Elections in Jerusalem 2018: The Palestinian Dimension

A report by Daniel Seidemann, published October 17, 2018
(a pdf of this report can be viewed/downloaded )

Israelis will go to the polls in municipal elections. In cities and towns throughout the country, every Israeli citizen over the age of 18 will have the opportunity to vote directly for a candidate for the position of mayor, and to cast vote for a list comprised of candidates to the city councils.

This year, the elections in Jerusalem have generated unprecedented interest, both domestically and internationally, particularly regarding the potential participation of the East Jerusalem Palestinians in the elections. In this document we examine the dynamics of the current election cycle in East Jerusalem, and share some observations about the anticipated results and their potential ramifications.

1. Background

In 1948, Israel imposed its citizenship on the Palestinians who remained in Israel after the 1948 war. In contrast, after the 1967 war and Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and surrounding villages, Israel neither imposed citizenship on nor offered it to the Palestinians that found themselves living under Israel control. Instead, the Palestinian residents were extended the status of “permanent residents.” The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not entitled to receive citizenship. They are entitled to request citizenship, and Israel at its sole discretion may extend or deny that citizenship. In the past 51 years, very few Palestinians have applied for citizenship, and far less have received it. Today, only approximately 5,500 of Jerusalem’s 332,000 Palestinian residents are Israeli citizens.

As non-citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem do not have the right to participate in national elections or be elected to the Knesset. However, as permanent residents of the city, they are entitled both to cast ballots in municipal elections and to stand for election as members of the Municipal Council; only citizens are entitled to run for Mayor.
Since 1967, there have been ten rounds of municipal elections in East Jerusalem. The table below shows voter turnout numbers among Palestinians of East Jerusalem in each of these elections.
Year             Ballots Cast by East                       Voter turnout as %
Jerusalem Palestinians              of eligible Palestinian voters

1969                 7,500                                         21%
1973                 3,150                                           7%
1978                 8,000                                         14%
1983                11,500                                     18.4%
1989                 2,700                                           3%
1993                 6,000                                           5%
1998                 6,500                                        6.5%
2003                 3,500                                           3%
2008                 2,600                                           2%
2013                 1,600                                        0.9%

To be clear: the fluctuations in voter turnout reflect specific historical and political developments. For example, high voter turnout in 1969, shortly after the 1967 war, reflected the fact that employees of the Municipality were literally bussed to the polls, and there were rampant rumors among Palestinians to the effect that failure to vote could entail loss of rights and entitlements. Similar rumors in 1983 generated another spike in voter turnout. Years later, the head on Mayor Teddy Kollek’s campaign in East Jerusalem admitted that the rumors had been intentionally disseminated as part of the campaign strategy.

All of the elections between 1969 and 1993 took place during the tenure of Jerusalem’s legendary mayor, Teddy Kollek. Despite being one of the primary architects of Israeli rule/occupation of East Jerusalem, Kollek was generally held in high regard among the Palestinians, viewed as a relatively “enlightened” and benign occupier. Kollek tried hard to bring out the Palestinian vote, customarily appointing those Israelis most familiar to the eastern part of the city to run his campaign in the Palestinian sector: the former Shabak (Israeli secret service) commanders of the Jerusalem district. These efforts did not yield impressive results.

The watershed came in 1993. A reluctant 82 year-old Kollek was convinced to run for his seventh term as mayor, and was fighting for his political life in a heated contest against an insurgent candidate named Ehud Olmert (the same Olmert who later became Prime Minster). Through a Palestinian intermediary, Kollek reached out to Yasser Arafat, requesting that he instruct the Palestinians of the city to go and vote. In return, Kollek promised to extend autonomy to the Palestinian residents of the city. Arafat declined to give those instructions, but instead promised not to forbid Palestinian participation. In addition, Kollek brought the renowned former deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti out of retirement, and made him responsible for his election campaign in East Jerusalem. More than anyone else, before or since, Benvenisti was widely viewed as the most significant Israeli advocate of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, was well known among the populace, and was held in high regard. He conducted a well-oiled and sophisticated campaign on Kollek’s behalf, and he anticipated tens of thousands of voters playing a pivotal role in defeating Olmert. That result did not materialize. Despite the best efforts of Benvenisti and Kollek, Palestinian voter turnout in that crucial election was only about 5%. Olmert was elected mayor.

Since 1998, the levels of participation have been in steady decline, and in the last elections in 2013, fewer than 1% of eligible Palestinian voters – totaling only 1600 individuals – cast a ballot.

