

“This bill won’t improve governance. At the end of the day, will the citizen see better governance? Will the government’s difficulties in making and implementing decisions be made easier? That won’t happen. Governance requires regional, personal elections,” agreed MK Amram Mitzna (Hatnua).

The most fraught element of the new reform is the higher electoral threshold, which could push two of the three Arab-majority parties in the Knesset out of the parliament, based on their showing in the last elections in January 2013.

But, noted coalition MKs, the 3.25% threshold is hardly high among Western democracies. In Austria, Italy, Bulgaria and Sweden it is 4%. In Belgium, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Poland and Germany it is 5%.

Indeed, though the bill has been called “racist” by several Arab MKs, discussions are already underway among Arab factions to field a larger joint list in the next election that, say the MKs, could even increase their showing.

After the bill passed into law Tuesday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid praised its passage.

“The Israeli public will now have a more functional, efficient, focused government, without ministers without portfolio or other accouterments,” he said. “The Israeli public will have Knessets with broader political parties and more serious and constructive debates.”

That optimism will be tested in the coming years and future election cycles. But it’s a promising start for the government to a week of votes seen by coalition parties as essential to their electorates.

What’s in the bill?
Many elements of the Governance Bill, such as the new limits on the size of the cabinet and new budget arrangements, require changes to constitutional Basic Laws and must gain 61 votes in the plenum to pass into law.

Electoral threshold

The electoral threshold will rise from 2% of total votes to 3.25%, down from 4% in the original bill. If the new threshold had been in force in January 2013, three of the 12 parties currently serving in the Knesset would not have made it in: Hadash, which won 2.99% of votes, Balad (2.56%), and Kadima (2.08%).

No confidence

The bill dramatically changes the “no-confidence” process through which 61 MKs can topple a sitting government through a vote in the Knesset plenum. The current procedure allows no-confidence motions to be presented in the plenum almost without limit – indeed, three or four are raised each week by various opposition parties.

This process is one reason Israel has seen 33 governments in 65 years. In the new bill, the opposition would not be able to present a no-confidence motion without offering an alternative government, including naming a new prime minister and cabinet. Only if the new proposed government wins a Knesset majority would the old government fall. Instead of going to new elections, the new proposed government would take over and rule until the next parliamentary elections.

Campaign finance and faction splintering

The bill uses changes in campaign finance to create disincentives for MKs to splinter from their parties once they are elected to the Knesset. Under the new measures, a Knesset faction must have at least two MKs to win public campaign funding, the only kind allowed under Israeli law. Crucially, this limit on campaign funding won’t apply to distinct political parties who split from multi-party lists. Several Knesset factions, including Meretz, Likud-Beytenu and Ra’am-Ta’al are such multi-party lists, and can split along party lines without losing campaign funds.

The cabinet

The new bill would make it illegal to appoint more than 19 ministers and four deputy ministers to the cabinet (including the prime minister), and would cancel the post of “minister without portfolio,” employed by prime ministers in the past as a way to put MKs in the government after running out of ministries for them to run. (The last government had at one point 32 ministers and eight deputies. Four were ministers without portfolio, and several had ministries invented for them alone, such as the minister for strategic affairs, the minister for intelligence and atomic energy, the minister for citizens’ services and the deputy minister for the advancement of youth, students and women.) Under the new bill, a government wishing to appoint more than 19 ministers would have to obtain 70 votes in the Knesset to do so.

State budget

The bill would allow a government to continue functioning even if the Knesset fails to pass a budget by establishing an automatic monthly budget of 1/12 of the previous year’s budget. It also extends the grace period for a new government to pass a budget from 45 days under current law to 100 days.

Coalition plan forces MKs to approve controversial bills

New document ties together votes on controversial governance bill, IDF haredi draft bill and referendum bill in bid to promise their passing; opposition slams move as ‘dictatorial’

By Moran Azulay, Ynet news
March 09, 2014

The heads of all the coalition factions have been ordered to vote in favor of three sensitive pieces of legislation that have been lumped together when they are presented in the Knesset this week.

