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Israel Allows Arab Citizens to Vote — Arab Leaders Do Not

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avatar by Mihal Amazigh


The Israeli Knesset building. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, himself in the 14th year of a four-year term, installed a new unelected cabinet. This news was met with little fanfare from the international community, which has grown indifferent to the absence of democracy in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the muted response from Western commentators over this development stands in stark contrast to the immense scrutiny of Israel’s election last Tuesday, in which some of Israel’s detractors falsely claimed that Israel “denies Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the right to vote.”

This double standard is glaring, and the accusation is misinformed. Often missing from the narrative of those quick to blame Israel for Palestinian disenfranchisement is that when Israel came into being, it offered citizenship to all Palestinian Arabs within its borders.

Elections in Israel have been held consistently ever since, depending on the durability of each governing coalition. These elections typically have a voter turnout rate of around 70%, and have always been inclusive of Israel’s Arab citizens (numbering roughly two million today). In fact, since Israel’s very first election in 1949, Arabs have voted and served as members in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

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Israel’s first Knesset included three Arab members: Seif el-Din el-Zoubi, Amin-Salim Jarjora, and Tawfik Toubi. El-Zoubi was re-elected for 30 years, from 1949 to 1979. In 1973, he was appointed Speaker of the Knesset. El-Zoubi and Jarjora also served as mayors of the Israeli city of Nazareth. Meanwhile, Tawfik Toubi served for 41 years, from 1949 until he retired in 1990.

In the second Israeli election, the number of elected Arab legislators more than doubled to eight, and Arab representation in the Knesset has continued to increase over the past seven decades. Perhaps most notable among Israel’s Arab legislators is Majalli Wahabi, who served as interim acting president in 2007 during a Supreme Court investigation of the sitting president.

Another inconvenient truth for those who demonize Israel is that while Israel has maintained routine and inclusive democratic elections since its inception, their neighbors in the Palestinian territories have not. The 1993 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority (PA), and transferred civil jurisdiction over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to that elected body. Yet kleptocrats in the West Bank and Gaza consistently deny their own people the right to vote, often without much protest from their supporters in the United States and elsewhere.

Since Abbas was elected in 2005, he has cancelled every election, remaining in power and amassing an estimated worth of $10 million. Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, ruled for 35 years — interrupted by only a few elections until his death in 2004, when he had an estimated worth of over $1 billion.

In Gaza, Hamas was voted into power in 2007 in the aftermath of a deadly civil war, seized control with an iron first, and has not held a free election since. While Hamas leader Khaled Mashal resides in Qatar with an estimated net worth of $3 billion, Gazans suffering from high living costs and inflation have been protesting corruption by their leaders. Hamas responded to these demonstrations with brutal and deadly force, arresting journalists and imprisoning political dissidents.

Moreover, Arab disenfranchisement is not a phenomenon unique to Israel’s next-door neighbors. In fact, autocrats who enrich themselves while disenfranchising their own people is extraordinarily commonplace across the Arab world. For example, Muammar Gaddafi — who had an estimated net worth of over $200 billion — ruled Libya for 42 years until his assassination in the 2011 Libyan revolution. Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika remained in power for 20 years by enacting constitutional amendments, despite protests by his people. The Sultan of Brunei, who recently made headlines for enacting the death penalty for LGBTQ people, has held his position since 1967, and is worth an estimated $20 billion. The list goes on.

This sort of unchecked government corruption, which denies hundreds of millions of Arab citizens the basic human right to vote — and allows leaders to profit exponentially while impoverishing their people — is precisely what led to the Arab Spring. In nearly a decade since, little progress has been made. While Tunisians successfully ousted their president of 23 years, Syria and others have spiraled into civil wars.

While the outcomes of the Arab Spring varied by country, the message from regular citizens was clear: they want the democratic right to vote. Palestinians are now echoing this call. A recent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll found that 72 percent of people in the West Bank and Gaza want the right to vote for the leaders who represent them.

Arabs deserve the right to vote, in the PA and elsewhere. Those who wish to see this happen must reject the impulse to solely condemn Israel on these grounds, and instead lobby for Palestinian and Arab leaders to grant basic voting rights to their citizens. Pointing the finger at the Israeli electoral process and not at historical disenfranchisement by tyrants is not only insincere, but it will do nothing to bring voting rights to much of the Arab world.

Mihal Amazigh is editor-at-large of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice.

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