2. What (if Anything) Has Changed in 2018?

In the past, there was often discussion inside the Israeli left as to how to bring the Palestinian residents of the city to the polls, based on the assumption that it would be beneficial to left-wing parties. Over the years, it became something of a ritual that Israeli political activists would go on a “pilgrimage” to Palestinian leaders – the late Faisal Husseini, Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and others – seeking their support for Palestinian participation in Jerusalem elections. Invariably, Palestinian leaders listened politely, made positive but noncommittal noises, and ignored the requests.

This year, in contrast, is different, at least in one respect. During the current election cycle in the Jerusalem elections possible voting trends in East Jerusalem have generated unprecedented interest, not only in Israel and in the international community but in East Jerusalem itself. In recent weeks and months, the subject of Palestinian participation in the elections has been the topic of heated and widespread conversations among the Palestinians of East Jerusalem.

Before examining if this development portends a significant change in the voter turnout, it is important to examine what it was that has generated this unprecedented interest.

2.1 Creeping Israel-ification?

In recent years, observers of East Jerusalem have been pointing to what some describe as an accelerated trend of Palestinian East Jerusalemites “going Israeli.” They point to increases in the number of Palestinian residents applying for Israeli citizenship, the number of Palestinian students seeking Israeli matriculation (bagrut) certificates, and the number of Palestinians attending Hebrew University and Hadassah College. The numbers of Palestinian men from East Jerusalem working in the Israeli sector – estimated at 40,000 – and their slow advancement from being manual laborers to positions like foremen etc., is seen as another sign of this trend. Some pollsters, such as David Pollak of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), have gone so far as to assert that polling data suggest that East Jerusalem Palestinians prefer living under Israeli rule over Palestinian rule (See David Pollack, Half of Jerusalem’s Palestinians would prefer Israeli to Palestinian citizenship”, The Washington Institute, August 21, 2015).

These observations often (but not always) serve a political agenda, specifically of those who argue that the status quo in Jerusalem is eminently sustainable and widely supported by the Palestinian sector. This is mirrored by a conscious effort by the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality to induce Palestinians into adopting the trappings of Israeli identity in exchange for material benefits – for example, opening new elementary schools that are specifically geared for the Israeli matriculation certificate (rather than the tawjihi, the test required to attend Palestinian or Arab universities), and offering financing only for those schools that accept textbooks censored by Israel.

Regardless of political agenda, there remains the key question: is this trend of “going Israeli” real? The answer is both simple and more complex. Simply stated, an examination of the empirical data regarding East Jerusalem Palestinian residents seeking Israeli citizenship or Israeli matriculation certificates shows that both in terms of absolute numbers and the increases over time, these numbers remain very low.

That said, these trends of adaptation to Israeli society are indeed real – along with countervailing trends of defiance and resistance. In the complex reality of contemporary Jerusalem, there is no inherent contradiction between Palestinian students studying in greater numbers at Hadassah College and thousands of Palestinian youth being arrested in clashes with the police. Whether these trends of real or purported adaptation to Israel will be translated into a shift in voting patterns will only be revealed in the actual results of the upcoming elections.

2.2 Two States, One State, and a State of Unprecedented Despair

Some of the fanfare around Palestinian participation in the elections is coming from the Israeli side (albeit in ways that are far more marginal than the current mood of despair among Palestinians). Parts of the ideological left in Israel have abandoned support for the two-state solution, or never supported it, and view the Jerusalem elections as a step towards “one-statism”. Some in the Israeli left hope that Palestinian voters will become the deus ex machina that will “save” Jerusalem from its inexorable drift to the right and to ultra-orthodoxy. Others who support two states are cynically using the threat of massive Palestinian participation in the elections as a ploy to scare Israelis into resuming their support for two states. None of these phenomena will likely impact actual Palestinian voter turnout.

Among the Palestinians, the lack of political process, let alone a political horizon, has led young Palestinians in particular to arrive at the conclusion that if ending occupation by means of statehood is no longer feasible, achieving equal rights in the framework of one state is the only alternative.

If these sentiments are commonplace among young Palestinians in Ramallah, there are even more so among Palestinian youth of East Jerusalem. Cut off from Palestine by the Israel’s separation barrier and largely abandoned by the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and by Arab states, Palestinians of East Jerusalem see no future for themselves. A population adrift, this sense of abandonment and hopelessness gives rise to the widely held belief among East Jerusalem’s population that they must fend for themselves.

It is this sentiment that has contributed to speculation that there will be increased participation in the municipal elections in 2018.

