The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No matter how many Palestinians vote in Israeli elections, we still can’t win

Whether Netanyahu or Gantz forms the next government, right-wing policies will remain the same.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List coalition of Palestinian parties, votes in Haifa, Israel, in Tuesday's election. His group will be the third-largest bloc in the next Knesset. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

JAFFA, Israel — As polling in Israel came to a close Tuesday night, my family turned on the news to watch the results trickle in. Flashes of blue and white fired from the screen onto my brother’s face, revealing a sense of relief and confusion. Despite — or perhaps because of — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rampant racist rhetoric in recent weeks, about 60 percent of eligible Palestinian voters participated in the elections, up by 10 percentage points over turnout in the April elections, which left no party able to form a government. The Joint List, the slate uniting non-Zionist Palestinian and Jewish candidates, will be the third-largest party in the Knesset, with 13 seats.

“That’s great, no?” my brother asked.

Well, it’s complicated.

In the obscure political map still taking shape after a second election in less than six months, in which the right still reigns but is now fragmented, Palestinian voters proved they are a force to be reckoned with, which is impressive. Theoretically, this could grant the Joint List, headed by Ayman Odeh, the ability to determine who ends up serving as prime minister; it would be the first time Palestinians could realistically consider joining the governing coalition or leading the opposition.

But in the shadow of an ostensible Palestinian electoral victory looms a truth as old as Israel itself: In a system built on Jewish supremacy, on one group’s unequivocal abuse of power over others, those who demand full equality have negligible political weight. The Joint List amassing more members in the next Knesset is a fleeting, even misleading success — no matter the turnout rate, no matter who ends up forming a new government. After all, last year, the Knesset passed the Jewish Nation-State Law, a racist bill that enshrines Jewish superiority by claiming that only Jewish people have a right to self-determination in Israel and the Palestinian territories, promoting Jewish settlement also on occupied territory, and abolishing Arabic as an official language of the state — even with the most ever Palestinian representatives sitting in Parliament.

Upon Israel’s establishment, and then after its 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, the state invented different legal classifications for Palestinians. Palestinian citizens, the 20 percent of Israel’s population whom the government labels as “Israeli Arabs,” are considered separate from Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and refugees in the diaspora. We hold Israeli identification cards and passports, while West Bank and Gaza, and East Jerusalem residents, are subject to Israel’s intricate yet arbitrary permit regime. As far as Israel is concerned, Palestinian refugees, many of whom forcefully fled their homes in the 1948 war, have no connection to this land.

What my Palestinian family lost at Israel’s founding — and what it means for me

Through this false stratification, Israel can continue referring to us as a minority, even though Palestinians are a demographic majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. By giving only a certain class of Palestinians the right to vote, Israel maintains a veneer of democracy, even though more than 75 percent of Palestinians who live under varying degrees of its rule are disenfranchised.

Despite this hierarchy of status, the state views all Palestinians as a threat, both collectively and as individuals. It treats Palestinians with similar policies of discrimination and dispossession, including home demolitions, confiscation of Palestinian land and police brutality — regardless of whether we are citizens.

This is how Netanyahu’s baseless warnings of Palestinian citizens “stealing” the elections last week can largely go unquestioned, or how a voter intimidation campaign exclusively targeting Palestinian citizens in April, when a settler-aligned public relations firm and Netanyahu’s Likud party sent 1,300 activists wearing hidden cameras to “monitor” elections in exclusively Palestinian or Palestinian-majority areas, can be spun as an attempt to prevent voter fraud.

Hours before election day, Facebook temporarily suspended Netanyahu’s chatbot on his official page for violating the company’s hate speech policy, after sending a message to his followers claiming “Arabs want to annihilate us all.” He later chalked it up to a staffer’s mistake, but the message had already been sent, and the existential fear of Palestinians resonates with many Jewish Israelis.

The alternative to Likud’s Netanyahu, the Blue and White party led by former Army chief of staff Benny Gantz, isn’t really any different on most questions that matter to Palestinians’ daily lives. Gantz’s party has no intention of ending the occupation, of stopping settlement expansion, of granting full rights to Palestinian citizens, of considering the repatriation of Palestinian refugees. Many of Blue and White’s members have either worked with Netanyahu or support his party’s policies. The differences between them are nominal: Whereas Netanyahu openly declares his intention to annex the Jordan Valley, perhaps emboldened by more than a decade of holding the premiership, Gantz minces words and says he is “in favor of leaving the valley in Israeli hands in any possible scenario.”

For Gantz, boasting about bombing Gaza “back to the Stone Age” is more politically expedient than even paying lip service to equality, revealing the extent to which Jewish supremacy has been normalized. Gantz has repeatedly said he does not see the Joint List as a viable political partner, as have other Jewish-majority parties. For them, even Odeh’s watered-down campaign, made to appeal to Jewish voters, calling for a shared Jewish-Arab partnership is viewed as radical. To consider Odeh’s conditions for joining a coalition, which involve repealing the Jewish Nation-State law and ending the occupation, is out of the question.

Israel lets Jews protest the occupation. It doesn’t let Palestinians.

Even if the Joint List did lead the opposition, which is highly unlikely, given the politics, as the only party interested in ending the occupation, all it offers is the two-state solution — an outdated, irrelevant vision that ignores years of Israel’s de facto annexation and apartheid policies.

In modern nation-states, citizenship is a privilege and the right to vote in democratic elections even more so. Millions of stateless Palestinians can attest to that. But without disputing the power imbalance and challenging Jewish supremacy, participating in the legislature could lead to very limited and narrow improvements at best. Only once the international community holds Israel to the standards of international law will a step in the direction of justice and full equality be possible.

Parliament has rarely, if ever, been the place where the powerful voluntarily cede their superiority. It’s time Palestinian citizens see beyond the confines of our second-class citizenship and break from the shackles of Israel’s engineered separation, to imagine a future in which we are free in practice, not just in appearance.