Ian Austin

Only Arabs in Israel have true democracy

A two-state solution remains not only possible, but the best route to a sustained and lasting settlement, writes Ian Austin


NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 27: Mahmoud Abbas, President of Palestine delivers a speech at the United Nations during the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2018 in New York City. World leaders are gathered for the 73rd annual meeting at the UN headquarters in Manhattan. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

March 12, 2021 14:09

Which of the hundreds of millions of Arab citizens in the Middle East will be able to vote in free and fair elections this year?

It’s obviously not Syria. Even before a brutal civil war that killed half a million people and made almost half the population refugees, the country was a brutal dictatorship. Libya is in carnage and Yemen is still the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe.

Egypt is under a state of emergency and the President’s main opponents were banned from the last election. Whilst there are varying degrees of political development in the Arab monarchies, the unelected Monarch retains the final say in all of them.

The first election for nine years eventually took place in Lebanon in 2018, after being called off by the government three times. Elections also take place in Iraq but are marred by corruption and Baghdad comes down hard on anyone who really tries to exercise self-determination, as the Kurds found out with the military action and blockade they faced after their referendum in 2017.

Many won’t want to hear it, of course, but apart from Tunisia, the likelihood is that the only Arab citizens in the whole of the Middle East who will get to elect the people who run their country in free and fair elections live in Israel.

Almost 380 million Arab citizens live in two dozen countries stretching across five million square miles and the only ones who truly have a say in who runs their country are the 1.9 million in the tiny state of Israel.

Later this month, all nine million Israeli citizens, whatever their religion, race, ethnicity or heritage, will have exactly the same rights at the ballot box. All citizens of Israel vote on an equal basis and Arab voter turnout for the 2020 election reached 64.8%, its highest level in the last two decades.

Visit the Knesset and you will see one of the most diverse and disputatious legislatures in the world representing every shade of opinion from the far left to the extreme right.

The Joint List, made up of the four Arab parties, was the third largest grouping in the 23rd Knesset and its members were some of the government’s harshest critics. The alliance won a record 15 seats in last year’s election, and the Islamist Ra’am (United Arab List) party leader Mansour Abbas was elected deputy parliament speaker in May 2020.

It’s important to recognise that opinion is diverse, with many Arab-Israelis casting their votes for parties other than the Joint List. There are Arab candidates standing for most of the main Jewish-led parties — from the left-wing Meretz to Netanyahu’s Likud.

Arabs and Palestinian citizens have served in the Cabinet, in the civil service and on the Supreme Court. An Israeli Arab judge, George Karra, sent a former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, to jail for seven years.

Recent polling found that most Israeli Arabs support the normalisation agreements between Israel and its Gulf partners, a promising sign.

Unfortunately, despite assurances that Palestinian elections will be held in May, it is unlikely that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will get to vote this year — so much for President Mahmoud Abbas’s promises.

Palestinians have not been able to vote for their president since Abbas won in 2005 and they have not been able to vote for members of the Palestinian Legislative Council since Hamas won the election the following year. Violence erupted, Abbas abolished constituency seats and banned parties that did not recognise the PLO which he leads.

President Abbas is now in the 17th year of a four-year term and repeated attempts to hold votes have failed. Less than a third of Palestinians expect the promised elections to be held.

The Israelis pulled out of Gaza in 2005 but no elections have taken place since Hamas took control the following year. Instead, they imposed a brutal dictatorship in which opponents face arrest and even torture or summary execution.

Imagine how different things could have been if the hopes raised by the Oslo peace process had been realised. Of course Israel bears a responsibility for that but so too do the leadership of the Palestinian Authority who turned down peace initiatives in 2000 and 2008 which would have led to the creation of a Palestinian state. Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip, seem more determined to wage war instead of negotiating a peaceful future for their 2 million Palestinians.

The situation in Gaza is desperate. But a two-state solution remains not only possible, but the best route to a sustained and lasting settlement.

I’ve spent thirty-five years campaigning for a two-state solution with an independent and viable Palestinian state, and want Britain to do everything it can to advance a peaceful and just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based upon security, peace and justice for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

All Israeli citizens will be able to vote for leaders committed to that this month.

Lord Austin is the UK's Trade Envoy to Israel

March 12, 2021 14:09

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