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Israeli Elections a Victory for Social Justice, but Concerns Raised about Arab Minority

30 March 2006

Washington, D.C. ” More than the victory of any one party or another, than plans for further territorial withdrawal, Tuesday’s election results were above all a victory for the civic, social welfare agenda that interests voters more than security and foreign policy measures in their daily lives”, wrote Ruth Sinai of Ha’aretz in the aftermath of Israel ‘s historic election this week. The New Israel Fund, the leading voice for progressive civil society in Israel , today expressed satisfaction that social and economic justice issues played a prominent role in the Israeli elections on Tuesday. NIF, a partnership of Israelis and Diaspora Jews working for civil rights and social justice in Israel , noted that the probability of a center-left coalition, including the surprising showing of the Pensioners’ Party, might well restore social and economic issues to the top of Israel ‘s political agenda.

“The success of Kadima is being hailed as a vote for disengagement from more territory,” said Larry Garber , NIF Executive Director. “What is equally important is the success of Labor – which put socio-economic equity at the top of its agenda – and the astonishing appearance of the Pensioners’ Party, which represents the concern and fear of Israel ‘s senior citizens about their diminishing benefits.”

“The repudiation of Likud, and its reduction in status to the fifth largest party in the Knesset, is directly attributable to the loss of poor and working-class voters voicing their opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s harsh economic reforms. Clearly, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is a campaign premise that translates well into Hebrew.”

“With one in every three Israeli children living in poverty; with a dubious experiment in US-style ‘workfare;’ and with the largest income gap between rich and poor of any developed nation outside the U.S. , it is not surprising that this election was a referendum on pocketbook issues. Our grantees, who represent underprivileged Israelis ranging from single mothers to the unemployed to Mizrachim and Ethiopian immigrants, have worked hard to make sure that social issues were visible and important in this election cycle, and we congratulate them.”

Tempering the New Israel Fund’s satisfaction with how social justice issues played out, however, is increasing concern over the alienation of Israel ‘s Arab citizens. As important, the rise of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisroel Beitanu party, which proposes “transfer” of areas with significant Israeli Arab population to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for large settlement blocs on the West Bank, sends a very frightening message to Israel ‘s 1.2 million Arab citizens.

“Imagine the United States solving its immigration issue by unilaterally ceding south Texas, southern California, Arizona and New Mexico to Mexico ,” Garber said. “And Israel’s Arabs are not immigrants; in most cases they have lived on their land for generations and daily face inequities in education, infrastructure and social and economic status. Even serious consideration of Lieberman’s ‘transfer’ policy sends the message that Israel cannot succeed as a democratic, multicultural society.”

“This is not the vision of Israel ‘s founders – nor, indeed, of our prophets and religious tradition. Jewish values demand generosity to the ‘strangers within our gates,’ and Israeli Arabs are not strangers but full-fledged citizens who cannot be treated as pawns on a chessboard. As the first funder of most of Israel ‘s Arab civil and human rights groups, the New Israel Fund will continue to stand with them to assert all Israeli citizens’ rights to participate fully in a fair and equitable democracy.”

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