2.3 The Polls

There have been two recent polls attempting to gauge the readiness of East Jerusalem Palestinian residents to participate in the upcoming elections. [Before examining each of these, it is important to bear in mind that polling in East Jerusalem poses unique methodological challenges that call into question the possibility of attaining credible results. [For our in depth analysis of these challenges, see Daniel Seidemann “The Perils of Polling in East Jerusalem, Foreign Policy February 23, 2012). One of the two pollsters who has looked at Palestinian participation in the elections – Khalil Shikaki, the most prominent Palestinian pollster –  agrees only in part with our analysis. While we express doubt as to whether Palestinians will answer pollsters candidly in relation to politically sensitive issues, Shikaki has told this author that he believes that it is possible to receive candid responses – but that there is a wide gap between declared intentions, however honest they may be at the time, and the actual willingness to go and vote.]

The first poll was carried out under the auspices of the Leonard Davis Center for International Relations at the Hebrew University, and was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, headed by Dr. Nabil Kukali [See “Poll: More than Half of East Jerusalemites  Support Voting in Muncipal Election””, the Jerusalem Post, March 13, 2018]. The poll, which involved a sample of 612 residents of East Jerusalem, was taken in January 2018, shortly after Trump’s announcement that the U.S. Embassy in Israel would be moved to Jerusalem. When presented with the statement: “Some people say that the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem should promote their interests and vote for their representatives in the municipal elections,” 58% percent expressed support for the statement, 13.7% objected to it, and 28.3% said that they neither support nor object it. The interviewees were not asked if they intended to vote.

The second poll was carried out between June 25 and July 1, 2018 by Dr. Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) [See “Public Opinion Poll No. 68”, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, July 2018]. Summarizing its findings, Shikaki writes:

“In [the] environment of the embassy relocation and the approaching date for the Israeli municipal elections in Jerusalem, we asked East Jerusalemites about their position regarding these elections. 73%…indicate that they do not intend to participate, or have not considered participation, in the Israeli municipal elections in the city but 22% indicate that they are indeed intending to vote or considering voting.”

As seen above, the results of the two polls are widely divergent. It is also noteworthy that neither poll asked specifically about concrete intent to go to the polling place; hence, the results are at best indicative of the level of interest in this issue, but not necessarily of the anticipated voter turnout.

3. The Candidates and the Lists for the Municipal Council

Voters cast two ballots in Jerusalem municipal elections, one directly for a mayoral candidate, and the other for a list of the candidates for the Municipal Council. In order to be elected mayor, a candidate must receive at least 40% of the valid ballots cast. Failing that, two weeks after election day there is a second-round run-off election between the two candidates with the largest number of votes. The election to the Municipal Council is proportional, with lists winning seats based on the proportion of the vote they win. In the current election, it is estimated that approximately 8,000 votes will be needed to elect a Municipal Council Member.

3.1 The Race for Mayor

In the 2013 election, there were three candidates for mayor. In the 2018 election, there are six candidates for mayor:

  • Zeev Elkin, currently Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, is identified with the Likud party, and has the endorsement of Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, the Jerusalem branch of Likud has expressed support for another candidate.
  • Moshe Lion, former Director General of Netanyahu’s Prime Minister’s Office, is the preferred candidate of the Jerusalem branch of the Likud party.
  • Joseph Deitch is a representative of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector. This constituency, which customarily represents about 35% of those casting ballots, tends to vote as a bloc, with voters following the instructions of their rabbis. However, in this election the Haredi community is fragmented, and it appears that Moshe Lion has the support of more of the non-Hasidic, “Lithuanian” rabbis and the rabbis of the Sephardic Shas party, with Deitch enjoying the support of the heads of various Hassidic courts.
  • Ofer Berkowitz represents the centrist Hitorirut (Awakening) movement, and most of his support comes from secular Jews and some of the modern orthodox Jewish community.
  • Avi Salman is a young Jerusalem Likud party stalwart who in the past served as Municipal Attorney under current Mayor Nir Barkat. He is not viewed as a serious contender.
  • Haim Miller is another ultra-orthodox candidate. He is not viewed as a serious contender.

There is no mayoral candidate from the Israeli center-left or left.

The candidacy of a Palestinian activist, Aziz Abu Sara, who entered and then withdrew from the race, will be examined below.

Given the fragmentation within both the ultra-Orthodox and the Likud in Jerusalem, and the mechanism of a two-round election, it is possible that any of the first four candidates could be elected. It currently appears that none of the pre-election polling will be able to predict the outcome with any certainty.

