Campaigning among Arabs, Netanyahu may be trying to pare down votes, not win them

Analysts say Likud’s outreach to Arabs is aimed at calming fears and keeping turnout low, after several previous elections saw scare campaigns backfire and bring out the voters

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu appears in a campaign aid targeting Israel's Arab citizens on September 4, 2022. The message in Arabic reads "Come let's make an amazing story come true together" (Screen capture/Twitter)
Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu appears in a campaign aid targeting Israel's Arab citizens on September 4, 2022. The message in Arabic reads "Come let's make an amazing story come true together" (Screen capture/Twitter)

With posters, local events, and social media, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been campaigning aggressively among Arab citizens. But rather than looking to bring them into the Likud tent, analysts say the former prime minister is actually trying to keep them away from the polls on Election Day.

Arab turnout has risen in several recent elections, much of it seemingly in response to Netanyahu denigrating the Arab Israeli community on the campaign trail.

With polls showing a razor-thin margin between Likud retaking power versus remaining in the opposition, “Abu Yair,” as Netanyahu has branded himself in Arabic advertising, is hoping a charm offensive can quell fears among Arabs about his comeback convincingly enough to keep voters at home instead of casting ballots for his opponents.

Turnout among Arab Israelis has traditionally trailed the general population by at least ten percent. In the current campaign, with the four main parties representing the community split into three separate factions for the first time in nearly a decade, Arab turnout was initially projected at a historically low rate of 40 percent. In recent days, however, that number has begun to rise.

That uptick seems to be making Likud nervous. On Sunday, the right-wing party threatened to file a petition against left-wing groups Standing Together and Zazim to compel them to cease efforts to mobilize the Arab vote, even as Likud election billboards dot the roadsides of Arab cities and towns.

Likud and other right-wing and religious parties in its corner, which support measures that accentuate Israel’s Jewish character and are strongly opposed to Palestinian statehood, generally fare poorly among Arabs, who make up approximately one-fifth of Israel’s population.

File: A campaign poster for then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairperson of the Likud party, in the Bedouin town of Tarabeen near the southern city of Beersheba on March 7, 2021, ahead of the election. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

In the previous election, Likud’s “Abu Yair” campaign yielded a lackluster 20,000 votes in areas with large Arab populations; Likud and its allies garnered a meager 6.5% share of Arab votes.

While the Arab Israeli community is hardly an electoral monolith, it is generally more likely to support Arab-led parties Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad.

Each vote for those parties does not only strengthen their own representation, but also dilutes the value of each ballot for any other party since the number of votes that equal a Knesset seat is determined according to total turnout.

“Likud is not really seeking votes from the Arab community but rather to keep Arab voters at home,” said Afif Abu Much, an Arab Israeli political analyst for Al-Monitor.

Arik Rudnitzky, an expert on Arab Israeli society at the Israel Democracy Institute, predicted that Likud would fail to win even half a Knesset seat’s worth of votes from Arabs on November 1.

High Arab turnout poses a threat to Netanyahu in a novel way this year because Hadash-Ta’al, the leading Arab-led slate, may break with its traditional refusal to recommend a prime minister and instead support Yair Lapid’s bid to form a government if he meets certain demands. (Lapid has ruled out including Hadash-Ta’al in a coalition, but not relying on its MKs’ support from outside such a coalition.)

An election billboard for Hadash-Ta’al in the Bedouin city of Rahat on October 25, 2022, ahead of Israel’s November 1 election. The message reads in Arabic: “Our issues and our fight are most important” (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Ideally, Likud would prefer that Hadash-Ta’al fail to clear the electoral threshold of 3.5% altogether, an unlikely but not impossible scenario.

“It’s particularly important for Likud to keep the Arab street dormant,” said Oded Haklai, a professor at Queen’s University in Canada and an expert on Arab-Jewish relations.

The Likud party declined to comment for this article.

Smaller and larger ‘droves’

Netanyahu has made little secret that he views Arab votes as a threat. On Election Day in 2015, he sent out a 30-second video on Facebook warning his followers that Arabs were “going to the polls in droves” and placing “right-wing rule in danger.”

