Arab Vote Decisive in Labor Election

By Orly Halpern

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Jerusalem – In the struggle for the leadership of Israel’s oldest political party, it was the non-Zionists and the pioneers who determined the outcome. The Arab and kibbutz vote in the Labor Party primary handed the chairmanship to Ehud Barak, who defeated Ami Ayalon Tuesday, 51.3% to 47.7%.

Barak, who led Labor from 1996 until he lost the Prime Minister’s Office to Ariel Sharon in 2001, defeated Ayalon by winning a majority of the Arab vote and 54.4% of the kibbutz vote.

Both sectors recorded a higher number of registered voters for this Tuesday’s vote than for past primaries. Kibbutz members constituted 14%, and Israeli Arabs 13%, of the 103,000 voters registered for the primary, and as even the losing campaign concedes, their electoral weight far exceeds their numbers.

“In this poll, there is an anomaly: These two sectors are more influential than their percentage of the population,” said Daniel Cohen, strategic director of Ayalon’s campaign. The Israeli Arab vote, he noted, was particularly decisive: “You can see 90% voting in some villages for one candidate, so their accumulated influence is phenomenal.”

In the Druze village of Majdal Krum, all 210 registered Labor Party members chose Barak, according to Israel’s Channel 1. Such electoral results are not uncommon in some Israeli Arab communities, where members of extended families often vote on the advice of a senior family member.

As a result, candidates are able to secure a bloc of Israeli Arab votes by winning the favor of only one person: the rais, as he is called in Arabic in local campaign jargon. Gaining the group vote has in the past led to candidates offering enticements to specific communities — usually in the form of pushing through the bureaucracy to help Israeli Arabs obtain government jobs, building permits and public services such as electricity — and this week, Ayalon’s campaign was quick to raise claims of voting irregularities, threatening to appeal the votes in court.

Israel’s Channel 10 revealed that the day after the first round of primaries last month, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Barak’s pointman in the Arab sector, had 175 Arab families hooked up to electricity in towns where Barak won most of the vote. The towns’ mayors and Ben-Eliezer’s office denied that the electricity was payment for votes.

Whether Israeli Arabs were going to throw their weight behind Barak was far from clear before Tuesday. Much of the community voted for him in the 1999 national elections, believing he would improve their lot as Yitzhak Rabin had done earlier in the decade. But the killing of 12 Israeli Arab citizens by police during riots in October 2000, while Barak was prime minister, led many to withdraw their support. In an indication of how Barak’s fortunes have changed, this week he received 156 votes to 42 for Ayalon in Umm el-Fahm, where two youths were killed in 2000.

Knesset member Orit Noked, a Barak ally, declined to comment on allegations of vote buying, instead offering her views on the former prime minister’s appeal to Labor voters. “I don’t really know how it works in that sector,” she said in reference to Israeli Arab communities. “But I know that some people see Barak as the continuation of Rabin and someone who has the ability to change things.”

While Ben-Eliezer was making the rounds in Arab villages and towns to gather votes for Barak, Ayalon sent out Minister of Science, Sports and Culture Ghaleb Majadleh — Israel’s first Arab minister — to drink Arabic coffee in many of the same places. Majadleh was appointed by Amir Peretz, the outgoing Labor Party chairman and defense minister who put his support behind Ayalon after losing in the first round of primaries.

Ayalon, a former commando who later headed the navy and the Shin Bet General Security Service, believed that with Peretz’s support, he could beat Barak. The alliance, however, was a mixed bag for the campaign. While it brought Ayalon the votes of Sderot and the development towns, it caused him to lose a large number of the kibbutz votes he had won in the first round of primaries.

“Kibbutzniks told me that they wouldn’t vote for Ami because of Peretz,” Alona Alfasi, an Ayalon campaigner, told Israel Channel 2. “They said, ‘Peretz brought a disaster upon us with the last war.’”

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