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'Dialogue of the Deaf' -- Hamas, Israel Won't Talk; Arab-Israelis Aren't Heard

New America Media, Commentary/Analysis, Jamal Dajani Posted: Mar 31, 2006

Editor's Note: A Palestinian looks at Israel's recent election and sees an impasse, with little dialogue between the major actors and a failed effort by Arab-Israelis to form their own party. New America Media contributor Jamal Dajani is director of Middle Eastern programming at Link TV.

When Palestinian voters took to the polls in January and voted for Hamas, stunning the international community, the results were described as an "earthquake." On Tuesday, March 28, in the lowest election turnout in the country's history, Israeli voters did not cause an earthquake. But the outcome was still dramatic.

Israelis apparently moved to center politically, by giving the Kadima party the majority of seats in the Israeli Knesset, rejecting Benjamin Netanyahu and dealing a major blow to the conservative Likud party. But they also surprised many analysts and pollsters by voting in large numbers for Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Beiteinu party, which calls for an Arab-free Israel. The Beiteinu party wants to place Arab towns and villages outside state borders and strip Israel's Arab residents of their citizenship.

The vision of new centrist government leader Ehud Olmert is more moderate, but only slightly. Olmert has pledged to establish permanent borders for Israel by 2010, with or without the Palestinians' approval. Several years ago, when he was mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert outlined his vision of an Israeli state with "as many Jews and as few Palestinians as possible." During his victory speech to Kadima supporters, he reiterated this vision by declaring, "In the coming period we will move to settle the final borders of the state of Israel, a Jewish state with a Jewish majority."

The message strikes a popular chord. A recent poll conducted by the Israeli organization Geocartographia, for the Center for the Struggle Against Racism, found that more than two-thirds of Israeli Jews would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab. Nearly half would not allow an Arab in their home, and 63 percent of Jewish Israelis consider their country's Arab citizens a security and demographic threat.

Israeli-Arabs have long felt disfranchised from the Israeli political system. After facing discrimination on political, financial and social spheres, many say they are second-class citizens.

In one pre-election TV campaign advertisement for an Arab-Israeli party, a camel spoke as he wandered through the desert.

"They think I am a donkey," the animal says. "But I am a camel."

Calling someone a donkey in both Arabic and Hebrew literally means "stupid." The TV spot was a call to Arab-Israeli voters to turn away from Zionist parties and vote for their own party. Traditionally, most Israeli-Arabs have aligned themselves with the Labor party, only to be disappointed by its empty promises.

Their attempt to unify this year did not work. In preparations for the elections, the four main Arab parties debated forming a unified Arab list. The idea showed overwhelming support by the community, but soon was cancelled due to division and bickering. Arab voters turned out in low numbers, and many voted for Labor again. Posters in Arabic showing Moroccan-born Labor leader Amir Peretz were plastered in large Arab cities and villages. Arab parties won only nine out of 120 seats in the Knesset, a representation of 7.5 percent in a nation where one out of five Israelis is an Arab.

Shortly after the final results of the Israeli elections were announced, guaranteeing Ehud Olmert the prime minister's seat, Ismail Haniyeh took the oath of office in front of President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza, becoming the first Palestinian prime minister from the Islamist group Hamas. That same day, the Bush administration banned its officials from meeting with any member of the new Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Washington wants Hamas to recognize Israel and honor all previously signed peace agreements before it will end its boycott. To this, Ismail Haniyeh maintains that he is waiting for Israel to recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, release Palestinian prisoners and recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

As it stands today, Prime Minster Ehud Olmert wants to unilaterally define the borders of Israel and does not want to negotiate with a Hamas-led government. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is waiting for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. Thus far, the two leaders are communicating to each other through the media only, each one outlying his vision for peace in a style some analysts refer to as a "dialogue of the deaf."

On Wednesday, March 29, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza gathered in the streets to watch the eclipse of the sun. An elderly man muttered that the eclipse was a bad omen.

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