Hundreds of thousands of Israelis will head to the polls on January 22 to elect their representatives to the 19th Knesset. But Hani Salman, a 32-year-old legal intern from the village of Beit Safafa near Jerusalem, will not be among them.

“No Arab living in Israel should vote,” Salman told The Times of Israel. “Giving Arabs the right to vote is nothing but a way for Israel to improve its image with the democratic West.”

Salman is not alone. A new poll conducted by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Israeli nonprofit, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation reveals a deep level of distrust among Israeli Arabs toward Israel’s political system and skepticism regarding their ability to influence policy through it.

‘Before the Second Intifada I used to vote for the Knesset. Those were the good Oslo years; a Palestinian state and coexistence were just around the corner’

Voting levels among Israel’s Arab minority — who at 1.63 million constitute 21 percent of the population — have dropped some 22 percentage points over the past five elections; from 75 percent in the 1999 elections to just 53.4 percent in 2009. Those numbers are likely to decline further in the upcoming elections.

Thirty-one governments have ruled Israel since its founding, but not one has included an Arab party in the governing coalition. Only two Arabs (one of them Druze) served as ministers in Israeli governments out of a total of 676 ministers. They both belonged to the Labor Party, not an Arab list.

Frustration with these facts is cited by respondents in the Abraham Fund’s poll and focus group as a main reason for abstaining from the vote. Paradoxically, when Arab towns and villages in Israel were governed by military law during the 1950s and 1960s, when no independent Arab parties existed, voting levels among Arabs reached 85 and 90 percent.

Salman said that the turning point in his attitude towards the state was the Second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000. Thirteen Arab citizens were killed in northern Israel during clashes with police that October.

“Before the Second Intifada I used to vote for the Knesset. Those were the good Oslo years; a Palestinian state and coexistence were just around the corner.”

But then the intifada broke out, Salman said, “and I understood that we cannot live as citizens alongside the Jews. Jews [in Israel] will never regard us as equal citizens.” At that point, he adds, he stopped referring to himself as “an Israeli citizen with Palestinian roots” and began identifying simply as a Palestinian.

Arab Israelis massively boycotted the general elections of 2001, which brought Ariel Sharon to power. Only 18% of the country’s Arab population took part in those elections.

Arab MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad) is escorted  out of a plenum session by Knesset staff, July 13, 2011 (photo credit: Omer Miron/Flash90)

Arab MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad) is escorted out of a plenum session by Knesset staff, July 13, 2011 (photo credit: Omer Miron/Flash90)

Israeli Arabs who do decide to vote are increasingly favoring Arab parties over Jewish ones, poll data indicated.

Hajar Masarwah, a native of the northern Arab town of Arara now working as a translator and moderator of intercultural dialogue groups in Tel Aviv, said she hadn’t yet decided which party to vote for, but one thing is certain: she will not give her vote to “a Jewish party” like she did in the past.

“I don’t feel that Jewish parties can represent me,” she told The Times of Israel.

Masarwah admitted that Arab parties were currently powerless within the Israeli  parliament and that voting for them was “like shooting ourselves in the foot,” but, she said, “sometimes standing in opposition is also a form of power.”

She bemoaned the Israeli electorate’s turn to the right, claiming that the Zionist left-wing party she used to vote for has significantly lost power and influence over the past years.

‘Arab parties are merely actors in a propaganda film for Israel’

“Today Israeli Arabs are more politically aware,” she added. “In the past, Arabs wouldn’t read political platforms. Today they do so more and more.”

Salman, too, once voted for the Zionist left-wing party Meretz, but in the last two elections voted for Arab lists. He now feels that that, too, is pointless.

“Arab parties are merely actors in a propaganda film for Israel,” he said, adding that most of his friends decided to shun politics in the last elections in 2009. “I am the last one who came to that conclusion.”

Arab civil society has contributed to this phenomenon. The northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement claims that participation in elections is contrary to Islamic law; while a grassroots movement, “the Popular Committee for Boycotting the Elections,” called in 2006 for the establishment of a separate parliament for Israeli Arabs.

Mohammad Darawshe and Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu, co-executive directors of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, said that falling rates of Arab voting could destabilize Israeli society and cause “a socio-national rift that will be hard to mend in the future.”

The poll found that inclusion of younger representatives in Arab party lists and the uniting of current parties into one large Arab list could motivate Arabs to vote

There is room for optimism, though, they noted. The poll’s data shows that Arabs shun the Israeli political system for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, indicating that the situation could be amended through a change in government policy.

What, then, can change the trend? The poll found that the inclusion of younger representatives in Arab party lists and the uniting of current parties into one large Arab list could motivate Arabs to vote. Stressing the facts that a higher voting rate could increase Arab power in the parliament and that voting is a democratic right were also found to motivate Arab citizens to vote.

Salman viewed a united Arab list positively, but posited that a mass Arab boycott of the elections would force Israel to prove in practical terms that it does not discriminate against its Arab citizens.

“Israel will have to work ten times harder to prove to the West that it is democratic.”