Center left or far right, the outcome of the Israeli elections largely did not matter to Palestinians. How could this be?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won himself a fifth term in last week’s Israeli election. It’s not a surprise — the right-wing prime minister is popular in Israel, with a 52 percent approval rating, and his hawkish policies helped bring him to victory by shoring up far-right voters.
This election was consequential to many. But for Palestinians forced to live under Israeli rule and mostly deprived of the right to vote, there is a widespread sense that Israeli elections make little difference in their lives. The population living in the increasingly Israeli-occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip knew that their struggle would not end even if Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party were to be ousted.
Some in the United States held on to hope that a Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud Party loss at the polls to Israeli centrists, namely the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz, would help prevent further abuse of the Palestinian people. For many, Netanyahu appears to be the problem. But Palestinians know the problem far predates and will outlive the right-wing war hawk.
Palestinians in the West Bank are living under the longest-running occupation in world history. Living under 11 years of blockade, Palestinians in Gaza struggle to survive. Palestinians displaced by Israel state builders now live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and dream of returning to their original lands, which is their right under international law.
For these millions of Palestinians, there seems to be no acceptable avenue for their demands for political and human rights. These non-citizens live under complete Israeli control despite being unable to vote in Israeli parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, the status of Palestinian citizens in Israel — who make up 20 percent of the population — is not much better. While they do the have the right to vote, they are largely regarded as second-class citizens with severe limitations on their ability to develop their communities and live in full equality with their Jewish Israeli counterparts.
Many recognize that when it comes to the question of Palestinian rights, the party platforms did not differ enough. It is no wonder that many chose to boycott the election, and that there was historic low voter turnout among Palestinian Israelis.
Elections for the Israeli Knesset, or parliamentary, elections are not a referendum on ending Palestinian suffering. They are not a referendum on ending the blockade of Gaza, nor the occupation of the West Bank and the ever-growing Israeli settlements there, nor allowing refugees to return, nor granting full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
When it came to Palestinian issues, Israeli news coverage leading up to the election was not focused on each party leader’s approach to the so-called “peace process,” but rather debating which candidate could more efficiently and harshly clamp down on Palestinians. Netanyahu’s “centrist” opponent boasted about the number of Palestinians he killed as a military general and of bombing Gaza back “to the Stone Age.”
We should also remember, it was under the leadership of a liberal, centrist party, Kadima, and its Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the blockade of Gaza was instituted, and over 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the military campaign against Gaza in 2008-9, called Operation Cast Lead.
For many Palestinians, the outcome of the 2019 Knesset elections did not matter, as the leading parties are in consensus on perpetuating the status quo.
Last year, Israel passed the Nation-State Law, which explicitly names Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people alone, makes Hebrew its sole official language, and makes clear that Israel is not a state of all its citizens. Some saw it as a sign of Netanyahu’s nationalistic extremism. But it’s hard for Palestinians to see it as a sudden break from the past.
For Palestinians, the foundation of Israel’s supposed democracy was built on our suffering through dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and discrimination. In 1950, Israel’s Law for Absentee Property declared lands and possessions belonging to any Palestinians who fled the violence of the establishment of the state of Israel as “absentee” property. These individuals either left temporarily, fearing the threat of being massacred, or were forcibly removed from their land, which the state then appropriated.
How can a state that is proudly and unabashedly not a state of all its citizens call itself a democracy? The chain of events that has enabled a figure like Netanyahu to become so entrenched in Israeli politics is enshrined in the state’s history.
Whether the sitting prime minister leaves or stays in power, it remains the case that Palestinians are unable to vote in favor of their freedom in Israeli elections. Perhaps another future is possible, one where a binational democratic state of all of its citizens exists in Israel-Palestine, rather than the current reality. Until then, a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike will not be achieved at the polls.
Hanna Alshaikh is a Palestinian American researcher of the activist and intellectual histories of the Palestinian diaspora. She also writes on Palestine in US politics. Find her on Twitter @yalawiya.