Arab turnout rose to over 63% in that election, bucking a two-decade downward trend induced by creeping apathy among the demographic.

Most analysts have attributed the high turnout numbers in 2015 to Arab parties’ decision to form the Joint List, a four-way marriage of convenience necessitated by the raising of the electoral threshold to a level few Arab parties had been able to reach on their own. The combined slate raised hopes of long-sought political influence after decades of crying in the wilderness. This energized the street and led organized voting boycotts to be shelved. The Joint List wound up winning 13 seats, making it the third-largest party.

By April 2019, though, those high hopes had dissipated with little to show after four years, and turnout slumped back down to just below 50%.

During that election, Likud sent observers with cameras into Arab polling stations, a move touted by a campaign firm as having helped suppress the Arab vote. As Israelis headed back to the polls in September that year, Netanyahu called for the installation of surveillance cameras at polling stations to combat “voter fraud” by Arabs, which he baselessly depicted as rampant.

Arab rights organizations had characterized the ultimately struck-down proposal for cameras as an intimidation tactic to suppress the Arab vote, but turnout jumped back to almost 60%, and Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi wryly thanked Netanyahu after the election for jolting extra votes his party’s way.

“Our campaign was asleep… just two weeks ago. Then someone, a magician, set off alarm clocks at the entrances to every Arab town. That was Benjamin Netanyahu. That was the cameras bill,” Tibi quipped.

Turnout climbed all the way up to nearly 65% in March 2020, netting the Joint List a record 15 seats. In 2021, Ra’am split off from the alliance and decided to forge a new path of engagement with the government, even one led by Netanyahu. Turnout plummeted to 44.6%, though many of those who stayed home punished the Joint List, not Ra’am, which managed to squeak into parliament on its own.

An election poster for Ra’am saying “Closer to the Fight against Racism” at the entrance to Hura in the southern Negev desert on October 7, 2022 ahead of the November polls (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Haklai believes that Likud has learned its lesson: Don’t inflame Arab sentiment and turnout will dampen on its own.

“Harsh discourse generates polarization, which can increase voter turnout among the base but also among the [negatively] targeted group,” Haklai said.

Divided Arab parties

This time around, the slate has been balkanized even further, into Hadash-Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad, the last of which is widely expected to fall short of the threshold.

According to Haklai, the disunity of the Arab parties has fed into “the perception that Arab politicians are consumed by personal bickering and rivalries instead of converging around a common denominator.”

Netanyahu has exploited this quarreling. In an interview with the pro-Likud Channel 14 posted to his Arabic Facebook page, Netanyahu claimed that Arabs had expressed “significant disappointment” over the state of affairs.

“They say the game of musical chairs among the representatives who are supposed to represent them — Ra’am, Balad, the Joint List — [shows] they only care about themselves,” he said.

Netanyahu, in his stumping for votes among Arabs, has put front and center an NIS 15 billion ($4.2 billion) plan passed by his government to rehabilitate Arab towns and bolster law enforcement.

In the Channel 14 interview, Netanyahu made hay of the fact that he and his partners brought “11 police stations” to Arab areas, where before “there had only been one.”

Fifty-four percent of respondents to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute opined that the problem of violence in the Arab community should “be at the heart of the campaign” for their votes.

Netanyahu also boasted that investments in education had resulted in a jump in high school and college diplomas, as well as doctorates and high-tech jobs, among Arab Israelis.

But crime remains rampant. A day before the clip was boasted, teenager Jalal Amash was gunned down in Jisr al-Zarqa, the Arab community’s 88th murder victim this year alone.

And large gaps persist in education funding according to government data — Arab schools still receive 20 to 40 percent less funding than Jewish schools for equivalent needs.

Mudar Yunes, the head of the local council in Arara and director of the National Council of Arab Mayors, said Netanyahu’s attempts to throw money at problems without structural change had failed to fundamentally change the reality in Arab towns.

Hopelessness persists, driving pessimism about the government’s ability to deliver solutions no matters its composition and curtailing political engagement at the national level, an outlook that analysts say will wind up helping Netanyahu.

“People have lost hope that the government can do anything for them,” said Yunis.

Most Popular
read more: