Middle East

Netanyahu Is Cynically Courting Arab Voters

With Israel’s November 1 general election drawing closer, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is cynically courting Israeli Arabs once again.

In recent weeks, the former prime minister has opened new accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok to bring his message to Muslim and Christian Arab voters. “This is an opportunity to begin a new era for all of us,” he says soothingly in one disingenuous campaign ad. “A new era for us all. A new era in relations between Jews and Arabs and with the Arab citizens of Israel.”

Benjamin Netanyahu courts Israeli Arabs in an election campaign ad

Netanyahu’s gambit to attract Arab voters is really astonishing and shameless, given his dismal and consistent record of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric regarding Israeli Arabs.

Lest it be forgotten, Netanyahu whipped up anti-Arab sentiment on election day in 2015 when he warned Likud Party supporters that every vote counts and that the outcome of the election should not be taken for granted. “The rule of the right is in danger,” he said alarmingly. “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes.”

Netanyahu later apologized for his racist comment, but he did not abandon his well-worn tactic of demeaning the Arab community, which represents 21 percent of Israel’s population.

Just four years later, during the 2019 election campaign, he claimed, without a shred of evidence, that Israeli Arabs were harvesting ballots so as to deny him victory. In pursuit of that baseless allegation, he tried to have cameras installed at Arab polling stations and thereby intimidate Arab voters.

After the 2021 election, the fourth in two years, Netanyahu hypocritically lambasted the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for including Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am Party in the eight-party coalition.

Mansour Abbas

Netanyahu’s hypocrisy stood out in bold relief because he himself had attempted, without success, to recruit Abbas’ Arab party into his right-wing coalition. Once Abbas aligned himself with Bennett and his political partner, Yair Lapid, Netanyahu poured scorn on Abbas and their decision to invite Ra’am into the government.

Netanyahu’s latest attempt to lure Arab voters into his orbit is clearly opportunistic and self-serving. It comes four months after one of his lieutenants, Miki Zohar, openly defamed Israeli Arabs.

“The Arabs are taking over the country,” Zohar declared bombastically. “We see it every day. They abuse Jews. They do what they want. They go out to violent demonstrations that sometimes lead to lynchings. They trample on Israeli flags.”

These incendiary remarks were not lost on Arab voters. And Netanyahu, a consummate politician, realizes that his efforts to gain traction among Arab voters is limited.

In the last election, Arabs voted for Netanyahu in greater numbers than in previous elections, but the net result was hardly encouraging. Netanyahu did not win even one extra seat, which he would have required for a majority in the Knesset.

A Netanyahu election billboard in an Israeli Arab town

According to a Channel 12 report, Netanyahu’s current tactic is to try to convince the Arab electorate that there is little or no daylight, policy-wise at least, between himself and his chief rivals — Lapid, the prime minister, and Benny Gantz, the defence minister.

He is deploying this argument in the hope that Arab voters who abhor him and his platform will stay at home rather than cast their ballots against him. If this scenario transpires, his strategists believe, his chances of winning a parliamentary majority may well increase.

Voter turnout in the Arab sector peaked at nearly 65 percent in the 2020 election, giving the Arab Joint List — a combination of several Arab parties led by Ayman Odeh — 15 seats in the Knesset. But in the estimation of the Statnet polling company, which monitors voting trends among Arabs, the turnout in the forthcoming election will be only 39 percent, the lowest in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu stands to benefit from a lack of vigorous Arab participation in the next election. But in the meantime, he is telling Arab audiences that the normalization agreements Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco two years ago will bring prosperity to all Israelis, whether Jewish or Arab, and that he will seriously address the problem of soaring crime in Arab towns and villages.

Arab voters are listening carefully to his speeches, knowing full well that Netanyahu speaks from both sides of his mouth and cannot be trusted to advance their interests.