For a long time, Palestinians followed the Israeli elections very closely. They were aware of who was up, who was down, the platforms of every party in Israel and how each's victory or loss could affect the coalition and the peace process.
Today in Palestine, there is no such interest — and it is not clear why. Is it because Palestinians see little difference between the various competing politicians? Is it because the peace process is not a major topic of discussion among Israelis, or simply that the media terrain has changed so much in the past few years?
That Palestinians see little difference in the major parties is certainly a possibility. At one time, Israeli politics was divided into right and left, doves and hawks. Generally, right-wing parties represented hawkish attitudes, while left-wing ones were seen as being more dovish. Perhaps the best proof of this was the Israeli labor party, whose leaders Yitshaq Rabin and Shimon Peres made an initial breakthrough when they approved the mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel, followed by the Memorandum of Understanding.
Rabin was later assassinated and Peres lost elections when he squandered public support after the murder of Rabin, the Grapes of Wrath attacks on South Lebanon and the Cana’a massacre, in which nearly 100 palestinians hiding in a UN compound were mercilessly killed. The result was a razor-thin victory for Benjamim Netanyahu, due in part to the fact that the Palestinian citizens of Israel had decided not to vote or to vote with white cards.
The situation today is different in the sense that there is no clear connection between politically left-wing parties and the support for the peace process. The current head of the Israeli labor party, Shelly Yachimovich, is a relative novice regarding the peace process and has refrained from taking any courageous stands on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While she may be neutral, her predecessor as head of the party, Ehud Barak, the current Israeli defense minster, has not shown any dovish attitudes toward Palestinians despite claiming to be the one holding back a much more hawkish policy in the Netanyahu government.
Clearly no mainstream Israeli party today stands out to the Israeli public as the peace party. Some politicians are trying to fill that vacuum, but few people are buying. Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, who were the leaders of the Cast Lead war on Gaza that killed 1,500 Palestinians in 2007-2008, are now the most visible Israeli leaders that are talking about peace with Palestinians.
Palestinians in the occupied state of Palestine, who can’t vote in an election that will choose individuals who will rule them (mostly the defense minister, who is the de facto king of the occupation), are not following the Israeli election process. Another group of Palestinians, namely Palestinian citizens of Israel, do have the right to vote but are just as apathetic. Israeli press reports talk about the danger (from their point of view) that less than 50% of Palestinians from inside Israel will vote in the upcoming Knesset elections due to disillusionment by all parties. The independent Israeli daily Haaretz made the unusual move on Tuesday, Jan. 15 and ran an editorial in Arabic in their Hebrew edition. The column, which calls on Palestinian Israelis to vote in the upcoming elections, was dismissed by some as patronizing and is unlikely to change hearts and minds.
A third possible reason for the current apathy among Palestinians may very well be the nature of the media landscape in today’s world. At one time, Palestinians' only access to television news in Arabic was either Jordanian or Israeli TV in Arabic. The latter, which everyone knew to be controlled by their occupiers, was produced in such a way as to attract Palestinians.
Today, Palestinians and other Arabs have access to hundreds of Arabic-language TV channels. Local radio stations abound in every Palestinian town, news websites are available for anyone using the Internet and social media has become the fastest and easiest way to get information. All these media outlets have shown little interest in the upcoming Israeli elections, and that has certainly affected the Palestinian public. Even Hebrew-language media is suffering in Arab viewership due to the fact that fewer and fewer Palestinians today know Hebrew, because fewer and fewer are allowed to work in Israel. The single most knowledgeable group of Palestinians who know Hebrew are prisoners and former prisoners who picked up the language in Israeli jails.
Although historically weaker parties are keenly interested in the affairs of their oppressors, the majority of Palestinians today rely on organizations who pick and choose what should be translated from the plethora of content available in Hebrew. Other than these translations and major news of the top Israeli leaders, most Palestinians have little interest and even less access to detailed information about Israel and its upcoming elections. It is unclear whether this is a healthy or unhealthy development in the long-term relations between Palestine and Israel and the people on both sides of the divide.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region.