Bibi’s Unexpected Advocates

Disappointed by their sectorial representatives, some Arab voters are considering the previously unthinkable

TEL AVIV

“A NEW ERA is beginning today”, he declared enthusiastically. “An era of fraternity, prosperity, and security”. And the crowd, small but hearable, cheered. Then came the mayor, the host, heaping praise and stating “we will support you”, not before asking for some regional benefits. Local politicians supporting national ones are nothing rare, nor are new era statements in the course of campaigns. Except last Wednesday it was Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, on the stage; the mayor was Nazareth’s, the largest Arab town in the country; and the crowd — Israeli-Arab voters, with whom Mr. Netanyahu tried to herald a fresh start.

Source: Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page
Netanyahu, during his Nazareth speech; easing his crowd’s concerns is nothing easy

The politician whose “Bibi or Tibi” billboards (Ahmad Tibi is a senior Arab representative) swept the country’s streets last election, arguing that his opposition can’t form a government without the Arabs’ support, is now wooing them. Boasting about a five-years plan for economically boosting the Arab sector he passed, he promises a further designated crime prevention plan. Priding himself on leading the fastest vaccinating country, he flatters the “angels in white” among the Arab minority for helping to fight the pandemic. Waving the normalization agreement with the Gulf States, he says: “If Jews and Arabs can dance together in the streets of Dubai, they can do so in the streets of Israel as well”.

Though unthinkable just a while ago, Mr. Netanyahu’s logic is almost obvious. “If this political maneuver gains Netanyahu one or two seats”, says Arik Runitzky of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, “it could be a tiebreaker”. Pollsters do project this scale of figures, which may surge if Mr. Netanyahu appoints an Arab candidate to somewhere high in his list, as many reckon he intends to. Direct seats aside, winking to liberal voters currently recoiled by his authoritarian rhetoric, by a minorities-embracing one, might be another bonus. And of course, every Arab vote for him is one less for his rivals.

Mr. Netanyahu’s sudden appeal has less to do with him than with his alternatives. Nazareth’s mayor’s pledge of support came only after a dismissal of the Joint List, a bloc of Arab parties, which he stressed “has done nothing”. And he’s not a minority of one. Almost half of the Arabs are dissatisfied with its functioning, according to a recent poll issued by Moshe Dayan Center, a think tank, edited by Dr. Runitzky. More broadly, more than half point out crime prevention as the most urgent issue for them, well above the thirteen percent pointing out both economic and real-estate issues. Less than three percent prioritize peace with the Palestinians. “The Arab citizen’s priorities changed during the last decade”, concludes Yusri Khaizran of the Truman Institute in the Hebrew University. “The Palestinian issue has been pushed aside”. For a list criticized for caring more about Palestinians than about its own voters, that can’t be good news. Indeed, polls now give it ten seats, compared to fifteen in the outgoing Knesset, and thirteen at low. Meanwhile, the list is wallowing in inner fights triggered by this identity crisis, which “will make many Arab voters stay at home”, Dr. Runitzky forecasts.

Even more than ideological rifts, it is tantalization that makes Arabs overlook the Joint List. Historically abstainers from government negotiations, after the last election the Joint List recommended Benny Gantz to be prime minister. When Mr. Gantz, in turn, refused to lean on their support (even as outside backers of a minority government), “he made the Arab public widely frustrated”, says Dr. Runitzky. “If despite all these efforts — the unprecedented electoral accomplishment, the historic recommendation — all could not help influence the government”, he portrays, “then let’s try other options, let’s go directly to the governing party”.

Then there is Mansour Abbas. Head of Ra’am, a Joint List party, Mr. Abbas surprised his own supporters when he initiated a high-profile political romance with Mr. Netanyahu in November. As the former hindered an inquiry into a corruption scandal linked to Mr. Netanyahu in the legislature (using his speaker post), the latter participated in a legislative commission he led, untypically for a prime minister; as the latter promised the crime prevention plan, the former declared he doesn’t rule out sitting in his government. Mr. Abbas is candid about his motives, branding himself and his party as heralds of new, pragmatic politics. This leads Dr. Khaizran to argue that “Ra’am already has one foot outside the Joint List, which is on way to dissolution”. Ironically, a core reason for Mr. Abbas to stay is Mr. Netanyahu, as both aim at the very same voters base, and Mr. Abbas fears finding himself beneath the threshold (3.25% of votes). Supporter of conversion therapy for homosexuals and leader of a self-proclaimed religious party, Mr. Abbas isn’t Arab liberals’ cup of tea. Mr. Netanyahu is trying to persuade them: if you’re already comfortable with supporting the government, why not vote for the origin?

Saying not all Arabs are flattered by the courting would be an understatement. “In government meetings Netanyahu treats the Arab citizens as a demographical threat”, says Aymen Odeh, head of the Joint List. “But during the campaign — as an electoral opportunity”. Even at the Nazareth speech, not everything went smoothly. Outside, several dozen protesters have been demanding to prevent Mr. Netanyahu’s arrival for hours. Inside, the mayor’s warm words came right after some colder ones. “All of what we’re doing, all of what you’re doing — if there is no true peace with the Palestinians”, he halted, “it’s not good, we’re fed up”.

Yet nobody doubts a tectonic shift is in action. A year after Jews voted for Arabs en masse (with unprecedented 20,000 votes for the List), it begins to go vice versa as well. Add to this the decision to participate in coalition talks. Throw in, too, a recent high-profile correspondence between Jewish intellectuals calling for the foundation of a Jewish-Arab political alliance, and Arab ones responding with a “you outreached, our answer is yes” letter. Together, all could herald growing relevance of Israeli-Arabs in mainstream politics, even if triggered by cynical calculations and circumstances. As Dr. Khaizran puts it: “The Arab citizens are galloping towards assimilation”. It may seem like no game-changer when it comes to actual coalition building, but the small numbers are deceiving. In Israel’s deadlocked politics, every seat matters and can decide the winner. 5 years after he warned that “Arab voters are flowing in droves to the polls”, will they do so to crown King Bibi?

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