In final days of campaign, Netanyahu launches effort to reach out to Arab voters

Activist alleges PM actually wants to lower Arab voter turnout; Joint List MK says premier can’t make up for ‘a decade of incitement’ with one interview to an Arabic channel

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting with Israeli Arab leaders on March 23, 2015 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting with Israeli Arab leaders on March 23, 2015 (photo credit: Courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party have launched an effort in the last days of their reelection campaign to reach out to Arab Israelis.

Netanyahu, who was slammed during the last national elections in September for employing fiery rhetoric against Arabs, recently granted an interview to Hala TV, the sole privately owned Arabic-language channel in Israel; posted a verse from the Quran on his Facebook page about the hajj pilgrimage; and held a campaign event between Tamra and Ibillin, Arab towns in the Galilee.

In his interview with Hala TV last week, Netanyahu attempted to dispel fears among Arabs about US President Donald Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which “contemplates” putting 10 Arab Israeli towns near the West Bank in a future state of Palestine, if Israel and the Palestinians agree to do so.

“There is vague expression which is meaningless,” the prime minister said, speaking of the reference in the plan regarding the 10 towns. “Leave it. That will not happen.”

Hala TV’s Bassam Jaber interviewing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Screenshot: Hala TV)

Netanyahu also suggested that he was working to make it possible for Muslim Israelis to fly directly to Saudi Arabia for the hajj.

“I think we will arrive very quickly at a point in which Israelis can go to Saudi Arabia on direct flights for the hajj,” he said.

Muslim Israelis currently are required to travel via Jordan to Saudi Arabia to participate in the annual pilgrimage.

Netanyahu and his Likud party’s effort to lobby Arab voters has also included criticism of the Joint List, an alliance of the four largest Arab-majority parties in Israel.

Netanyahu has alleged that the Joint List has done “nothing” for the Arab public while highlighting recent investments the government made in Arab communities under his leadership.

The Joint List has advocated for a number of issues important to Arabs such as fighting crime, developing building plans, and stopping home demolitions, among others.

The Likud Facebook page, meanwhile, has targeted specific members of the Joint List including its chairman, Ayman Odeh, whom it labeled a supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Odeh has refrained on a number of occasions from condemning Syria for its use of violence against civilians.

Avi Dichter, a Likud MK, has also joined the effort. He claimed in a video posted on Twitter Wednesday that Likud has brought about the satisfaction of 80 percent of Arabs and implored them to vote for the party.

Lowering voter turnout

Amjad Shbita, co-director of Sikkuy, a non-governmental organization that works to advance Jewish-Arab equality, argued that Netanyahu’s attempt to reach out to Arabs doesn’t actually aim to win over their votes.

“The whole point of Netanyahu’s campaign focused on the Arab community is to lower Arab voter turnout,” Shbita said in an interview. “He knows that Arabs won’t vote for Likud and that they came to the polls in high numbers in the last election due, in large part, to his incitement against them. So this time, he wants to lower the temperature and hope that Arabs decide to stay home on election day.”

Israelis cast their votes at a polling station in the Arab town of Beit Safafa on March 17, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

During his campaign before last September’s vote, Netanyahu tried and failed to push a bill through the Knesset to allow party observers to bring cameras into polling stations in what his Likud party claimed was an effort to prevent rampant voter fraud in Arab communities. Those who opposed the bill, he said at the time, were “stealing the elections.”

He also repeatedly suggested that the Joint List lacks the legitimacy to be involved in government decision-making and attempted to encourage his right-wing supporters to vote by claiming that Arabs were turning out to the polls in high numbers.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s Facebook chatbot stated last September that Arabs “want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.” The prime minister later denied he wrote the statement, blaming it on a campaign staffer.

Shbita predicted that Netanyahu’s effort to reach out to Arab voters would not impact the results of the election.

“He started making these moves very late in his campaign,” he said. “It could have a very minor impact on who decides to turn out, but it will not affect how many seats the Joint List ultimately wins.”

Arab turnout stood at 59.2% in September; in comparison it only reached 49.2% in the national elections that took place in April.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to respond to Shbita’s comments and Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich did not respond to questions about them.

Arabs will not forget Netanyahu’s past

The Joint List has pushed back against Netanyahu’s campaign targeting Arab voters, arguing that it will not redeem him for his past rhetoric.

“Only a real racist like Netanyahu can think that the Arab citizens are stupid enough to forget that just two months ago he wrote that we want to annihilate women and children,” Odeh wrote on Twitter on February 19, referring to the comment from the prime minister’s chatbot.

(L to R) Joint List candidates Ofer Cassif, Heba Yazbak, Mtanes Shehadeh, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman and Iman Khatib Yassin appear before supporters at the alliance’s campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

“[One interview] will not make up for a decade of incitement and inflaming hatred. In 13 days, the Arab citizens will remove him from the Prime Minister’s Office once and for all,” he added.

Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman also pointed out on Wednesday that the campaign event Netanyahu held between Tamra and Ibillin was poorly attended.

“[When] you arrived, what did you find? A nearly empty hall, maybe some 30 in attendance. Even at an event in a living room in Tel Aviv, I had a bigger turnout,” she said in a video posted on Twitter.

Footage of the event showed that few people were present at the event when Netanyahu arrived.

Touma-Sliman added: “The defeat that you felt today when you arrived at an empty hall, you will feel in an even stronger way” on election day.

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