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Ahead of March elections, Netanyahu (surprisingly) courts Arab voters

Experts offer several explanations for the surprising shift of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Arab public and Arab voters, three months before the upcoming elections.

“I was glad to visit Umm al-Fahm to mark Israel’s millionth vaccination. Arab society is participating in the Israeli success story.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to release this statement following his visit to the vaccination center in the town of Umm al-Fahm on Jan. 2. Just one day earlier, he had visited a similar vaccination center in another Arab town, Tira. What makes this remarkable is that just one year ago, on the eve of the last election, these two towns figured prominently in President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.” They were named in a clause in that agreement, which would have allowed Israel to exchange populated territories in the heavily Arab “Triangle” region [in the north of Israel] for West Bank territories containing Jewish settlements.

Local residents were stunned by this 180-degree shift in the prime minister’s attitude toward the residents of Umm al-Fahm and Tira, but there was more to come. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 13, Netanyahu said that he will not rule out the inclusion of an Arab candidate on the Likud’s list of candidates for the next Knesset. They were shocked to hear him heap praise on the Arab sector, and yet Netanyahu even wondered out loud about how previous governments could have possibly ignored them. “For years,” he said, “the mainstream excluded the Arab sector from government. Why? There was no reason for that.”

People were incredulous. Was this the same Netanyahu, who declared just a few months ago that “Arabs were not part of the equation” when it came to forming a new government? Nor was that some standalone statement. It was preceded by an announcement to his Facebook followers that “the Arabs want to annihilate all of us — men, women and children.” And that was just one of several disturbing comments about the country’s Arab citizens. Compounding the rhetoric was the conspicuously anti-Arab legislation passed by the Knesset under Netanyahu, including the Nationality Law, the Kaminitz Law, the Admissions Committee Law and more.

What is going on? Has Netanyahu suddenly decided to flirt with the Arab community? Is this some kind of honeymoon? If anything it is very unexpected. For years, Arabs were the direct target of an incessant barrage of scathing attacks by the prime minister himself. What lies behind this shift in strategy toward the Arab public by him and the Likud party at large?

There are, undoubtedly, many reasons for this surprising turnabout. Some say that Netanyahu is desperate and that he is looking for votes wherever he can, including the Arab sector. He may have ignored the Arab population in the past, but this time, they believe, he is planning a massive campaign targeting the Arab sector specifically. Others take a contrary opinion. They don’t believe that Netanyahu is simply looking for votes. They believe he is looking for a way to “sedate” the Arab public, instead of inciting the population against him, as he did in previous elections. In the past, anti-Arab invective was his way of driving his right-wing base to the polls. That was certainly his goal in his most infamous statement on the March 2015 election day: “The Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves!” Yet many still claim that this incendiary remark is what led him to victory in that election.

Chairman of the Arab Joint List Knesset faction Ahmad Tibi tells Al-Monitor, “Netanyahu wasn’t there [in Umm al-Fahm] to celebrate the immunization efforts. He was there to immunize himself. It was just a few years ago that he said that Arab voters ‘are heading to the polling stations in droves,’ and now he is seeking their votes. He is assaulting Arab towns and villages with his Nationality Law, the demolition of homes and economic duress. And yet, he is so desperate to win the election that he would put on a traditional jalabiyyeh and tarbush (traditional Arab clothing) and call himself Abu Yair.”

Then there are those who see this shift in strategy as an attempt to ensure low voter turnout in the Arab public, which reached as high as 65% in the last election. Back then, Netanyahu’s extreme statements made him — in a reversed way — a kind of unofficial campaigner for the Joint List. In response to his incendiary remarks, Arab voters flocked to the polls to bring him down. This time, he wants to lower tensions. He would prefer to see Arab voters stay home, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hisham Jubran of the Afkar Institute for Research and Knowledge explains to Al-Monitor: “The Likud received close to 10,000 votes from the Arab public in the last election, with most of them coming from Druze towns and villages, in response to the candidacy of Fateen Mulla. That is why I find it hard to believe that there could be a sharp enough rise in votes for Netanyahu to win two seats from the Arab public. That would require 60,000 to 70,000 votes. It would be almost impossible to achieve that within the constraints of a three-month campaign, even if a Muslim Arab was included among the Likud’s list of candidates.”

When asked what Netanyahu really wants, he said, “I think Netanyahu realizes that he was responsible for driving Arab voters to the polls the last time, so this time, he has adopted a different strategy. He wants to embrace the Arabs and contain them with what you might call a bear hug, so as to keep them from voting en masse. In other words, he is not looking to gain a seat or two from them. Rather, he wants to weaken the Arab Joint List, which won 15 seats in the last election, since it served as an obstacle, preventing him from forming a narrow government.”

And what do people in Umm al-Fahm have to say about the prime minister’s visit? The mayor, Samir Mahameed, tells Al-Monitor: “I received a call from the prime minister’s office two hours before he arrived. According to protocol, it is my job as mayor to receive him. The stated purpose of this visit was to mark the millionth person receiving the vaccine. During his visit, I talked with him about our fight against violence and crime in Arab society and called on the prime minister to deal with the problem in an in-depth and comprehensive manner, rather than the superficial way it has been handled until now. Similarly, I raised the issue of municipal infrastructures in the city as a follow-up to requests I had already made to the general manager of the Prime Minister’s Office, and told him that I expect answers.”

When asked how Netanyahu responded, the mayor said, “The truth is that he didn’t respond on the spot, but I hope he heard me. I still expect answers as soon as possible.” As for people in the city and outside the vaccination center who protested the visit, the mayor said, “I completely understand their concerns. On the other hand, I was there to represent my city and Arab society in general, not Samir Mahameed the individual. It is also worth noting that for Umm al-Fahm, the criticism [against the visit] was minimal.”

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