Disillusioned Palestinians may shape Israeli vote

STORY: Palestinian citizens disillusioned with politics could help decide Israel's election next week, when the conservative former premier Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to make a comeback.

Arab parties could join an anti-Netanyahu bloc and help defeat him, just a year after one joined an Israeli government for the first time.

But Palestinian turnout needs to be high, and polls differ.

In Nazareth, Sami Abu Shehadeh, lawmaker and leader of Balad party, is on the campaign trail.

“We are here visiting our people and families just like we do in other Arab villages and cities. All our meetings turn into festivals because of the crowd. We are feeling the love from our people and we appreciate it. The next phase is to transform this love and crowd into votes at polling stations."

But it's the rise of the United Arab List - known by its Hebrew acronym Ra'am - that has shifted the debate in Arab Israeli politics.

The Muslim party won four lawmakers last year and broke with tradition by joining a coalition government.

Arabs account for a fifth of Israelis. Some identify as Palestinian, despite their Israeli citizenship, but others prefer to be called Arab citizens, to emphasize the need for equal rights with Jewish Israelis.

With prospects for a Palestinian state dim, the United Arab List has abandoned nationalist rhetoric to focus on fighting organized crime and improving planning and infrastructure in Arab areas.

Opinion polls show those are their voters' top concerns. Crami Amer is a supporter.

"I believe that this party still works hard and tolerates many things even though it was accused of treason. This is the only party that cares about its people and their existence in this country regardless of what they do. They are being practical and realistic and think of new ways to support our people and advance our society.”

Opinion polls by the Statnet Research Institute show the party's gamble paid off - more than 70% of eligible Palestinian voters now support an Arab party participating in a coalition.

But, even with a seat at the table, many Palestinians in Israel say they've lost hope that they can affect change as an Arab minority in a Jewish state.