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As Netanyahu courts Arab voters, Likud rules out coalition with Arab parties

PM said to estimate he could get up to 5 Knesset seats from community he has been seen as vilifying until recently; Nazareth mayor says he ‘believes’ premier, lambasts Ayman Odeh

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to an unidentified woman during his visit to a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Israeli Arab city of Nazareth, on January 13, 2021. (Gil ELIYAHU / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to an unidentified woman during his visit to a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Israeli Arab city of Nazareth, on January 13, 2021. (Gil ELIYAHU / POOL / AFP)

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intensifies efforts to court the Arab vote, his Likud party clarified Thursday that the premier had no intention of forming a government with Arab-majority parties after the March elections.

The party also ruled out forming a minority government propped up by Arab lawmakers from the Joint List alliance, specifically from the Ra’am party whose leader Mansour Abbas has been cultivating increasing cooperation with Netanyahu.

“We won’t form a government with Mansour Abbas or the Joint List, and we won’t rely on them, after they opposed the peace deals that bring Jews and Arabs closer,” Likud said, in reference to the recent normalization agreements with four Arab states.

“Israel’s Arab citizens support Likud led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because they’re sick of wasting their vote on the Joint List, which sits in the opposition and does nothing for them. They are joining Likud to ensure integration, prosperity and security in their towns,” the ruling party added.

Netanyahu held a rare visit to the Arab city of Nazareth on Wednesday as part of a campaign to pursue support among Arab Israelis ahead of the March elections, in a stark about-face from his party’s previous unsubstantiated warnings of electoral fraud in Arab communities and repeated attacks on Arab lawmakers.

The visit was met with demonstrations against him, and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, Israel’s top Arab lawmaker, commented that the prime minister must think the Arab community has a “short memory.”

“The only way to ensure the interests of the Arab community is a unified voice of Arab citizens and its Jewish partners who are fighting with honor and dignity for its interests — peace, equality, democracy, and social justice,” said Odeh, whose party has captured the vast majority of the Arab vote in recent elections.

The Joint List has been sliding in the polls recently, with some surveys showing it could drop from 15 to 10 seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu claimed on Wednesday that this was due in part to “the rising support for me and Likud in Arab society.”

Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam appears at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 30, 2014. (Flash90)

Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam, one of the wild cards of Arab Israeli politics who has voiced support for Netanyahu in the past, gave an interview Wednesday to Channel 12 News and praised the prime minister: “I believe him. He wants to help the Arabs. I’m not looking back, I’m looking forward, for the benefit of the Arabs who have been suffering since 1948.”

Salam claimed that Likud was set to get three to four Knesset seats from Arab voters. He said he would remain mayor of Nazareth, but didn’t deny the possibility that Netanyahu had tried to reserve a spot for him on the Likud slate in the upcoming elections.

Lambasting Odeh, Salam said: “I don’t acknowledge him, I don’t want to hear his voice. He’s nothing to me, he only cares about himself and nobody else, he hasn’t done anything for those who voted for him.”

Kan News reported Wednesday that Netanyahu expects as many as five Knesset seats to come from the Arab community in the upcoming elections.

During his visit to Nazareth, 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.”

Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015, warning that Arab voters were coming out in droves. (screen capture: YouTube)

“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.”

After visiting a Nazareth clinic where coronavirus vaccines were being dispensed, Netanyahu heralded what he called the opportunity for a “new era” for Jewish and Arab relations in Israel.

“If Jews and Arabs can dance together in the streets of Dubai, they can dance together here in Israel. A new era begins today, of prosperity, integration and security,” Netanyahu said, referring to the recently signed normalization deals between Israel and four Arab states.

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 attempt as an attempt at voter intimidation.

Joint List politicians were quick to condemn the premier’s statements, including Ahmad Tibi who called it “an attempt to make [Arab Israelis] into useful idiots.”

Eyewitnesses who spoke to The Times of Israel estimated around 200-300 people attended the demonstration outside the health clinic the premier was visiting on Wednesday. “Bibi, get out! Get out! Go home!” demonstrators chanted.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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