Abu Yair’s Courting of Israel’s Arab Voters – A Study in Double-Dealing

A preliminary analysis conducted by the leadership of Hadash of the near-final results of Israel’s election held last Tuesday, March 23, has revealed that the much publicized effort made by Netanyahu’s Likud to significantly increase its share of the votes among the Arab communities was largely a failure. However, a deeper look at this dynamic only reinforces the understanding of what Netanyahu more basically sought to achieve during his recent duplicitous courting of Arab voters in Israel, a move which, for now at least, has been crowned with a significant degree of success.

Arab voters in Nazareth, last Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Arab voters in Nazareth, last Tuesday, March 23, 2021 (Photo: Al-Ittihad)

In the months leading up to this week’s elections for the 24th Knesset, the fourth election in only two years, Netanyahu launched an unprecedented charm offensive aimed at the Arab public, claiming – to his own base – that they could net him 2-3 seats in the Knesset, a critical margin in the chronically deadlocked parliament. Until now, most Arabs in Israel had vigorously opposed Netanyahu, because of his systematic and chronic racist incitement against them which clearly reflects his notoriously ideological enmity towards the indigenous national minority, so much so that he, along with the Zionist establishment, refuses to accept the very existence of such a collective identity; an animus that has most egregiously manifested itself in the relatively recent past in two laws that Netanyahu’s minions ushered through the Knesset: the 2017 “Kamenitz Law”, which deliberately focuses its threats of demolition on tens of thousands of “illegally constructed” homes in the Arab communities; and the 2018 “Nation-State Law” which enshrines the notion of exclusively Jewish sovereignty within the State of Israel. All of this is to say nothing of the government’s and police’s implausibly coincidental inability to rein in the escalated wave of violent, gangland crime plaguing the Arab community for the last two years.

At first view, Netanyahu’s new, uncharacteristic tactic of purportedly “embracing Israel’s Arab voters,” was diametrically the opposite of that taken in earlier, openly racist electoral remarks he has made about them. For example, in the afternoon and early evening hours on election day for 20th Knesset, March 17, 2015, Netanyahu sought to motivate his own electoral base to get out and vote by warning, in his words, the “Arabs were flocking to the polls in droves” to vote for the then new Joint List (a bestial metaphor for which he would ultimately apologize – but only after a full year had passed). Four years later, during the April 9, 2019 election for the 21st Knesset, hirelings contracted by the Likud were discovered wearing secret body cameras, less to spy on Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel at their local polling stations than to intimidate them from even coming out to vote. The discovery of the cameras was, in fact, widely blamed for contributing to low voter turnout throughout the community on that election day. Less than half a year after that, during the final weeks leading up to the September 17 election for the 22nd Knesset, Netanyahu’s Likud made efforts to legislate the presence of “security cameras” that were to be placed in polling stations around the country. This effort was suspended only on the virtual eve of the vote after the head of the Central Elections Committee and the Attorney General vociferously came out against such a move.

In light of this record of racist incitement, did Netanyahu’s new tone towards Arab voters in the last couple of months actually reflect some sort of change of heart, or something else? In retrospect, with Arab turnout on this week’s election day having reached an historic nadir of only about 44.2%, and some 36,000 votes needed for a single Knesset seat, it seems doubtful that the Arab vote could ever have amounted to significant gains for the prime minister, more particularly so if the percentage of those voting had been significantly greater. Indeed, the numbers bear this out this skepticism.

In Nazareth, for example, support for the Likud “jumped” from 1% in 2020 to 4% in this week’s election. In absolute numbers, however, the latter share amounted to only 881 votes. Similarly, Shfaram’s Likud support increased from 1.1% to 3.5% (just 435 votes). Taybeh saw a rise from 0.15% to 0.77% (94 actual votes), while Qalansawe went from 0.2% to 1.54% (still only 74 votes). In southern Israel, the major Arab-Bedouin town of Rahat, support for the Likud increased from 0.6% support in 2020 to an impressive 6% this week – totaling but 978 ballots. The Likud increased its output in the city of Umm el-Fahm (with a population of 60,000 residents) from 64 votes in 2020, to 145 in 2021. The list goes on.

Given the justified paucity of support for Netanyahu among Arab voters, despite or perhaps even because of the transparent charm offensive, it’s clear that embracing of the community by “Abu Yair” (the PM’s Arabic sobriquet which he himself enthusiastically used during the campaign) was simply a tactic to achieve his more strategic goal, one that began to take tangible form months before the election and which has been crowned with no little success: to drive a wedge between Arab citizens and encourage the breakup of the Joint List. This strategy ultimately fostered the independence of the Islamist Ra’am party (United Arab List) led by MK Mansour Abbas running on a platform of potential “cooperation” with the prime minister — and thus predictably depressed Arab turnout, drawing total cumulative support away from the Joint List and Ra’am, and thereby taking seats away from them and granting a larger proportion of votes to right wing Zionist parties with which Netanyahu would naturally seek to form a coalition.

This strategy has indisputably paid off for Netanyahu and the right, as the combined power of the Joint List and Ra’am has dropped by a third, from 15 to 10 seats between last year’s election and the one held this week (with 97% of the votes counted as of Thursday afternoon, March 25). Following, their unequivocal rejection of any talk of support for Netanyahu by Ra’am, the racist Religious Zionism bloc headed by Smotrich and the Cahanist Ben Gvir, Mansour Abbas’s own “grand strategy” of achieving gains for the Arab community through the auspices of “Abu Yair” seems at this moment no more viable than what his former partners in the Joint List warned him in advance. Furthermore, for somewhat similar reasons, it is nearly certain that Abbas will have no real option to attempt gaining any tangible results from Lapid and company in the anti-Netanyahu bloc… both because of that camp’s own firmly entrenched Zionist roots and values and their justifiable fear of threats of violence from the extreme right. If anything, the shadow cast by the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – whose minority, Oslo-agreement signing government was supported from outside by five MKs from non-coalition Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party – has only become more palpable with time. It was, after all, a quarter of a century younger Ben Gvir who was shown on Israeli television this week satisfyingly fingering the pilfered hood emblem from Rabin’s state-provided Cadillac and bragging to the camera: “If we could get to this, we can get to Rabin.”

Thus, while results of Netanyahu’s “courting” of his new found Arab cousins have certainly paid off for him in the short run, the chronically deadlocked balance of forces between the right-wing bloc led by the Likud and the centrist-“Zionist left,” it is still too early to say to where exactly this success will lead in the near future, other than yet another round of inconclusive elections. Nevertheless, it is incumbent to note at this stage of time that the potential for unprecedented and currently “unthinkable” developments, particularly for the Arab-Palestinian minority of Israel, only increases in direct proportion to the length of the Jewish state’s chronic and systemic political uncertainty which has now entered its third year.