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Israeli Arabs unenthusiastic about Jan. 22 election, complain of second-class citizenship

Israeli Arab activist Rasool Saada is crisscrossing the country to encourage fellow Arab citizens to vote in Jan. 22 parliamentary elections, convinced they can make a difference. Numerically, he's right. Historically, it hasn't worked out that way.

Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel's population, but their voter turnout has been much lower than that of the Jewish majority. Many Arabs are disillusioned with politics, feeling alienated as a minority in a Jewish state and dissatisfied with their own squabbling, ineffective representatives.

On the Jewish side, suspicion over the loyalty and ultimate goals of Israeli Arabs, always in the background, has grown in recent years with the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and more overt identification with the Palestinians by Israeli Arab leaders.

"It's a daily identity crisis living as an Arab in Israel, because your Palestinian identity is your core," said Saada, 23, the only Arab in his law school class at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. "Many throw their hands up and don't want to participate in politics, but because we're a minority, we need to have our voices heard."

Israeli Arabs hold citizenship rights that, in contrast to their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, give them access to Israeli social services and the right to vote. They tend to be poorer and less educated than Israeli Jews and often suffer discrimination in the job and housing markets.

"We're second-class citizens, and Israeli politicians will only talk to us behind closed doors," said Bashaer Fahoum-Jayoussi, a lawyer in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel. "For us, integration isn't an option, it's mandatory. We speak Hebrew, we live with Israeli flags everywhere. But on the other end, they never extend a hand," she said.

The disillusionment works both ways.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main coalition partner, Yisrael Beitenu, made a strong showing in 2009 elections with a message that questioned the loyalty of Israeli Arabs.

In 2010, Arab lawmaker Hanin Zoabi, whose campaign posters are plastered all over Nazareth, infuriated many Israelis when she joined pro-Palestinian activists on an international flotilla that tried to break through Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Israel considered the flotilla a dangerous propaganda exercise. Zoabi was nearly assaulted in parliament and subsequently stripped of some parliamentary privileges.

In 2010, Amir Makhoul, a leading community activist, pleaded guilty to handing sensitive information to the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. Another lawmaker, Azmi Bishara, fled the country five years ago to avoid facing espionage charges.

Four years of deadlock in Mideast peace efforts and last month's conflict with Palestinian militants in Gaza have added to mutual mistrust.

Jamal Zahalka, an Arab lawmaker who has served in parliament since 2003, said the atmosphere there has grown considerably more hostile.

"We're trying to encourage Arabs to vote because it's important, but you can't blame them when they see how little power we have in parliament," he said. "Not only do (Jewish lawmakers) refuse to hear us, but they also want to ban us from running." A motion to ban the Arab parties is on the table again, as it is before every election, and it is likely to be rejected as in the past.

In this combustible atmosphere, many Israeli Arabs are expected to stay home on election day. A recent survey by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an advocacy group that promotes coexistence, found that about half of Israeli Arab voters are expected to cast ballots, compared to about 70 percent of Jewish voters.

A study released this week illustrated the gaps that Arabs have long complained about. The College of Management Academic Studies found that native-born Israeli Jews earn 41 percent higher wages than their Arab counterparts in high-paying professions. The gap widens to a 64 percent difference after 10 years in the workplace.

Many Arabs are also frustrated by infighting among Arab politicians.

In theory, the Arab population could deliver enough seats in the 120-member parliament to influence the makeup of a coalition government. But Arab parties have been divided by ideological differences and personal rivalries, leaving them on the margins of Israeli politics. In the outgoing parliament, Arab parties held just 11 of the 120 seats.

Hoping to reverse this trend, a Bedouin Arab politician, Atef Krinawi, has founded what he calls the first "pro-Israel" Arab political party.

Krinawi says too many Arab politicians focus on the conflict with the Palestinians to the detriment of domestic issues like poverty and crime. He also believes Arabs should serve in in the Israeli military, a recommendation that most Arabs reject.

Although many surveys indicate that civic issues eclipse the Palestinian issue as main concerns among Arabs, Krinawi's party isn't finding much traction.

"If you want to change the system, yes, you must learn to play the game from within," said Jasmine Abusif, a student at the College of Management Academic Studies. "But you can't separate the Palestinian issue. You're tied to it and you're stuck in the middle."

The conflict between Israel's Jews and Arabs goes back to the country's establishment in 1948. At the time, hundreds of thousands of Arabs either fled or were driven out of the country, leaving properties and relatives behind. For the first 18 years of Israel's existence, Arabs lived under martial law that included curfews and travel permits.

Many Arab Israelis mark 2000, when police killed 13 Israeli Arabs during riots that broke out following the eruption of a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, as a turning point. Many say the state failed to properly investigate the riot and take action against the police officers responsible.

"After that, we really started questioning how exactly we fit into this state," said Marie Totry, a professor at Tel Aviv University.