Last week, the Israeli daily Haaretz published a profile by journalist Nir Hasson on Ramadan Dabash, a Palestinian resident from the town of Sur Baher who is running for the upcoming Israeli municipal elections in Jerusalem (October 30). According to Dabash, the time has come for Palestinian Jerusalemites, who make up roughly 40% of the population inside the city’s Israeli-drawn municipal borders, to take their place in city hall, play an active role in local politics, and achieve equal rights. Towards this end, Dabash established “Jerusalem for Jerusalemites,” a party he hopes will attract enough Palestinians to vote and help break the boycott of municipal elections observed by a majority of residents since the Israeli invasion in June 1967.
Palestinian residents have the right to participate in (Israeli) mayoral and city council elections. But, the majority refuse to do so, as voting would confer legitimacy upon (illegal) Israeli rule.
To be sure, Dabash is not a popular figure amongst Palestinians. He has long been a feature of the generally shunned Israeli “co-existence” circuit, in which Arabs are tokenized and featured at staged events, alongside foreign diplomats and Israeli politicians, to project an image of normalcy in the city. Dabash has also openly expressed recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, and at one point even referred to himself as an activist for the Israeli right.
Still, the idea that Palestinian Jerusalemites should run candidates for city council has gained traction in recent years. More and more Palestinians are also opting to apply for Israeli citizenship. These developments do not reflect an acceptance of Israeli rule, as some commentators and “co-existence” advocates insist. Rather, it is a tactic to secure a place for Palestinians in their city and improve living conditions.
Since the outbreak of the 2000 intifada, Israeli authorities have aggressively targeted Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem for closure and imposed greater restrictions on political activity and mobilization. There has also been a rise in the revocation of Palestinian residency permits, while the construction of the Wall has severed the heart of the city from the West Bank (as well as from Palestinian Jerusalemites living on the eastern side of the enclosure). The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has also been cut off from East Jerusalem and is increasingly losing legitimacy.
Given these developments, Palestinian Jerusalemites are understandably looking for new ways to protect their status, improve service allocation, and obtain their proportional share of the budget. But is running candidates for local elections a tactic that can yield positive results?
The logic behind running Palestinian candidates is that representation would put the community in a position to assert its rights as residents and tax payers. Without Palestinian advocates, there is simply no electoral incentive for councillors to represent their interests. While this may be true theoretically, focusing on the issue of representation overshadows fundamental structural-ideological dynamics that are at play in the city. The Jerusalem Municipality is a weak administrative actor, subordinate to the colonial interests and priorities dictated at the national and party level. All major decisions are centralized and expressed through powerful government ministries, planning departments, the military, and finally, the municipality. For all these actors, Jerusalem is not a multi-ethnic city, but the Jewish capital of a Zionist state. All resources are deployed to extend, maintain, and protect that status. Palestinians, by merely existing, pose a threat to this order, and so their demographic ratio and ability to mobilize is actively contained.
Perhaps an appropriate barometer to measure the potential impact of increased representation is to consider how Palestinian MKs have impacted policy within the Knesset. Israel’s parliamentary model is based on a system of proportional representation, and Palestinian citizens have taken advantage of their right to run for office and defend their interests. Their effectiveness is, however, limited by laws that protect the dominant ideology of the state (Zionism) and ensure Palestinian subordination to political goals defined by the majority. According to historian Shira Robinson, the 1950 Law of Return was designed to create a legal category above that of citizenship, where Jews enjoy exclusive rights to the state, while Palestinians, by contrast, have only limited rights within it. An extension of this principle, Section 7A of the Basic Law prohibits candidates from challenging Israel’s ethnic (Jewish) identity. Indeed, outspoken Palestinian Knesset members are routinely silenced, discriminatory laws continue to be passed, and Palestinian communities remain disproportionally impoverished and under-funded. Palestinian parties have also been regularly excluded from coalition governments since 1949.
In short, running candidates in municipal elections may score a symbolic challenge to Zionist claims to Jerusalem and yield minor improvements in terms of services. But in the end, the system itself is designed to marginalize, not empower, Palestinians.