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Blue and White’s fatal mistake of distancing Arab voters

The Blue and White party has failed in three elections, largely due to the false assumption that building bridges with the country’s Arab citizens would scare off voters from the soft right.

“Tonight delivered a tremendous victory,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared March 2 in response to the television exit poll, which predicted that his right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc would win 59 seats (with 99% of the votes counted, the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc now reaches 58 seats). Having managed to turn the Likud into the largest party in the Knesset with 36 seats, Netanyahu is selling the results of this election as a victory for his bloc. He wants to plant in the public’s awareness that he won this election, even if, at this stage, he still doesn’t actually have the 61-seat coalition majority he needs to form a government.

The Blue and White party has challenged Netanyahu in three consecutive elections, without being able to form a government. While the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc that Netanyahu established refuses to come apart, Blue and White hasn’t missed a chance to argue with its partners in the center-left bloc. There was no real need for the concept of the “Jewish majority” to dominate the discussion in the Blue and White party while causing unnecessary tension with the predominantly Arab unified Joint List. At the same time, Blue and White waged what Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman and Knesset member Amir Peretz called an “irresponsible campaign” in an effort to win seats from that party. On election eve, Blue and White Knesset member Ofer Shelah told Channel 13 News, “We need to provide an alternative to Netanyahu in terms of our path and the very essence of our party, and not just in terms of integrity and our lack of corruption.” What is that if not a stinging critique of his party’s campaign?

Truth be told, the Blue and White party tried constantly to disguise itself as part of the right. It brought in right-wing advisers and candidates and used “right-wing language” incessantly. The highlight was its decision to disassociate itself from the Arab public, a trait that has become iconic to the right in the Netanyahu era. The only problem is that in the end, the Blue and White party forgot to attract any right-wing voters.

Ever since Netanyahu came to power in 2009, we have witnessed a series of failed attempts by centrist parties to repeat the success of the late Kadima party in 2006. At the time, it defeated the Likud (with 29 seats to Kadima under Ehud Olmert and 12 seats to the Likud under Netanyahu) and put together a government. The current attempts are more reminiscent of Kadima in 2009 under Tzipi Livni. She won one seat more than Netanyahu (28 to Kadima versus 27 to the Likud) but failed to put together a government.

Kadima was founded in November 2005 by 14 serving Knesset members from the Likud. As a result, it was able to attract voters from the right in the 2006 election. In 2009, Kadima won numerous votes from the center-left. It is the same thing that is happening today with Blue and White. It is trying to relay the message that it is part of the “right,” but the fact is that it is winning its seats thanks to votes from the center-left.

In this era of Israeli politics, the center-left must wake up and realize that there are two ways for it to come to power. The first is to flirt with a target audience with right-wing views in the hope that it can re-create Kadima’s victory of 2006. The second is to stop being afraid and admit boldly that most of the Jewish electorate really does have right-wing views of some kind or another, and that the best chance for it to come to power is by adding new players to the game and forging an alliance with the country’s Arab citizens. Most Israeli Arabs want to integrate into Israeli society and have an impact. The problem is that for the most part, they get the door slammed in their faces by the country’s Jewish citizens. It would be exactly the same as what Menachem Begin did in the 1970s when he recognized the untapped potential of Mizrahi Jews and forged an alliance with them. He had the good sense to realize that they offered him his only chance to replace the government and come to power. It worked too, in 1977.

Is the center-left of today ready for such a bold move? It is highly doubtful. For the last decade now, that camp has been praying for a miracle in order to replace Netanyahu; all their prayers have been in vain. And it all happened in the name of the disproven theory that building bridges with the Arab public would scare away voters from the soft right. As it turns out, the center-left is the big loser because of that.

The big winner in the 2020 election was the Joint List. Its constituent Arab parties won 15 seats, a record as far as they are concerned. Who even remembers now that just one year ago, in the April 2019 election, the Arab parties won just 10 seats? In 2020, the Joint List managed to shatter that old political myth that “the whole is smaller than its parts.” It is the only party in the center-left bloc that actually managed to increase in size.

There are quite a few reasons for its growth. These include the Triangle Clause in the deal of the century (which raises the possibility that Arab towns in the Israel Triangle area would be transferred to the authority of a future Palestinian state), frustration with the Blue and White party’s “Jewish majority” slogan, Netanyahu’s incitement against the Arab population at large and their parliamentary representatives, a vote in solidarity with the Joint List by Jewish supporters of the left, etc.

The biggest achievement of the four parties that make up the Joint List is the monopoly that they have managed to establish over the Arab electorate. The party has managed to become the sole address for Arab voters. There are no competitors. In that sense, it is like a private club, completely controlling the choice of candidates who wish to represent the Arab public. There can be no doubt that the conscious avoidance of the Arab street by non-Arab parties and their failure to provide the Arab society with appropriate representation on their lists caused many Arab voters to avoid casting their ballots for those parties in the first place.

In the past, we’ve seen all sorts of small Arab parties try to challenge the Joint List by running against it. They gave up on this in 2020, having reached the conclusion that in the current circumstances, running against the party would make no sense. The big winner, of course, is the Joint List, which was first founded in 2015 in response to the electoral threshold being raised. Now, given the significant growth in representation of Arab parties in the Knesset, thanks are paradoxically due to Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who first introduced the law raising the threshold (hoping to shutter the small Arab parties). Thanks are also due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tried to avoid incitement against the country’s Arab citizens this time around. As it turns out, this was too little, too late.