3.2 The Municipal Council Race

In the 2013 election there were seventeen lists of candidates, eleven of which won enough votes to have at least one representative on the 31 member Municipal Council. In the 2018 race, there are more than 15 lists of candidates [we are not able to cite a precise number of lists because as of this writing, two weeks before the elections, the Ministry of Interior has yet to publish their names. Many of these lists are active only in Jerusalem, without direct affiliation with the parties represented in the Knesset.

These lists may be roughly categorized as follows:

  • The Israeli right is represented by parties like the Likud, the list headed by Zeev Elkin and the Jewish Home Party.
  • The Israeli far right by the list headed by settler activist Aryeh King.
  • The ultra-Orthodox are represented by three lists, which are competing amongst themselves for much of the Haredi vote. These lists traditionally win the largest factions in the Council, by far.
  • There are a number of centrist lists, the most prominent of which are Ofer Berkowitz’s movement “Hitorirut” and Rachel Azariah’s faction “Yerushalmim” (Jerusalemites). In the current elections, Azariah’s faction has joined Elkin’s list.
  • Finally, there is Ramadan Dabash’s Palestinian List (Jerusalem for Jerusalemites), which we will discuss more fully below.

3.3 The Israeli Candidates/Parties, and the Palestinian Sector

It is noteworthy that with the sole exception of Dabash’s Palestinian list, none of the candidates or lists is carrying out any kind of election campaign among the Palestinians of East Jerusalem; indeed, Teddy Kollek was the last Israeli politician to try to do so in any meaningful way.

What this means is that the election campaigns only rarely relate to the Palestinians, and when they do, it is in two distinct ways. Right-wing parties regularly boast of their commitment to maintaining “Jewish Jerusalem” and an “undivided capital” – issues largely ignored by the other parties. Other parties on occasion will make cursory mention of the need to improve the notoriously poor services in East Jerusalem, with only Meretz and, to a lesser extent, Hitorirut addressing this issue more seriously. Across the board there is no outreach whatsoever to the Palestinian sector, and little mention of them in the election campaign.

In addition, it is important to note that the settler activities in East Jerusalem have a large and increasingly problematic impact on the Palestinian residents. In recent years, the Municipality has done the bidding of the settler movements – Elad and Ateret Cohanim. It is the settler agenda that often drives policy regarding settlements and settler related projects. All of the candidates for mayor will likely continue these policies, with only Berkowitz potentially less aggressive in pursuing them. Among the lists, only Meretz displays genuine opposition to the settlements, and they have little or no impact on policy.

4. The Palestinian Candidates & their Lists for Municipal Council

In the current elections, two Palestinian candidates/lists generated an unprecedented level of interest in Palestinian East Jerusalem and beyond. As of this writing, only one of these remains in the race, but much can be learned from both.

4.1 Aziz Abu Sara

Aziz Abu Sara is a 38 year-old Palestinian activist, journalist and entrepreneur, who early on in this election cycle announced his candidacy for mayor. His campaign went through a number of stages: initially, he headed a joint list of Palestinians and Israelis. When it appeared that such a joint list was not going down well among Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, he reorganized it as an exclusively Palestinian list, quietly backed and supported by a small cadre of left-wing Israelis. Subsequently, at the end of September, Abu Sara withdrew both his own candidacy and his list.

Abu Sara was never coy about his candidacy. He presented himself openly as a proud Palestinian with a clear national agenda, who sought to shake things up. In this context, “shaking things up” meant a number of things: breaking the taboo on Palestinian participation in elections; trying to present what he saw as a new, pragmatic strategy geared to protect and advance Palestinian equities and interests in the city; using elections to expose the inherent dysfunctionality of East Jerusalem and the appalling situation of the Palestinians living under Israeli rule, etc.

Having no illusions about the fundamental hostility and apathy of official Israel towards East Jerusalem’s Palestinians, Abu Sara asserted that there was clear potential that significant participation in the elections could change that. Predicting his list could bring out 20% of Palestinian eligible voters, he claimed municipal policies could be changed without their becoming “sell-outs” or “collaborators.” Fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, Abu Sara asserted that he was uniquely positioned to initiate and lead these changes.

In a way, and with all the necessary caveats attached, Abu Sara was proposing a small-scale dry-run for one state, in which both Israelis and Palestinians could achieve their respective collective goals within the framework of a single shared political community.

Abu Sara clearly achieved his goal of shaking up the discourse about the elections, not only among the Palestinians, but also within Israel and in the international community. However, from the outset, there was one major problem with his candidacy: it was not, nor could it ever have become a serious candidacy in which Abu Sara’s name would actually appear on the ballot.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem are entitled to vote for mayor, and to both vote for and run for the Municipal Council. But only citizens of Israel may run for Mayor, and Abu Sara is not a citizen.

