Arab parties battle to stay in the Knesset

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The Independent Online

Parties representing Israeli Arabs in the Knesset will be struggling to maintain their parliamentary presence in the face of voter frustration, competition from the main Zionist parties such as Labour, and a call by Islamists to boycott next Tuesday's election.

The National Democratic Assembly (NDA), one of the two biggest Arab parties, with only three Knesset seats, has launched a concerted effort to persuade Arab Israeli citizens to vote for any of the four Arab parties in an effort to maintain or even improve their current total of eight (out of 120) Knesset members.

The campaign is aimed at persuading the 600,000 Israeli Arab voters that their best chance of fighting racial discrimination, gaining "cultural autonomy" over issues such as the education curriculum, and improving their depressed economic status lies with a significant Arab bloc in the Knesset.

The Arab parties have been particularly badly hit by a decision to raise the threshold for Knesset membership from 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent of the national vote. The three main parties failed to reach an agreement to unify, which would have made it much easier to beat the threshold.

The NDA, one of the main Arab parties is spearheading a call on the 600,000 registered Israeli Arab voters to vote for any of the four Arab parties rather than vote for the biggest Israeli Zionist parties: Kadima, Labour and Likud.

Immediately after the election of Amir Peretz as Labour leader in November, opinion polls showed the party's share of the Arab vote at 27.5 per cent. Mr Peretz has promised that he would bring the Arab parties into a coalition as prime minister and appoint an Arab minister. Labour also has three Arab candidates among the top 25 on its list-including a woman, Nadia Hillou. None of the Arab parties has a woman candidate in a winnable position on its lists.

Mr Awad Abdel Fatteh, Secretary General of the NDA, said the NDA-led campaign was a key reason why Labour's share of the Arab vote had dropped to 17.5 per cent, but Labour still remains a formidable competitor for the Arab parties. In the 2003 election it polled only 7 per cent of the Arab vote.

But Mr Abdel Fatteh, who says that half of all Israeli citizens below the poverty line are Arab - while they are 20 per cent of the population as a whole - said that Kadima, led by Ehud Olmert, the favourite to win the election, was also losing Arab support. While it polled 9 per cent immediately after its formation in November, it subsequently failed to include any Israeli Arabs on its Knesset list.

He added: "From their point of view it was a mistake. It is good for us. If they had Arab candidates it would be more difficult for us but this shows a racist attitude." Longstanding Israeli Arab complaints about being treated as "second-class citizens" have been compounded by developments over the past five years ranging from the fact there is no Israeli Arab state university to the failure to prosecute any police officers involved in the fatal shooting of 13 Israeli Arab demonstrators in 2000.

Israeli Arab leaders see the task of maximizing representation in the Knesset as made more urgent by the unexpected success in the campaign so far of Avigdor Lieberman, the hard right leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Mr Lieberman, a settler who is beginning to look like a possible coalition partner in the next government, proposes redrawing the border to put between 400,000 and 500,000 Israeli Arabs on its other side as part of a Palestinian entity.

Issam Makhoul, a Knesset member in Hadash, which includes Jews and Arabs, and is a successor to the Israeli Communist Party, sees little distinction between Mr Lieberman's ideas and that of physically transferring population. Mr Lieberman has also proposed Israeli Arabs agree to pledge "loyalty to the state of Israel as a Zionist Jewish state".

If they do not, under his plans, they would not have to right to vote in Israel.

Mr Makhoul said: "How does Israeli democracy have such a place for such a racist and fascist campaign?"

A further problem for the Arab parties is a call to boycott the elections by the Islamic movement in Israel's Northern Wing, which some analysts believe may have been given momentum by Hamas's success in Palestinian elections in January. But the United Arab List, another Islamic grouping represented in the Knesset, rejects the boycott call.

A straw poll in this mixed Christian and Muslim Arab city still showed a considerable appetite for voting among supporters of NDA and Hadash. Imad Deik, 40, a teacher at a Fransiscan school, said he liked Hadash's support for a two-state solution on 1967 borders, along with equality and peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs. He added: "We should definitely vote. The ballot box is the only way Arabs in Israel can express themselves."

Feisal Abu Amaneh,58, who will be voting for the NDA, claimed that per capital funds allocation for Nazareth was only a third of that for the neighbouring Jewish city of Nazareth Illit. "If someone wants to build a factory they don't give him a permit unless he builds in Nazareth Illit."

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