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Arab-Israeli Parties Join Forces In Upcoming Israeli Election

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Israel, a new parliament will be elected next month. Making up one big voting block are Arab-Israelis, Arabs who are citizens of Israel, not those in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. They make up about 20 percent of Israel's population. NPR's Emily Harris reports that Arab political parties in the country are trying a new tactic to win votes.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: For the first time, the four main Arab-Israeli parties have joined under one banner on the ballot. Candidate Aida Tuma Sliman says they're running together to unite the Arab vote.

AIDA TUMA SLIMAN: People think that we are merging and becoming one party, which we are not. What we are doing here is a coalition in order to be able to influence the political situation in Israel.

HARRIS: They're banding together because a new Israeli election law makes it harder for small parties to win seats. A true merger would be difficult. The coalition includes Islamists, Communists, Palestinian nationalists and a party with Jewish members. Saeed el-Krumi is an Islamist.

SAEED EL-KRUMI: (Through interpreter) We differ on family issues. The other parties use civil courts while we use Islamic law for things like marriage, divorce and inheritance. But we agree on a lot because we're all suffering from Israeli policies, like house demolition and discrimination.

HARRIS: A major complaint of Arab-Israeli citizens is the Israeli urban planning system that makes it difficult to build in Arab areas. In Lakiya, an Arab town in southern Israel, three sons of the es-Sameh family had their homes destroyed by government order. They were built without permits, although the family says they had no choice. Thirty-year-old Yusef es-Sameh.

YUSEF ES-SAMEH: (Through interpreter) All my life, I was working to have a home. They came and destroyed it in a minute.

HARRIS: He and his wife live with his mom now. He is voting in the upcoming election.

ES-SAMEH: (Through interpreter) I can't stop my life because my house was demolished. I have to vote for my rights.

HARRIS: He's not sure yet for whom. His mom urges a vote for a cousin, but his brother says all that guy can do is protest when bulldozers come.

Elsewhere in Lakiya, some new homes with permits are going up. The foreman on this project, 50-year-old Khalid Mahardi, says he will not vote for sure.

KHALID MAHARDI: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, I've never voted. There is no campaign in this town. No one talks about the importance of elections.

HARRIS: Two decades ago, more than three-quarters of Arab-Israelis voted for parliament. Now only half turn out. But here's a twist. More Arab-Israelis vote in local elections, a lot more, says Mohammed Darawshe. He's planning a get-out-the-vote campaign in Arab communities, citing numbers from two years ago.

MOHAMMED DARAWSHE: Eighty-five percent participate in the municipal elections. And only 55 percent participated in the national elections two months later.

HARRIS: He hopes the new joint Arab ticket will create enthusiasm and that besides the big issue of a Palestinian state, its members will take on other things Arab voters say are important.

DARAWSHE: Number one comes education. Number two comes jobs. Number three, end violence in the streets and our community's safety. Number four, a Palestinian state. They say it's a critical point. But still, they list it as number four and not as number one.

HARRIS: But Palestinian independence is a major reason this coalition of Arab parties would not join an Israeli cabinet if the opportunity even arose. Ayman Odeh heads the new United Arab ticket. He says mainstream Jewish parties have a different agenda.

AYMAN ODEH: (Through interpreter) They are saturated with Zionist ideology. They spend a huge amount on what they call security, and they are distant from peace. For these three reasons, there is no chance that we would join an Israeli government.

HARRIS: He says the Arab parties will seek influence as a block of lawmakers, especially over budgets. Perhaps, he says, Arab-Israelis will then not just be handed bits of cake, but cut it and distribute pieces. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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