Abu Sara was of course aware of this from the outset, and declared his intention of appealing to Israel’s Supreme Court to overturn the regulation that requires citizenship as a condition for becoming mayor. His claim that the denial of the right to run for this office is blatantly undemocratic has compelling moral and political validity – but little basis in law. The requirement that a candidate for mayor be a citizen of Israel derives from explicit and unequivocal Knesset legislation, and the prospect of the Supreme Court overturning such legislation is so remote as to be virtually non-existent. Consequently, there was never any chance that Abu Sara’s name would appear on the ballot for mayor (as opposed to being a candidate at the head of a list, which was both legal and eminently possible).

In discussions with this author, Abu Sara took exception to this conclusion, but in any event the issue is now moot: at the end of September, Abu Sara withdrew both his candidacy for mayor and his list, citing two causes: threats by the Israeli authorities that his residency rights in Jerusalem were in jeopardy, and intimidation, threats and pressure exerted within Palestinian society directed at himself and those on his list. Abu Sara had sought the blessing of both the Palestinian Knesset members and the Palestinian leadership in East Jerusalem and Ramallah. While the former simply turned him down, the latter actively opposed his candidacy. The mufti of Jerusalem issued a fatwa (legal opinion) forbidding participation in the elections, and various church leaders took the same position.

There can be little doubt that Abu Sara was subject to both of these pressures, but it is questionable that Israeli authorities’ challenge to his residency rights was related directly or only to his candidacy, given that they had no reason to view his candidacy as a threat (to the extent it was at all taken seriously). On the contrary, Israel has a clear interest in Palestinian participation in the elections, participation that would be no doubt touted as incontrovertible proof that Palestinians really prefer Israeli rule in a “united Jerusalem” to a possible future under Palestinian rule.

That said, it is not inconceivable that some official or officials came to view Abu Sara as a trouble-maker, or sought to improve the electoral prospects of the second Palestinian candidate, Ramadan Dabash (see below), who is viewed as being very “pro-Israel”.  Regardless, while the threat to Abu Sara is real and deeply troubling, a Palestinian need not be a candidate for mayor for the Israeli authorities to gratuitously target his or her residency rights. Indeed, stripping or threatening to strip Palestinians of their residency rights is one of the most egregious manifestations of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem.

In contrast, pressure on Abu Sara from within Palestinian society and the Palestinian Authority is directly and undeniably linked to his candidacy. Is this a new phenomenon? Yes and no. Social pressure and implied threats clearly have played a role over the years in the low voter turnouts. At the same time, the pressure experienced by Abu Sara was more severe and more blatant than in the past, at least in part because there is no precedent of a Palestinian running for mayor, and no Palestinian candidacy for the Municipal Council has ever obtained the same high profile and generated the intense discussions as Abu Sara. In short, it appears likely that Abu Sara fell victim to his own success in “shaking things up”.

Abu Sara has announced his support for the second Palestinian list, headed by Ramadan Dabash, to whom our attention will now turn.

4.2 Ramadan Dabash

Ramadan Dabash is a resident of Sur Bahir, and is one of the neighborhood’s mukhtars (leaders) and the head of its community center. Dabash heads a list called “Jerusalem for Jerusalemites,” which focuses on securing municipal services for the Palestinian sector of Jerusalem.

As head of the local community center, he has unapologetically associated himself with the Israeli establishment. Dabash has successfully served as an intermediary in securing some municipal projects and services for Sur Bahir. In 2014, Dabash joined the Likud party, subsequently leaving it because belonging to a right-wing Israeli party presented problematic political optics for him among residents of East Jerusalem. At one point he went so far as to write on his Hebrew website (but not on his Arabic website) that “Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel, and it is good that it is”; after apparently having second thoughts, he removed the last six words, while leaving the beginning of the sentence intact.

Dabash is a citizen of Israel, being one of the small number of Palestinian residents of the city who has applied for and received citizenship (he secured citizenship for himself and his family in 1995). As such, unlike Abu Sara, Dabash could run for mayor; however, he has opted not to do so, instead only heading his list.

Like Abu Sara, Dabash and members of his list have received threats. When called a traitor or a collaborator, he nonchalantly responds that he doesn’t care. However, in recent days there have been reports that as a result of such pressures, members of his list have withdrawn their candidacy.  As of this writing, it appears that the Dabash list remains in the race – but it may well be that he alone IS the list, with no one else on it.

