Where is the Palestinian candidate for Israel’s presidency?

When a minority consistently feels disenfranchised and excluded, it retreats from civil society. Now is the time to ensure that Israel’s Palestinian minority and its elected representatives no longer take that route – for the sake of all citizens.

By Ilan Manor

Following the shameful presidency of convicted rapist Moshe Katzav, most Israelis felt that only Nobel Prize laureate Shimon Peres could restore dignity to the office of president. In the past six-and-a-half years in office, Peres not only rehabilitated the presidency, he also revitalized it and its influence. There is no greater testament to his success than the fact that there are currently 11 candidates running to replace him when he steps down this July – more than in any other presidential elections in Israel’s history.

The gallery of presidential hopefuls is as diverse as it is large. It includes current members of Knesset such as Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of Labor, Reuven Rivlin of Likud and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. There are also retired public figures, such as Dalia Itzik, who hope to stage a comeback via the presidency, and even a Nobel Prize laureate, Professor Dan Shechtman.

While the gallery of presidential hopefuls includes both young and old, men and women, Israeli-born tzabars and Russian immigrants, it does not include a single Palestinian-Israeli candidate. The absence of such a candidate is interesting given the fact that nearly 10 percent of current members of Knesset are from Arab parties, and that Palestinians constitute 20 percent of all Israeli citizens. Since the Knesset elects the president, a Palestinian-Israeli candidate would ostensibly poll in double digits from the very beginning of his or her campaign. Should such a candidate receive the support of Meretz, Israel’s largest left-wing party (which is unlikely to put forward a candidate of its own), they will have secured 17 votes – nearly 15 percent of the electing body.

Of course it is hard to imagine a Palestinian citizen being elected president in today’s political and social climate. But public figures often run for office not in order to win but in order to stimulate public debate over their status as minorities. Such a debate is crucial in Israel given the continuing exclusion of the Palestinian minority from Israeli society. Palestinian Israeli parties, for instance, have never been invited to serve in the government and the country has had only one Arab minister. Not only are Palestinian citizens excluded from the “start-up nation,” but Israel has never had an Arab celebrity judge on TV reality shows or as a major news anchor. These examples highlight the fact that the exclusion of this minority is not only political but also social, economic and most importantly, systemic.

The fact that Arab parties have decided not to put forward a presidential candidate – due to the frustration resulting in the unwillingness to participate in Israeli civil society – is telling. Such unwillingness is already visible at large in Israel’s Palestinian minority, which no longer comes out to vote in full force during general elections. As opposed to the general elections of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, in which over 70 percent of Arab citizens voted, since 2003 voter turnout has decreased to approximately 50 percent.

In the most recent elections, the Arab parties attempted to rally their constituencies and increase voter turnout. Their pleas did not help, nor did an appeal from the Arab League calling on Palestinian citizens of Israel to participate, in the hopes of facilitating a peace accord. In the end, only 57 percent voted. Nearly half stayed at home.

When a minority consistently feels disenfranchised and excluded, it retreats from civil society – Israel’s Palestinian minority has already done so. Perhaps now its political leaders are following suit. However, such retreats never last long; tensions continue to mount and violence soon erupts. The last time the Palestinian minority demanded its place in Israeli society, 13 people were killed by the police, including my friend and peace activist Asel Asleh.

Ensuring that Israel’s Palestinian minority and its elected representatives take an active part in civil society is in the country’s vital interest. Such participation would not only help prevent further violence but would also contribute to the successful growth and prosperity of all Israeli society. Only by inviting Palestinian Israelis to take part in society as equal partners and making the dramatic shift from systematic exclusion to inclusion can that be accomplished.

Ilan Manor is studying towards a Phd in Communication at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to +972 Magazine, the Jewish Daily Forward and On Second Thought Magazine. He blogs at www.ilanmanor.com.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Israel has had one Arab minister, Raleb Majadele, who was science, technology, culture and sports minister from 2007 to 2009. We apologize for the mistake.

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