JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent much of his long career casting Israel's Arab minority as a potential fifth column led by terrorist sympathizers, is now openly courting their support as he seeks reelection in the country's fourth vote in less than two years.
Few Arabs are likely to heed his call, underscoring the desperation of Netanyahu’s political somersault. But the the relative absence of incitement against the community in this campaign and the potential breakup of an Arab party alliance could dampen turnout — to Netanyahu's advantage. He might even pick up just enough votes to swing a tight election.
Either way, Netanyahu's overtures have shaken up the Arab community. The Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties that secured a record 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset last March, is riven by a dispute over whether it should work with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud at a time when less objectionable center-left parties are in disarray.
Its demise would leave the community with even less representation as it confronts a terrifying crime wave, coronavirus-fueled unemployment and persistent inequality. But given the complexities of Israel's coalition system, a breakaway Arab party could gain outsized influence if it is willing to work with Netanyahu or other traditionally hostile leaders.
The struggle was on vivid display last week when Netanyahu traveled to Nazareth, the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, his third visit to an Arab district in less than two weeks. Outside the venue, dozens of people, including a number of Arab members of parliament, protested his visit and scuffled with police, even as the city's mayor welcomed and praised him.
“Netanyahu came like a thief to try to scrape together votes from the Arab street,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a prominent lawmaker from the Joint List. "Your attempt to dismantle our community from within won’t succeed.”
Arabs make up around 20% of Israel's population. They have full citizenship, including the right to vote, and have a large and growing presence in universities, the health care sector and other professions. But they face widespread discrimination and blame lax Israeli law enforcement for a rising wave of violent crime in their communities.
They have close familial ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with their cause. That has led many Jews to view them as sympathetic to Israel's enemies, sentiments fanned by Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians.
On the eve of elections in 2015, Netanyahu warned his supporters that Arabs were voting in "droves." During back-to-back elections in 2019, his campaign sent poll observers to Arab districts and pushed for cameras in voting booths, in what critics said was a ploy to intimidate Arab voters and whip up false allegations of election fraud.
Those moves backfired spectacularly.
The Joint List, an unwieldy alliance of Islamists, communists and other leftists, boosted turnout and emerged as one of the largest blocs in parliament. At times, it looked like it might help deny Netanyahu a majority coalition or even emerge as the official opposition.
But last May, after three deadlocked elections in less than a year, Netanyahu formed a coalition with his main rival and the Joint List was left out in the cold. In the coming election, polls indicate a coalition of right-wing and centrist parties committed to ending Netanyahu's nearly 12-year rule would be able to oust him without the Arab bloc.
No Arab party has ever asked or been invited to join a ruling coalition.
In Nazareth, Netanyahu claimed his remarks in 2015 were misinterpreted — that he was merely warning Arab voters not to support the Joint List.
“All Israel’s citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, must vote," he said. In other Arab towns, he has visited coronavirus vaccination centers, boasting about his success in securing millions of doses and encouraging residents to get inoculated.
Netanyahu's Arab outreach seems to have given a green light to centrist and left-leaning politicians to do the same, with less concern that their right-wing rivals will use it against them. Opposition leader Yair Lapid, Netanyahu's main center-left opponent, said over the weekend that he was open to forming a government with external support from the Joint List.
The Joint List is meanwhile showing signs of breaking up. Mansour Abbas, the head of an Islamist party, has expressed openness in recent months to working with Netanyahu to address issues like housing and law enforcement. An aide to Abbas declined requests for an interview.
A full-scale breakup of the Joint List could further reduce turnout and potentially leave one or more of its four parties with too little support to cross the electoral threshold.
Thabet Abu Rass, the co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, which works to promote equality among Jews and Arabs, says Netanyahu may attract a small number of Arab voters, but that far more of them would simply boycott the election.
“They are waiting to see if there is going to be a Joint List or not, and if you ask me, it’s not going to happen,” he said. "There are a lot of deep differences this time.”
A poll carried out in December forecast Arab turnout at around 55%, far lower than the 65% seen last March.
Although Arab parties have historically performed worse on their own, some feel the parties might be more effective individually. In Israel's political system — which requires would-be prime ministers to assemble majority coalitions — small parties often wield outsized influence.
“When we speak about the Palestinian community in Israel, we don’t speak about one bloc, we have different ideologies,” said Nijmeh Ali, a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, an international Palestinian think tank. “Sometimes you need to break up in order to gain power."
Netanyahu appears to be focused on the margins ahead of a tight race that could determine not only whether he remains in office, but whether he secures immunity from prosecution on multiple corruption charges. With only a few seats, a pragmatic politician like Abbas could determine Netanyahu's fate.
“This is the new thing in Arab politics," said Arik Rudnitzky, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “They are ready to hold direct negotiations with Likud.”
He said it doesn't mean they will be part of a governing coalition, but they could offer outside support to secure benefits for the Arab public. “It might be a win-win situation," he said.
Associated Press reporters Areej Hazboun in Jerusalem and Ami Bentov in Nazareth, Israel, contributed to this report.