A surprised right discovers the rising cost of making Arabs their punching bag

Likud may long rue the day it turned on the Arab electorate, just as the left still laments its mistreatment of Mizrahim; plus, the limits of annexation and of the campaign chiefs

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Arab Israelis at a polling station in Kafr Manda near Haifa on election day, September 17, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Arab Israelis at a polling station in Kafr Manda near Haifa on election day, September 17, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

It is still too early to determine if the Tuesday election delivered the most significant change at stake in the race: replacing Benjamin Netanyahu with challenger Benny Gantz as prime minister.

Netanyahu may still get slightly wider backing than Gantz by the time the last ballots are counted, just enough to give him first chance at forming a coalition, and possibly then the first turn in the premier’s chair in any rotation agreement with Blue and White.

The chances of Netanyahu remaining in the Prime Minister’s Office are narrowing, but they’re not zero.

Yet some things about Israeli society became clearer as the dust has begun to settle from this unusual election. Here are three key takeaways:

Over a barrel

First, Netanyahu’s promise of annexation of significant portions of the West Bank didn’t sway voters to shift their vote either for or against the idea’s proponent. The Palestinian question has become so apparently intractable, and positions over it so ossified and therefore marginalized, that it has lost its power to move voters’ loyalties and calculations even after Netanyahu’s unprecedented vow to formally lay claim to the Jordan Valley.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if re-elected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Is this a boon for the annexationist right or a sign of its weakness? On the one hand, Netanyahu showed that the Israeli public is largely unfazed by the idea of annexation of large sections of the West Bank. On the other, he demonstrated the extent to which the annexationist right is trapped in his orbit.

By leaning toward annexation in his campaign, Netanyahu drew annexation-supporting voters away from factions like the now-splintered Yamina, cutting into the parliamentary strength of annexation’s most avid supporters. Likud may officially support annexation, but it is the religious-Zionist factions who are defined by it.

As with past races, Netanyahu’s rightist posturing cannibalized the annexationist right. Yet once again, even after such abuse, the annexationist right offered him its full-throated support — since if Netanyahu loses power, the religious-Zionist factions, too, will lose their only path to influence.


Second, and already much remarked upon, Arab Israelis defied expectations, withstood Likud’s active and unabashed suppression campaign, and came to the polls demanding their due.

Indeed, the narrative now crystallizing in the Arab community contends that Likud’s anti-Arab campaign caused the roughly 10-point spike in turnout (based on still-unofficial vote counts).

(L to R) Joint List candidates Ofer Cassif, Heba Yazbak, Osama Saadi, Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman and Iman Khatib Yassin before supporters at the alliance’s campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Hamad Khalailah, a 28-year-old lawyer in the large Galilee town of Sakhnin, told The Times of Israel on election day that he’d made the effort to go and vote — for the Arab party the Joint List, to be sure — in order to prove he could not be cowed by Likud’s efforts, which included an attempt to install cameras in Arab polling stations (successful in April; banned on Tuesday) and campaign rhetoric focused on the “danger” of Arab citizens turning out to cast their ballots.

“I wasn’t scared to come here,” Khalailah said. “It is my right to vote and Netanyahu will not stop me from doing that.”

As Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi put it on Wednesday, “Two weeks ago, our campaign was asleep, weak, limping. Then, a week ago, someone, a magician, set off alarm clocks at the entrances to all of our towns. That was Benjamin Netanyahu with his [polling-station] cameras bill. Then the Arabs rushed to the polls in droves.”

Likud believed it had found a formula, immoral but effective, to maximize its advantage on election day. It worked, too — until it didn’t. As some Likud lawmakers have admitted, the anti-Arab campaign appears to have helped galvanize the very voters it was trying to dissuade.

But Likud’s mistake could turn out to be costlier than the results of Tuesday’s race, as the history of Israeli ethnic politics reveals.

The Labor party, once called Mapai, has long been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. In the early years of Israel’s existence, the party engaged in willful and systematic neglect and marginalization of newly arrived Mizrahi Jews from Arab and Muslim lands, largely excluding them from party membership and positions of influence in the young state.

Every three hours a plane arrived at Lod Airport carrying Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Kurdistan via Tehran, May 1951 (photo credit: GPO)
A plane arriving at Lod Airport carrying Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Kurdistan via Tehran, May 1951. (GPO)

The strategy worked — until it didn’t. A narrow Ashkenazi elite kept its hold on power for 29 long years. But once the spell broke, Labor and the broader Israeli left spent the next four decades (and counting) struggling to overcome the almost axiomatic Mizrahi identification with the right.

The marginalization of Mizrahim, like Likud’s browbeating of the Arab community, was a deliberate effort, as the political debates of the state’s early years reveal. One newspaper editor, Yehiel Halpern of Davar, Mapai’s main outlet, warned his readers in a January 1951 op-ed that the deliberate marginalization of the Mizrahi newcomers could have disastrous consequences.

