Arab Israeli municipal leaders met Saturday to discuss an upcoming video conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as some called to boycott the meeting.
The video conference meeting, scheduled for Sunday, is to focus on violence in Arab Israeli communities. The talks come as Netanyahu seeks the support of Arab voters ahead of the March 23 Knesset elections, in a marked reversal from his Likud party’s previous unfounded claims of electoral fraud in Arab communities and repeated attacks on Arab lawmakers.
The talks were initiated by Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, head of the Federation of Local Authorities and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and Ar’ara Mayor Modar Younis, chairman of the committee of Arab municipal chiefs. Bibas is pushing to use 15 percent of the budget earmarked for the development of Arab communities to fund a plan to combat violence and crime in those communities, which last year saw a record number of homicides.
Those who called to boycott the meeting included the mayors of Kafr Kanna, Sakhnin, Arraba, Kaukab Abu al-Hija, and Tira, who argued Netanyahu was seeking to use the meeting for political ends.
“For thirteen years Bibi didn’t do anything,” Shfar’am Mayor Orsan Yassin was quoted saying by the Walla news site, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “The meeting with him is part of an election campaign and I’m not part of it.”
The committee decided a limited delegation would take part in the meeting with Netanyahu, according to the news site.
Ahead of Saturday’s talks, a number of mayors issued statements saying they would boycott the meeting with Netanyahu.
“If the purpose is electioneering, I won’t be part of the exploitation of the blood of our youngsters as part of electioneering,” Kafr Kanna Mayor Yousef Awawdi said.
Sunday’s meeting follows Netanyahu’s rare visit Wednesday to Nazareth, during which he pledged to pass a wide-ranging plan to combat violence and organized crime in Arab communities “very soon.” In opinion polls, Arab Israelis have consistently pointed to solving the violence in Arab communities as their highest priority — the murder rate has gone up nearly 50 percent in four years.
During the visit, Netanyahu said a 2015 video broadcast in which he urged Likud voters to go vote because “the Arabs are voting in droves” had been twisted by his political opponents.
“They twisted my words,” said Netanyahu, claiming that “my intention was not to protest against the fact of Arab citizens voting in elections,” but rather “to protest against their voting for the [Arab-majority] Joint List party.”
His remarks, made on the day of the 2015 elections, were widely seen as a racial dog whistle, implying that Arab citizens of Israel were a traitorous fifth column who, when exercising the right to vote, threatened Israeli security.
“The rule of the right is in danger,” he said on March 17, 2015. “Arab voters are moving in droves to the polling stations. Left-wing organizations are busing them in.”
“Whoever says we only remember the Arab public before the elections is either lying or ignorant of the facts,” Netanyahu claimed Wednesday. Regardless, he said: “I apologized then and I apologize today as well.”
The visit to Nazareth was met with demonstrations, and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh commented that the prime minister must think the Arab community has a “short memory.”
On Thursday, Likud said Netanyahu had no intention of forming a coalition government with Arab-majority parties after the March elections.
Most Arab Israelis have vigorously opposed Netanyahu, saying that he has incited racism against them. They point to laws such as the 2018 nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and demoted the status of Arabic, and the 2017 Kamenitz law, which deliberately targeted illegal Arab construction.
Netanyahu’s Likud party has also previously warned about what it called Arab voter fraud and sought to install cameras in voting centers. Arab Israelis widely decried the act as an attempt at voter intimidation.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.