Like Abu Sara, the Dabash list has also generated a good deal of interest among Israelis and in the international community, and given rise to some pretty far-reaching, if not far-fetched, speculation. His profile in the New York Times bore the headline “The First Palestinian in Jerusalem’s City Hall?” and Dabash himself declared his hope of being appointed Deputy Mayor. Is this possible? Certainly. Is it likely? Hardly. If there were to be a 500% surge in Palestinian turnout in the upcoming elections, and if Dabash gets 100% of that vote, he would be a shoe-in. But the likelihood of such a voter surge is low, and in the past, those Palestinians who did participate in Jerusalem elections voted for Israeli lists, rather than for the few Palestinian lists that periodically cropped up.

5. The Impact of the Election Boycott

Since 1967, there has been no Palestinian member of the Municipal Council, not one Palestinian on the Planning Committees, not one Palestinian serving as a senior official in the Jerusalem Municipality, and only a handful in mid-echelon positions.

The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are approximately 38% of the populace, yet receive only 10-12% of the Jerusalem Municipal budget. There is a notoriously low level of governmental and municipal services: from trash collection to the shortfall of 2,000 classrooms in the Palestinian sector, to the year-long lines to obtain travel documents, to the absence of park space.

The knee-jerk cry of “racism” as the cause of all of these phenomena fails to get to the heart of the matter. While these discriminatory policies are indeed grounded at times in racist motivations, the phenomena of such discrepancies in budgets and services would likely persist even if absent such motivations, reflecting instead an ironclad rule of politics: politicians and senior civil servants will rarely if ever allocate anything – be it time, effort, budgets, or entitlements – to those who do not vote.

The interface between Israel’s categorical rejection of Palestinian political rights to vote for the Knesset, and Palestinians’ refusal to accept the limited, individualized personal rights entailed by voting in municipal elections, makes this grossly discriminatory result virtually inevitable.

In short, the Palestinians pay dearly for their boycott of the elections, and are fully aware of it.

6. Why Don’t the Palestinians Vote in the Municipal Elections?

Even after an examination of the dynamics of Palestinian non-participation in the Jerusalem elections, and considering the price they pay for this boycott, there is no single or clear answer to the question: why are they are not voting? Indeed, the roots of the Palestinian boycott of Jerusalem elections are complex, reflecting both societal dynamics deeper political currents that go to the core of what it means to be a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem.

6.1 Fear and intimidation?

We have already noted that both Palestinian lists for the 2018 Jerusalem elections have been the target of threats and intimidation. This raises the question: is it similar threats that deter Palestinians from voting?

During election campaigns, there has been a notable absence of visible or public campaigns warning Palestinians not to vote. Likewise, election day monitoring in East Jerusalem has not witnessed blatant or visible intimidation, either in the media, or from mosques, or around voting stations. When asked, those casting a ballot claimed not to have encountered threats. In short, while it is clear the social pressure has an impact on the levels of participation, it appears to be a contributory rather than a decisive factor.

6.2 Taking orders?

This obverse of this question is: who, if anyone, has the authority and the influence to tell Palestinians to vote or not to vote? The answer may be found not in the results of Jerusalem Municipal elections, but in those of the 2005 Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem.

In 2005, there were elections for the President of the Palestinian Authority. There were approximately 100,000 eligible Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem. The PA encouraged them to vote, and Israel actually expedited the voting process by opening checkpoints on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Sharon government adopted a resolution assuring that no negative consequences would befall any Palestinian who cast a ballot.

Of those 100,000 eligible voters, fewer than 6% actually cast a ballot. In short, even under circumstances where there was active encouragement from the Palestinian leadership and no intimidation, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem did not turn out in large numbers.

The causes of the alienation of East Jerusalemites from the institutions of the PA are complex, and go beyond the scope of our discussion. However, these results suggest strongly that no one individual, nor any collective leadership, has the ability to give the Palestinians of East Jerusalem marching orders when it comes to voting or not voting. Again, the most significant underlying causes of this boycott lie elsewhere.

6.3 Israeli deterrence?

On occasion, there have been accusations that Israel is deterring Palestinians from voting. The latest example relates to the number of locations and polling stations allocated to the Palestinian sector.
In the run-up to the upcoming elections, the Jerusalem Municipality provided for six polling locations in East Jerusalem, as opposed to 187 polling locations in Israeli Jerusalem. Prominent Jerusalem analyst, Yair Asaf Shapira of the Jerusalem institute noted:

“You look at this figure and you check it again and again and you can’t believe what you’re seeing. The fact that they don’t vote apparently serves as a good pretext for preventing them from voting. What this means is that you’re depriving the few who do want to vote of the right to do so.”

