Tactical voting

By Akram Salhab (THE GUARDIAN, 31/10/08):

The upcoming Jerusalem elections and the widespread expectation of a continued Palestinian boycott, is yet another indication of the lazy thinking that continues to dominate the Palestinian political scene.

Ever since Israel occupied the city in 1967, the Jerusalem municipality has held elections every 5 years to elect officials to seats on the City Council. Palestinians in the city, who are deemed by authorities to be residents rather than citizens, have continued to refuse participation in the elections, on the questionable belief that doing so is tacit to recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the city. It is time to consider whether the boycott is hurting more than it is helping.

Palestinians in Jerusalem have a long list of legitimate grievances against Israel and the tactics it is using to achieve the Judaisation of the city. Ever since the bulldozer attacks over the summer, there has been an increasing racist debate in Israel as to how Jerusalem’s “demographic threat” (or what the Israeli left more palatably calls the “demographic challenge”) is to be dealt with, with increasingly harsh measures, such as house demolitions, becoming commonplace.

The situation was bleak even before this summer’s events. Many Palestinians in the suburbs of Hizma, Bir Nabala, Abu Dis, Kafr ‘Aqab and Izareyeh, to name but a few neighbourhoods, have been cut off from Jerusalem and prevented from accessing the employment, educational and health facilities on which they rely. I’ve known people who are forced to leap over the Wall on a daily basis just to get to work, making most of morning commutes laughable in comparison. Even the predicted perk of the wall, the establishment of Palestine as a world power in high jumping, has yet to realised.

Despite the illegality of Israel’s occupation and the continuing indignities, the decision of whether to vote or not should be made on the basis of political tactic, not political principle. For all its numerous faults, Israel has afforded Palestinians a degree of political representation and there is no reason why these democratic structures should not be pushed to their limits. With Palestinians constituting over 30% of the city’s population, the Palestinian vote would hold significant sway in how the city is run and force the Israeli authorities to confront head-on the contradictions they face in being both a Jewish as well as a democratic state.

The effect of the boycott is glaringly evident to anyone who takes the journey from West to East and partly explains why Palestinians receive less than 10% of municipal spending despite contributing over 30% of the city’s budget. In the blink of an eye you are transported from a modern, well maintained high street with neatly painted red and white curbs, to a pot-hole ridden road from somewhere in the third world. Even the Old City itself differs in cleanliness depending on the demographic make-up of the area, with the Jewish quarter by far the best maintained. There are other factors at play other than the boycott – Arabs in Israel proper are still drastically under-represented and under-funded, despite a high electoral turnout – but the situation is certainly exacerbated by the refusal to participate.

The boycott of the elections, with very little thought as to its consequences, is indicative of a widespread problem with Palestinian politics, namely, the continued obsession with symbolism. In sharp contrast to Israeli politics, which normally has pragmatism as its guiding doctrine, the Palestinian national struggle continues to garner a remarkable level of support for a raft of bizarre policies and personalities which undermine their obvious interests. Thus real political gains are sacrificed in order to maintain a symbolic stance which is only of significance to Palestinians themselves (few in the international community would truly believe that voting Palestinians had given up their claims to Jerusalem).

Developments on the ground, however, suggest that there may be a shift away from this strategy; with this year seeing the first timid foray by Palestinians into the city’s electoral process. Sadly the only progress thus far, if it can be called that, was the announcement that Zohair Hamdan, the mukhtar (village leader) of the East Jerusalem village of Sur Bahir, would run as the first Arab mayoral candidate. He later resigned, misguidedly throwing his support behind Nir Barkat, a candidate who also has the endorsement of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu. With no real choice of a progressive candidate it is no wonder that Palestinians continue to refrain from voting.

Nevertheless, his short-lived candidacy represents a step in the right direction and a hope that next time round, Palestinians will play a greater part in the elections. Because while voting in Israeli-run elections would undoubtedly leave a bitter taste in the mouth of even the most unpatriotic Palestinians, it’s a tactic that, if used correctly, promises to directly benefit the city’s Arab community and challenge the Israeli authorities.