Does Netanyahu really think he can win over Israel’s Arabs?

Likud’s surprising new campaign for Arab voters is savvier than it sounds. An anti-Arab campaign helped boost Arab turnout. Now the party hopes a pro-Arab one will lower it

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for a photograph with pupils on the first day of school in the Israeli Arab town of Tamra, Thursday, September 1, 2016. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for a photograph with pupils on the first day of school in the Israeli Arab town of Tamra, Thursday, September 1, 2016. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Over the past week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked hard to showcase what his Likud party has called a new campaign reaching out to Israel’s Arab community.

At first glance, the effort seems ludicrous. For years, Arab-led parties and Arab voters have been Likud’s favorite electoral bogeymen and punching bags. Now, Netanyahu claims large numbers of Arabs will vote for his party.

“Just as I broke the Palestinian veto on relations with the Arab states, so I am breaking the Arab parties’ veto with the Arab citizens of Israel,” he told Likud party officials on Saturday. “I believe in [Zionist leader Ze’ev] Jabotinsky’s doctrine that all rights need to be given to every citizen in the State of Israel. We’re reaching out to Arab voters — vote for us,” he said.

On Friday, he told Channel 13, “For many, many years the Arab public was outside the mainstream of leadership. Why? 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.”

He isn’t just courting the voters on television. Netanyahu has been pounding the pavement in Arab towns, and has even begun to seek allies among the very political parties that have long represented Israel’s Arab citizens, especially the Islamic Ra’am party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media in the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It wasn’t so long ago, in the elections of April and September 2019, that Netanyahu was issuing dire warnings to his constituents that any government his political opponents might try to establish would depend on the support of non-Zionist Arab-majority parties — you know, like Ra’am.

Back in 2015, on election day, Netanyahu warned his voters not only about the parties, but about Arabs themselves being “bused to the polls” in “droves.” The Likud campaign pushed out text messages on election day to party supporters with the ominous news that the terror group Hamas “has urged Arab Israelis to vote.” An Arab citizen’s right to vote was turned in Likud’s messaging into a threat to the country.

In the April 2019 race, Likud even tried to sneak cameras into Arab voting stations, with the PR firm responsible for the initiative boasting on Facebook that its efforts had successfully depressed Arab turnout. (It later deleted the post, and Likud issued a statement denying that lowering turnout was the motive for deploying the cameras.)

Netanyahu’s relationship with Arab voters is thus no blank slate. He isn’t trying to overcome mere neglect or policy difference. Fear of the Arab voter has served as a mainstay of Likud’s political sloganeering and get-out-the-vote efforts for at least the past six years.

An elderly Israeli Arab man, right, casts his ballot in a polling station in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, February 10, 2009 (photo credit: AP/Muhammed Muheisen, File)
An elderly Arab Israeli man, right, casts his ballot in a polling station in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, February 10, 2009. (AP/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

Turning the corner

It must be said: Netanyahu has reason to hope that a campaign among the Arabs can win him some sorely needed seats.

Siphoning just two Knesset seats’ worth of Arab voters from one side of the aisle to the other is nothing to sneeze at in a close race. Back in March, that four-seat advantage could have won him the race.

And it seems that Netanyahu really believes he can do it.

Yosef Maklada, a well-known pollster specializing in the Arab community, told Channel 12 news on Monday that his polls are finding Likud drawing 1.6 to 2.1 Knesset seats from Arab voters, or approximately 60,000 to 80,000 votes.

Those figures seem to fit the new argument being made by some Arab politicians that parts of the Arab Israeli community are growing weary of seeing their politics consumed by the Palestinian cause, and are seeking a seat at Israel’s political table. They yearn for the kind of influence that can only be obtained by wheeling and dealing with those in power. If they seek to drive government funds to their communities, to rebuild dilapidated infrastructure, tackle soaring crime rates, and invest in schools and civil society, it’s time to put the Arab vote — so the argument goes — back in play. That’s true of both votes at the ballot box and votes of Arab politicians in parliament.

