Israel's Arab citizens may be key to election

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But some plan to boycott the polls


May 22, 1996
Web posted at: 3:00 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT)

From Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- They aren't Jewish, but they could help determine who will become Israel's next prime minister, even if they don't vote in next week's election.

The 400,000 Israeli Arabs eligible to vote represent 12 percent of the electorate.

They may well be the most important voting bloc, because the Jewish vote is so evenly divided. Labor Party officials Wednesday rejected Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu's claim to have pulled 2 points ahead of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The Peres camp says it has a 4-point to 6-point lead.


Before the latest action in Lebanon, Peres was assured of 95 percent of the Israeli-Arab vote. But support dropped to 45 percent after the Israeli army killed 200 Lebanese-Arab civilians. Hoping to hold on to the crucial Israeli-Arab vote, Peres apologized.

"I feel sorry for any child or woman who is killed. Our army is not blood thirsty," he told Israeli-Arab political leaders in Nazareth last Friday.

Peres needs Arab support

But for Israel's Arabs, deciding whom to vote for remains a dilemma. Some say they will boycott the election. "We are sad and angry," says a village elder in Bartaa.

Ben Eliezer

The Labor Party desperately needs Arab voters to counterbalance Israel's religious right, which will surely vote against Peres as a bloc.

"We certainly would like to see Arabs voting for Shimon Peres," said cabinet member Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Israel/Lebanon map

Voting for Netanyahu is not an option for Israel's Arabs. The Likud candidate has surrounded himself with old army generals, widely seen as having Arab blood on their hands from the Intifada (Palestinian uprising) and before.

"The alternative (to Peres) is Netanyahu and he wants to destroy the peace process," said a young Israeli-Arab man in Bartaa.

Whether Israeli Arabs bother to vote -- or decide to stay home to punish Peres -- could determine whether he wins or loses.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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