How Palestinian votes in municipal elections may change the face of Jerusalem

Eastern Jerusalem Palestinians have historically boycotted Jerusalem municipal elections. A recent poll shows that 58 percent of eastern Jerusalem residents now support the idea of voting. The change may be a signal of further normalization between Jews and Arabs in Israel's capital city, yet it may also have severe consequences on the way the city is governed.

A view of the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber in eastern Jerusalem. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90.
A view of the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber in eastern Jerusalem. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90.

At the center of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been the city of Jerusalem. Since Israel united its divided parts in 1967, the ancient city has seen a remarkable shift towards modernity with major infrastructure upgrades and a thriving economy. Yet at the same time, the predominately Arab eastern half of the city has largely been cut off from these upgrades—and their resulting successes—because of complex political and nationalist motives.

Under Israeli jurisdiction, some 350,000 Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem receive certain civilian, welfare, health and municipal services. They carry blue identity cards, but are not eligible for an Israeli passport and have no voting rights for the Knesset. They can, however, vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections.

In recent years, only 1 percent to 2 percent of this population has participated in municipal elections. However, with a stalled peace process, Palestinian Authority intransigence and rising frustration with Palestinian political parties in Jerusalem, experts for the first time are seeing a shift in Palestinian participation in Jerusalem.

Professor Dan Miodownik, director of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, discussed the status of Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem in a conversation with JNS, emphasizing that “one important qualifier is that they are not Israeli-Arabs, and they are not Israeli citizens. They are Palestinian residents of the city of Jerusalem. They are different than the Arabs who live in Nazareth or Haifa. This is important to understand since this is what makes this population quite distinct. They view themselves as living under occupation since 1967, yet they do have a right that other Palestinians do not have.”

Recently, Miodownik conducted a poll in Jerusalem that gauged the interest of Palestinian residents in voting in the upcoming Jerusalem municipal elections and found that 58 percent of respondents appeared to support the idea.

“The wording of the poll is vague,” he emphasized. “Nowhere in the poll does it say that they will participate. They don’t say: ‘Yes, I will participate in elections.’ This doesn’t mean that if there were elections tomorrow, such a great number of eastern Jerusalem residents would vote, but it does reflect an undercurrent that is quite visible and already pronounced in eastern Jerusalem, where there is growing interest in taking control of their own lives, perhaps through participation in elections. You hear these voices in civil society, but it doesn’t mean they will actually vote.”

Dr. David Koren, advisor to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on East Jerusalem Arab affairs, told JNS that “a lot has changed.”

“In recent years, they see Barkat looking to eastern Jerusalem, spending more of the budget there,” he said. “Eastern Jerusalem Arabs are also identifying more with Israeli Arabs and are looking to become more affiliated with them than previously. They work more in Western Jerusalem, and there seems to be a process taking place in schools by which they are moving from a Palestinian curriculum to an Israeli curriculum. From the point of view of their identity, they are closer to the Arabs of Judea and Samaria than they are to those in Nazareth.”

“So there is a possibility that in the next election, the numbers of those voting will be higher,” stated Koren. “Not a big possibility, but we may see a small growth in the numbers.”

Asked if Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem are undergoing a process of normalization with Israel, Koren said, “I am not sure there is enough proof there, but it is a possibility. Perhaps some Palestinians believe voting will bear more fruit than sticking with the Palestinian Authority.”

‘An expression of protest’

Miodownik noted a number of reasons why Palestinians may not vote. “The strongest and most accurate phrase you can use here is ‘anti-normalization sentiment.’ In a way, for average Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem who receive benefits, politically and culturally, they do not want to participate because it would be seen as an act of normalization with Israel.”

On the flip side, Miodownik said “if Palestinians do indeed participate in greater numbers in elections, voting for an Arab candidate, it could be considered an expression of protest on their part,” adding that “it is hard to imagine that Palestinians will vote without a normative push from the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.”

Koren surmised that “if the Palestinian Authority will say ‘do what you want,’ then there can be a growth in the number of voters. Alternatively, the Palestinian Authority could threaten against voting.”

“Ultimately,” he said, “the influence of the Palestinian Authority is the most defining factor.”

Asked if he felt a focus on improving the Palestinian’s economic situation would change anti-Israel sentiment, Miodownik demurred, saying “it should not lead us to believe that this will change their position, but Israel and the Jerusalem municipality still have a responsibility to concern themselves with eastern Jerusalem’s residents.”

More demands will need to be met

Professor Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, sees Jerusalem becoming a changed city if Palestinians vote—for better and for worse. He told JNS that “Barkat diverted funds to eastern Jerusalem and inserted a greater police presence there so Palestinians there certainly feel Israeli sovereignty as a result.”

More classrooms and parks are being built, and services are slowly being brought up to standards seen in other areas in Jerusalem. Inbar welcomed the municipality’s efforts to unify the city, as well as the Palestinian recognition of this fact. “We should recognize that the ‘Israelization’ process that has been encouraged by the Jerusalem municipality has positive results,” he noted.

“To some extent, this willingness to vote is a result of the Palestinian realization that Israel is willing to integrate them, and the political dynamics are not moving in the direction of dividing the city,” explained Inbar. “What is remarkable is not that 58 percent of Palestinians are willing to vote, but that there are Arab communal leaders in the eastern part of the city willing to run on their own lists for municipal elections. This is significant since it will lend legitimacy to Israeli rule on this part of the city.”

“On the other hand,” he warned, “greater Palestinian participation means there will be more demands that will need to be met, and thus, a greater budget needs to go the city in this area.”

Inbar cautioned that unless drastic measures are taken, a change in Palestinian voting patterns resulting in a possible coalition of haredim and Palestinians could change the Zionist character of Jerusalem. “If Arabs vote in greater numbers,” he said, “the most pressing challenge will be to bring Zionists to the city to ensure its character.”

In the meantime and aside from such speculation, for Inbar, unification of the city is paramount. “The Palestinians’ greater willingness to vote is part of their conviction that division of the city is not going to happen,” he said. “They can no longer sit on the fence. They have a choice—to integrate or oppose it.”

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