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Arab vote for Likud barely budges despite Netanyahu’s overtures

Some towns saw backing for right-wing party jump eightfold, but actual ballot numbers added up to no more than several hundred, and sometimes several dozen

A campaign poster for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairperson of the Likud party, is pictured in the Bedouin town of Tarabeen near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on March 7, 2021, ahead of the legislative election. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
A campaign poster for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairperson of the Likud party, is pictured in the Bedouin town of Tarabeen near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on March 7, 2021, ahead of the legislative election. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

In the months leading up to the March 2021 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched an unprecedented charm offensive on the Arab Israeli public, seeking to woo a community he has in the past largely ignored and sometimes demonized.

He zipped between Arab towns, touted his government’s coronavirus vaccination campaign, advanced a plan to combat crime in Arab cities and towns, and heralded what he called the opportunity for a “new era” for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

A review of the near-final results shows the effort reaped some rewards, with support for Netanyahu’s Likud multiplying in Arab communities and vote numbers often four, five and even eight times higher than during the March 2020 election.

But it also amounted to very little in actual numbers — both a result of low turnout among the Arab public and of the fact that support for Likud, even multiplied, remained minuscule in these communities.

In Nazareth, for example, support for Likud jumped from 1 percent in 2020 to 4% in 2021. In actual numbers, that amounted to 881 votes. Shfaram’s Likud support jumped from 1.1% to 3.5% (435 votes). Taybeh saw a jump 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 Bedouin town of Rahat moved from 0.6% support in 2020 to an impressive 6%. The vote tally? 978 ballots.

An Israeli Arab man votes at a polling station in Maghar, Tuesday, March. 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Netanyahu had claimed ahead of the election that Arab voters could net him 2-3 seats, but with Arab turnout on Election Day believed to be approximately 44.2%, and some 36,000 votes needed for a single Knesset seat, it seemed doubtful that the Arab vote would amount to much significance for the prime minister.

The premier is believed to have had a second aim in his campaigning: to drive a wedge between Arab politicians and their public and encourage the breakup of the Joint List — with the Ra’am party running independently on the platform of potential cooperation with the prime minister — and thus depress Arab turnout, strengthening his right-wing bloc.

That strategy appeared to have paid off, to an extent, with the combined power of Arab parties projected to drop from 15 to 11 seats (as of a count of 88% of votes Wednesday afternoon). And Ra’am, as of this writing set to win 5 seats, could yet help prop up his government if he fails to win a clear right-wing majority without it (though, with heavy opposition on the right, that also remains an unlikely scenario).

Historically, 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.

An Israeli Arab man casts his ballot in Kafr Manda, northern Israel, on March 23, 2021 (Jamal Awad/FLASH90)

Netanyahu’s Likud party has also previously warned about what they have deemed to be Arab voter fraud, including seeking to install cameras in voting centers. Arab Israelis widely decried the attempt as an attempt at voter intimidation. The prime minister also famously warned on election day in 2015 that the Arabs were voting “in droves,” drawing accusations of racism.

Arab leaders have accused Netanyahu’s government of neglecting Arab communities, especially regarding violent crime and infrastructure.

In January, as part of his about-face, Netanyahu said that the Arab vote had “huge potential.”

“For many, many years the Arab public was outside the mainstream of leadership. Why?” he said. “There’s no reason. People contribute, people work. Let’s go all the way. Be part of the full success story of Israel. That’s what I would like to be exemplified in the election.”

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