Under pressure (particularly from Palestinian candidate Ramadan Dabash), the number of polling locations was increased to 21 in which there will be 159 polling stations (booths), as opposed to 187 locations with 691 polling booths in Israeli Jerusalem.

Does this prove that Israel is seeking to deter Palestinians from voting?  In all likelihood, the reason is much more prosaic: in the 2013, there were 122 polling stations (booths) in East Jerusalem. While many hundreds of Israelis cast a ballot in each of the polling stations in Israeli Jerusalem, only 13 Palestinian voters cast a ballot in each of the stations in East Jerusalem. It appears likely that the small Palestinian turnout led to the initial decision, now reversed, to reduce the number of polling stations in 2018.

Despite the problematic optics, not to mention potential impacts, of having a disparity in the number of polling stations between East and West Jerusalem, there is little reason to conclude it reflects a deliberate Israeli attempt to reduce the numbers of Palestinian voters, or that it will have a significant impact. On the contrary, Israel clearly has an interest in greater numbers of Palestinians participating in the elections. While the Municipality does not appear to be willing to make any effort to get out the vote, large numbers of Palestinian voters would only enhance the legitimacy of the Municipality and of Israeli rule.

6.4 Underlying Causes.

In order to grasp the underlying causes of the Palestinian boycott of municipal elections, it is helpful to examine analogous situations wherein Palestinians have chosen to sustain significant material harm. We have identified three such parallels:

  • Since 1967, Israel has expropriated about 33% of the Palestinian privately owned land in East Jerusalem. It has subsequently built more than 55,000 residential units for Israelis in large settlement neighborhoods built on the expropriated lands. Israeli law provides for monetary compensation for owners of the expropriated land. Even though the loss of these lands deprived Palestinian landowners of a deeply prized and objectively valuable asset, virtually no Palestinians agreed to accept compensation.
  • After the 1967 war, Israel tried to impose its curriculum on the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, sparking a revolt. For four years, Palestinian parents boycotted the municipal schools. Ultimately Israel capitulated, and the curriculum taught in official Israeli schools is the curriculum of the Palestinian Authority. In recent years, attempts by Israel to change that curriculum to make it more consistent with the Israeli historical narrative has encountered strong Palestinian opposition, despite Israel offering material incentives if the new curriculum is adopted.
  • As noted, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel, but instead are permanent residents. They are, however, entitled to apply for Israeli citizenship, and there are incentives to do so: the rights and entitlement that accompany citizenship far exceed the limited, conditional rights associated with permanent residency. There have been over 500,000 Palestinians who have resided in East Jerusalem since 1967. Of these, approximately 15,000 have applied for citizenship (with 5,500 receiving it). The remaining 97% of Palestinians have refrained from applying.

A very clear pattern emerges from these examples, and from the Palestinian boycott of East Jerusalem elections. On the one hand, Palestinians of East Jerusalem need to navigate the dialectic of adaptation to Israeli rule, fending for themselves and availing themselves of various entitlements extended to them by Israel (e.g., health care, social welfare payments, the ability to travel through Ben Gurion Airport, etc). On the other hand, they are committed to resistance to Israeli rule and refuse to barter in their national identity, meaning they continually reject any right or entitlement, regardless of cost, the acceptance of which would signal acquiescence to the legitimacy of Israeli rule.

So why don’t Palestinians vote in East Jerusalem elections, given the high costs it entails for them? Because the political act of voting – perhaps more than any other action – symbolizes such acquiescence.
Moreover, it would be viewed by Israel and the world as an act of neutering their own aspirations for political self-determination and of distancing themselves from their Palestinian compatriots in the West Bank.

7. 1967 vs. 1948

It is interesting in this context to compare the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel and that of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. National collectives need a banner, and the distinction between the respective banners of these two groups is stark.

Palestinian citizens of Israel aspire to attain their fair share of their rights, entitlements and resources within Israeli society, in a manner compatible with their national identity.. The key operative word for Palestinian citizens of Israel is “equality.”

Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, in contrast, aspire not to their fair share of Israel, but to ending Israeli rule over them. Hence, the key operative word for East Jerusalemites is not “equality” but “occupation.” With this context in mind, it becomes abundantly clear both why Abu Sara’s campaign failed to galvanize support or enthusiasm among East Jerusalemites, and why Abu Sara’s attempt to obtain the support of Arab Knesset members was emphatically rejected. Abu Sara attempted to bridge the chasm between adaptation and resistance.  He was unable to satisfy the aspirations of either of the two – the adapters or the resisters – and inevitably failed.