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Over the weekend, the factions within the coalition met to draft a document of understanding on the issue, in coordination with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The agreement commits the factions to voting en masse for all three bills, which deal with the IDF draft for the ultra-Orthodox, the threshold for parties entering parliament, and a referendum on any land transfers as part of a peace deal.

The document declares the factions’ commitment to support all three bills, citing the coalition’s “need to complete the legislative process, strengthen the coalition and meet its goals and obligations to the public.”

Furthermore, the document states, members of the coalition only have until 4pm on Monday to file any objections to the bills. In addition, the members of the coalition will uniformly vote against any objections, allowing them to express their dissent but without threatening the legislative process.

The bill on raising the Knesset threshold will go to the vote on Tuesday, at the request of Yisrael Beiteinu ; the vote on “sharing the burden” of IDF service will be presented on Wednesday, at the request of Yesh Atid; and the referendum bill will be voted upon on Wednesday night and Thursday.

In response, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett said “this is a very important week. (These three bills) are formative for this country. It is important to get the ranks in line.”

In anticipation of the dramatic vote expected for Tuesday on what has been dubbed the Governance Bill – which hopes to increase political stability in Israel by raising election thresholds and tightening conditions for votes of no-confidence – the bill’s main supporter Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attempted to defend the law.

Leiberman spoke to Ynet and explained that “in the current legal state of affairs in Israel, regardless of who is in power, there is a huge gap between what the government decides, and what it can do. This leads to a situation in which decisions which will never be implemented are taken. The government should be allowed to actualize its worldview.”

Opposition and Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog slammed the decision as undemocratic. “This is an ugly dictatorship in which coalition members are turned in puppets on strings,” he said.

Leader from opposition parties will convene Sunday evening to decide on how to continue, and it is likely they will chose to boycott the votes in protest of the document.

In veiled reference to Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid and Bennett – both of which are political newcomers – Herzog slammed those who had promised a “new type of politics,” saying they have in fact become “Yisral Beiteinu 2,” a reference to Lieberman’s party which opposition parties have claimed has autocratic undertones.

“It is embarrassing that those parties pretending to be the political center are signing hate bills opposed to their ideology,” Herzog said.

Shas chairman Arye Deri said the document should be seen as a sign of internal coalition troubles: “This document (says) there is no basic trust between coalition members and should thus be dispersed immediately. It is inconceivable that the citizens of Israel will be run by a group of ministers whose only thing in common is a party and personal interests, and a desire to trample the week, like a dictatorship.”

Meretz Chaiwoman Zehava Gal-On also slammed the move, calling it an attack on the checks and balances of democracy: “This coalitions has lost control and turned its MKs into robots and hostages. It is forcing MKs to vote in favor of laws they reject.

Israel elections quandary for marginalised Arab citizens

By Kevin Connolly, BBC News

Israeli Arab election campaign posters in Nazareth, 14/01/13.

Israel’s Arab population is part of the state – and yet somehow apart from it at the same time.

Their semi-detached relationship with the state gives them an unusual dilemma; while other Israelis are deciding how to vote, they are deciding whether to vote.

Some argue that participating in elections might be viewed as an endorsement of the existence of Israel – others that voting is the only way to exercise influence over how the state behaves and where it spends it money.

Things used to be very different.

In the first elections in Israeli history Arab parties ran as affiliates of the Mapai movement which was led by David Ben-Gurion, the architect of the state.

Parties like The Democratic List of Nazareth may not have been very big but they were included in governing coalitions and they reflected the impulse of the left-wing founders of the new state that the Arab minority had to be included in the political process.

Israel has changed a great deal since those days.

Its current leadership emphasises that it is a Jewish state; Benjamin Netanyahu would want the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognise it as such in any future negotiations. A law passed in the last parliament requires non-Jews who want to migrate here to swear an oath acknowledging its Jewish nature.

That kind of talk makes the 20 per cent or so of the population which is Arab feel uneasy, or even angry.

They have civil rights – including the right to vote and run for the Knesset of course – but many still feel marginalised or excluded.

Even if they vote they feel that power will always be shared among parties representing Jews, leaving them as part of the electoral process rather than the game of government.

In the Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel I met Mohammed Darweshe, a community leader who is trying to persuade his fellow Israeli-Arabs not to boycott the elections.