Left to right: Members of the Joint List party MKs Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consultation with President Reuven Rivlin on who he should task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

And as Netanyahu noted repeatedly over the past week, it doesn’t hurt that he helped deliver normalization deals that opened up new parts of the Arab world to Arab Israelis. An Israeli passport can now carry an Israeli tourist or entrepreneur to the Persian Gulf, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and, soon, even Sudan.

No wonder that Maklada also found that, just like the Jews, Arabs tell pollsters that Netanyahu is the “most qualified” politician to serve as prime minister, by a wide margin.

Unintended consequences

But there is another reason Netanyahu is now campaigning for an Arab vote he once denigrated.

The past two years have seen an astonishing rally at the polls for the Arab parties.

Illustrative: An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote at a polling station in the coastal city of Haifa, on March 17, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

In the April 2019 election, the Arab parties ran on two separate slates that between them won 10 seats. In September 2019, as Likud’s anti-Arab campaigning reached a fever pitch, the parties united and won 13 seats. By March, the Joint List boasted 15 seats. Tracking that rise in voter numbers is even more impressive. Arab-party votes rose from 7.8% of all valid votes cast in April to 10.6% in September to 12.7% in March — even as general turnout rose.

Or put another way: The Arab parties won 337,108 votes in April, then 470,211 in September – a 39% increase – then 581,507 in March – yet another 24% spike on September.

Some (including this writer) have argued that the united run in a shared list was responsible for the rally. (A similar increase occurred in the 2015 election when the parties all ran together.)

MK Ahmad Tibi attends a demonstration by restaurant owners and workers outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, protesting the coronavirus lockdown and the lack of financial support from the government, January 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But MK Ahmad Tibi, head of the Ta’al faction within the Joint List, had a simpler explanation over the past two years: “We were struggling to get out the vote,” he once said in the Knesset. “Then Netanyahu came and convinced everyone to rush to the polls.”

Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaign had backfired. It was that perceived marginalization by the ruling party, Arab lawmakers believe, that drove the astounding turnout for them at the ballot box in September 2019 and March of this year.

Netanyahu believed Tibi. Ahead of the March race, he did something highly unusual: he asked Arabic-language media to interview him and used the interviews to detail all the support his governments had offered to the Arab community, from policing programs to school funding to infrastructure investments. Likud toned down (but didn’t entirely stop) its campaign rhetoric targeting Arab parties. It did stop warning its supporters about the dangers of Arabs voting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Joist (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi during a Knesset plenum session on June 29, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The easing of the rhetoric in March didn’t help calm Arab anxieties or keep Arabs home on election day, as the 24% increase in votes for the Joint List from September to March demonstrates.

If he’s going to convince Arab voters they don’t need to worry, Netanyahu will need something more convincing.

Thus is born a Likud campaign actively soliciting the Arab vote.

The Joint List falters

The shift in Arab political discourse is real, but it still represents only a minority of the Arab vote. A Joint List that won 15 seats in March is now polling at 11, in part — say its lawmakers — out of a sense that it didn’t manage to translate its larger number of seats into increased Arab influence in government.

Tensions are rising within the list as rumors circulate about Ra’am and possibly Ta’al splitting from Balad and Hadash to pursue a different kind of Arab Israeli politics more focused on obtaining that influence.

Joint List chief MK Ayman Odeh attends a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The disappointment is measurable. An Israel Democracy Institute poll this week found that 69% of Jews said they were certain they would cast a ballot on March 23; among Arabs the figure was just 39%.

Just 72% of Joint List voters from last March say they plan to vote for the party this time.

If the slate splits, it’s likely to further depress Arab turnout — and see at least some of the votes, the ones cast for Ra’am, will go to a party that has already declared its willingness to offer its support to Likud in exchange for funding and policy concessions for the Arab community.

What Netanyahu could not achieve through ominous text messages and hidden cameras is now happening because of a widespread sense among Arab voters that their own leaders haven’t delivered the goods.

Netanyahu’s new embrace of the Arab vote is a calculated attempt to accelerate that process. It is already showing early signs of success.

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