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Israeli Arabs Struggle to Make Vote Count

Arab voters in Israel face some difficult choices in Tuesday's parliamentary elections. They will have to decide whether to vote for Arab parties, or for mainstream Jewish parties that are courting the Arab vote. A new law could affect Arab representation in Israel's Knesset, or parliament.

The latest poll taken to gauge the opinion of Arab voters in Israel shows voter interest picking up among many of Israel's 600,000 Arab voters.

Arabs will need to vote in large numbers this year, or they could face political oblivion in Israel. A new law says that any Israeli political party that seeks a seat in Israel's Knesset must get at least two-percent of the vote. In previous elections it was one-point-five-percent.

Elie Rekhess studies Arab voting patterns at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. He says the new law could mean at least some Arab parties will lose parliamentary representation.

"This is definitely one of the issues pending during this election campaign," Rekhess says. "This is the first campaign where the threshold has been raised to two-percent. Now it does not affect any of the large countrywide Israeli parties, but it may affect the smaller Arab parties, because it is much more difficult this time to pass the threshold."

Mr. Rekhess says the new law will also affect smaller Jewish parties, but Arabs, he says, vote overwhelmingly for Arab parties, and generally do not support the large national parties, such as Labor, Likud and Kadima, which are referred to in the Arab community as Zionist parties.

Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's population of more than six-million people. Yet, the Arab parties control just eight seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset, and the four main Arab parties are seen as perpetually on the margins of Israel's political life.

Now, with the prospect of political oblivion facing them, Israel's Arab parties have organized an intensive get-out-the vote drive. Lutfy Mash'our is the publisher and editor of the influential weekly As-Sennara newspaper in the Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth. He says Arab parties this year face another obstacle, a newly energized Labor Party under the leadership of Amir Peretz, who is actively seeking Arab votes.

"In recent weeks, they (the Labor Party) are showing that it is trying to be part of the Arab community, not like the other Zionist parties," Mash'our says. "Amir Peretz was always with the Arabs. He visits all the time, unlike other Jewish leaders."

But Lutfy Mash'our says most Israeli Arabs will vote for one of the Arab parties. Mistrust of the Israeli government and the main Jewish-dominated parties is an overwhelming fact of life among most Israeli Arabs, says Mash'our, even though, he says, Israeli Arabs have little faith in their own parties, which tend to be characterized by political infighting and rampant corruption.

"So, the big question is, how many Arabs are going to vote? I want to tell you, we have no reason to vote, because we have no legitimacy (political legitimacy) at all, and we have no special reason to vote for Arab parties rather than the Labor Party," Mash'our says. "Still, the Arabs feel they are pushed to the corner, which means they have no opportunity to vote, except to vote for Arab parties."

The latest poll taken of Arab voters indicates that the recent get-out-the-vote drive by the Arab parties seems to be working. Arab voter turnout could be as high as 69 percent, while overall Jewish turnout could be as low as 60 percent, lower than usual in an election seen as the most lackluster in years by many Israelis.

That could be good news for the Arab parties, which could win just enough votes to reach the necessary two-percent threshold to remain in parliament, and avoid further political marginalization.