He told me: “If we play the angry voice and pull out of the system, which is happening, then we will marginalise and defeat ourselves… that would be allowing the government to discriminate against us… [It’s better to] come and get representation and affect the system.”

There are signs that Mr Darweshe may be losing that argument within his community – especially among younger people.

Around three-quarters of Arabs voted in Israel’s election in 1999. That fell to just over half last time around and several Israeli Arabs told me they thought it would fall again this time around.

There are complex factors at play in all of this – but the one that comes up over and over again is alienation.

There is a sense of separateness which is not surprising in the context of the sectarian history of the Holy Land.

And while some Arabs work successfully within the Israeli economy others will point out that Arab children are poorer than the children of Jewish families and that Arab towns feel like less money is spent on them.

It is worth noting though that Arabs were represented in the last parliament (11 Members of the Knesset, or parliament, out of 120 ) and will be represented at around the same level in the next parliament.

Politically fragmented
At least one mainstream Israeli party – Meretz – is fielding an Arab candidate with a reasonable chance of being elected. Those calculations exclude members of the Druze community, who tend to be counted separately.

But it is obvious that Israeli-Arabs could wield a great deal more influence if they voted tactically and voted in larger numbers.

By voting for their own small parties they tend to ensure that in the kaleidoscope of Israeli politics they remain without real influence.

That influence would be felt very directly indeed if a very large number of Israeli Arabs were to vote for Meretz or any of the other parties that supports peace talks with the Palestinians.

When I spoke to Ibrahim Sarsour, head of the United Arab List, he seemed a little wistful about that prospect.

He has been trying to get Arab voters organised into a single bloc without much success in spite of his party’s name.

“Being in a single list we might be able to persuade the 10 per cent who boycotted last time to get out and vote,” he told me. “We didn’t succeed with that strategy but still on the ground we are trying to move together.”

The problem is that it is hard for Israel’s Arab population to act with any kind of unity of purpose because history has robbed them of a coherent identity.

The rest of the Arab world is strong in its support for Palestinians – those Arabs who fled or were expelled beyond the boundaries of Israel as it was formed in 1948 or who now live in the land it occupied in the war of 1967.

But its attitude towards those Arabs who happened to remain within Israeli borders in 1948 is much more equivocal – even though only a series of accidents of history separates them from their fellow-countrymen on the other side of the national boundaries.

Identity issue
One Israeli Arab said to me that his people could be forgiven for feeling marginalised not just within Israel but beyond it too.

“We were”, he told me, “the only Arab people who were not mentioned in the founding articles of the Arab League in the 1940s. And then in the 1990s we weren’t mentioned in the Oslo Accords [peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians].”

He told me he thought many people in the wider world simply did not realise that Israel had an Arab minority, let alone such a large one.

Many even resent the title “Israeli Arab”, used here in the interests of clarity. Some prefer to be called “Palestinian citizens of Israel”.

The big story of the Israeli elections will of course be the fate of the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – he is likely to be returned to office although he may be forced to tweak his governing coalition according to the final results of the voting.

But on polling day it will also be worth checking how the Arab vote has held up.

If it starts rising, Arabs will exercise more influence here and if it continues to fall then that sense of deepening alienation will eventually create problems for the Israeli state.

Either way, it is an issue to watch. Israel’s Arab population is part of the state – and yet somehow apart from it at the same time.

Israeli parties which won Knesset seats, January 2013

Likud Yisrael Beiteinu, 23.34% votes cast, won 31 seats
Yesh Atid 14.33% votes cast, won 19 seats
Labor Party 11.39% votes cast, won 15 seats
The Jewish Home 9.12% votes cast, won 12 seats
Shas 8.75% votes cast, won 11 seats
United Torah Judaism 5.16% votes cast, won 7 seats
Hatnuah 4.99% votes cast, won 6 seats
Meretz 4.55% votes cast, won 6 seats
United Arab List 3.65% votes cast, won 4 seats
Hadash 2.99% votes cast, won 4 seats
Balad 2.56% votes cast, won 3 seats
Kadima 2.09% votes cast, won 2 seats

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