The events of the past year have only served to sharpen the horns of this dilemma. There have been a number of Jerusalem-related events – the move of the U.S. Embassy, the de-funding of UNRWA and Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, etc. – that have a common denominator: they are perceived by the Palestinians of East Jerusalem as sending the messages that, in the eyes of the U.S. and Israel, Israelis matter, Palestinians don’t. In effect, with Jerusalem “off the table,” the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are being coerced into acquiescing to the supremacy and irreversibility of Israeli rule, and to their status as a barely tolerated minority whose rights hang by a thread.

Some Palestinians may well respond to the current context by saying: “We need to face this new reality, acknowledge our defeat and take care of ourselves.” Far more will likely respond: “History has left us no choice but to be reluctant vanguards who will resist the loss of Al Quds to the Palestinians, and to the Arab and Muslim worlds.” If the former will be on the ascendancy in these election, we will witness a surge in the levels of Palestinian participation; if the latter dominate, there will be little or no change in the voting patterns.

8. Do the Election Results Really Matter in Relation to East Jerusalem?

Will the election results actually make a difference for the Palestinians of East Jerusalem? That will of course depend in large part on the voter turnout among them. However, even if there would be a surge of several hundred per cent in the numbers of Palestinians casting a ballot, we can envisage no scenario in which the electoral impact of that vote will be so significant as to cause the next Mayor and Municipal Council to treat the Palestinian as a genuine constituency. On that assumption, we can only conclude that any impact on municipal policies after these election will likely be in the margins, but not adding up to a fundamental change.

Most of the important powers regarding Jerusalem – e.g., settlement expansion, residency rights, construction – are vested in the central government, not the municipality. There are four key areas in which the municipality has genuine authority: part of the planning process (such as the issuance of building permits), elementary schools (not high schools), home demolitions, and the allocation of municipal services.

There are clearly stylistic differences among the candidates. For example, Berkowitz would possibly be less aggressive than Elkin regarding the numbers of home demolitions, and perhaps more willing to apply the rule of law to settlers (in contrast to current mayor Nir Barkat, who has flagrantly disobeyed a court order compelling the municipality to evacuate an illegally-built settler house in Silwan).

However, regardless of the election results, there will still be no Palestinian representatives on the planning boards, and it will still be next to impossible for a Palestinian to obtain a building permit. The planning boards will continue to do the bidding of the settlers, and the municipality will continue to carry out settler related projects.

As noted earlier, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem receive a fraction of those services extended to the Israeli sector. Jerusalem is the poorest city in the country, with a very small tax base. The municipality would be insolvent were it not for a periodic infusion of funds from the central government. Berkowitz has expressed his desire to narrow the gap in these services between East and West Jerusalem, and he made some efforts in that direction when serving as Deputy Mayor under Barkat. However, in order to do so, he would need to take already limited budgets away from those who vote, and transfer them to those who don’t. Past experience indicates that the prospect of this happening is extremely limited. The municipal neglect of Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem is inherent in the very nature of Israeli rule over non-citizens who view themselves as living under occupation, and even the good will of key decision-makers will likely have only a limited impact.

Consequently, regardless of the election results, it is almost certain that the municipal policies will continue to be driven by the settler “DNA”, and will assist the central government in large scale settlement schemes. With minor variations, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem will continue to languish in the municipal neglect that has characterized the 51 years of Israeli rule.

9. What to look for on Election Day?

There will be three things to watch for on Election Day, as measures of trends in Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem:

  • Has there been any significant increase in the voter turnout among Jerusalem’s Palestinians, and if so, what are the patterns of that shift?
  • In terms of lists, how did the Ramadan Dabash’s Palestinian list fare? And how many votes did the Israeli candidates/lists receive from the Palestinian sector?
  • Is there anything in the election results that portends a change, large or small, in the Jerusalem’s Municipality’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem?

10. Predictions/Outlook

Given the number of unknowns and variables in the current election cycle, and the fact that we do not purport to be pollsters aspiring to anticipate the outcome, there is no reason for us to try and predict the results. Let’s wait and see.

However, we can say, based on the analysis above, that we are deeply skeptical about the possibility of any kind of “game-changing” shifts in the Palestinian voting numbers, their patterns and the impact of the vote. Our approach can best be summarized by this story:

In the 1980s, an already elderly Teddy Kollek was caught on camera taking long strides down the stairs leading to the Old City’s Damascus Gate. A Palestinian shopkeeper raced up to him, and, embracing him, exclaimed: “Teddy!! We all love you.” Kollek responded: “That may be the case, but it won’t do me any good, and it won’t do you any good.”