“They don’t see the value to be gained from democratic rights and freedoms,” he wrote of the Mizrahim, but blamed Mapai for that fact. By excluding them from membership and access to the ruling party’s ranks, and thus to national leadership in those years, Mapai was denying the newcomers the experience of “real ownership” of their new country and “mastery over their own fate” that could transform those who had never experienced democracy into lifelong democrats.

By the 1970s, this marginalization had driven Mizrahim decisively into Likud’s camp, paving the way for decades of mostly right-wing ascendance. Even in 2019, in the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi gap between Blue and White and Likud, the political reverberations of that old bigotry still echo.

Arabs make up roughly 21 percent of the Israeli population, but only 16% of the electorate. That large gap has two sources. About half the gap is due to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics classifying over 200,000 East Jerusalemites as part of the Arab Israeli population, though most are not Israeli citizens and are unable to vote in Knesset elections. The rest of the gap is due to the young age of the Arab population.

It seems safe to assume that both those demographic realities will eventually swell the Arab portion of the electorate. Since Israel is unlikely to surrender East Jerusalem anytime soon, it is likely to eventually see those residents ask for and receive voting rights to the Knesset. Similarly, barring drastic and sudden changes to human biology, those Arab children will soon grow up to be voting-age adults.

Jewish and Arab children in Jerusalem training together as part of the Kick It Out program to rid soccer of racism. (Yossi Zamir)

That is, Israel’s future is likely to be more Arab than its past.

A right-wing that constructs its political identity on fear and marginalization of a growing subset of the population is a right-wing keen on repeating the left’s mistake with Mizrahim, and risks harvesting the same bitter political fruit for decades to come.

Tuesday’s rallying of the Arab electorate may be a taste of an unpleasant future for Likud if it does not grasp the danger.

Interests at heart

Taking this long-term view also brings into sharp relief the startlingly virulent tone of recent Likud campaigns.

Indeed, Benny Gantz’s own explanation for his ballot-box success is the growing disgust not over Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, but over his campaigning style, the “incitement and division,” as Gantz puts it, that threaten to overtake Netanyahu’s policy achievements in defining his legacy.

The results from Tuesday’s race lay bare to Israelis, including to a surprised Likud, the potential costs of the sort of predatory and manipulative campaign practices that have come to define the ruling party.

Benjamin Netanyahu, center, laying a cornerstone for new housing units in Beit El, August 8, 2019 (Courtesy: Sharon Revivo/Likud)

Likud stretched the boundaries of anything that came before. It is hard to exaggerate how far the anti-Arab campaign went. The campaign staffers hired by Likud to secretly deploy 1,200 cameras to Arab polling stations in the April 9 race took to Facebook the following morning to proudly boast that they had driven Arab turnout below the 50% mark, belying the party’s later insistence it was working to reduce voter fraud, not Arab turnout. When Likud’s cameras were prohibited for the September ballot, Likud activists in the West Bank announced the formation of cadres of volunteers “numbering in the thousands” who would patrol outside Arab polling stations (they are not legally permitted inside) to guard against fraud. How Likud “guards,” as the activists called them, planned to prevent fraud from outside the station was not explained.

Likud also tried to expedite passage of a bill just days before the election that would legalize its camera campaign. When that, too, didn’t work, Likud spokesman Yonatan Urich leaked to Channel 13 a “report” that Likud had installed dozens of cameras outside Arab polling stations, and that those cameras had “facial recognition” capabilities.

Excoriated for reporting incorrect information and thereby buttressing Likud’s voter-suppression efforts, the Channel 13 reporter who broke the story, Akiva Novick, went back to Likud’s spokesman for some fact-checking, and then “clarified” the earlier report by noting the cameras could not recognize faces, but, Likud had told him, would simply record footage of passersby in Arab towns that Likud officials would later examine for unspecified irregularities.

On Wednesday, as he struggled to portray himself a winner despite the lackluster showing at the ballot box, Netanyahu doubled down yet again on the Arab question. “Now there are only two possibilities — a government led by me, or a dangerous government that depends on the Arabs,” he told Likud lawmakers in a meeting in the Knesset on Wednesday evening.

It was a relentless and expensive effort, proving its centrality to Likud’s strategy. That it was accompanied by Netanyahu’s repeated efforts to push outright Kahanists, whose racist ideology was criminalized by Netanyahu’s predecessor Yitzhak Shamir, into the Knesset only contributed to the sense of a determined assault against the Arab community.

The strategy made good tactical sense to Likud’s campaign managers, especially its three-time campaign chief Ofer Golan.

His job, Golan quipped in a May interview, was not to fret about ethics. “You win the campaign, then you do damage control.”

But even if ethics are not central to a political campaign’s considerations, Likud’s turning on the Arabs highlights how a gap can develop between a party’s short-term interests and its long-term ones. The campaign manager necessarily serves the short-term interest; he must win to show he’s a good campaign manager. The interests of the candidate in any particular race share that same short-term horizon.

But who looks after a party’s long-term health? Likud will one day be rid of Netanyahu. How long will it take to shed the darker sides of his legacy?

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