In a rare visit to the Arab city of Nazareth on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin 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.”
“Whoever says we only remember the Arab public before the elections is either lying or ignorant of the facts,” Netanyahu claimed Wednesday.
Regardless, Netanyahu said: “I apologized then and I apologize today as well.”
Arab Israeli politicians were quick to criticize Netanyahu’s remarks. The prime minister must think the Arab community has a “short memory,” said Joint List chair Ayman Odeh.
The premier visited the city 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.
After visiting a 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 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.
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.”
“Arab voters will not be the rescue vehicle of Netanyahu. There’s nothing for him here in this election campaign,” said Joint List MK Sondos Saleh.
And the prime minister promised that he will pass a wide-ranging plan to combat violence and organized crime in Arab communities “very soon.” In opinion polls, Arab Israelis have consistently pointed to solving the violence in Arab communities as their highest priority — the murder rate has gone up nearly 50 percent in four years.
Passing the anti-violence plan has become a major policy priority for Arab MKs. The plan was formulated by Netanyahu’s office in collaboration with the National Council of Arab Mayors and Arab civil society groups.
Netanyahu had already promised to pass the plan in November while speaking to a Knesset parliamentary committee. But as the country slid towards its fourth round of elections in two years, the plan fell off the docket.
Eyewitnesses who spoke to The Times of Israel estimated around 200-300 people attended a demonstration outside the health clinic the premier was visiting.
“Bibi, get out! Get out! Go home!” demonstrators chanted. The protesters were a mix of local Nazareth residents, as well as a notable sprinkling of Jewish anti-Netanyahu activists affiliated with The Black Flags protest movement, which seeks the premier’s resignation.
Nazareth mayor Ali Salam, who has voiced support for Netanyahu, scoffed at the turnout, which he deemed to be light. “Some people demonstrated, sure. If I were to demonstrate, I would have brought thousands with me,” Salam commented acidly.
“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 the Likud in Arab society.”
Joint List MKs, such as Aida Touma-Suleiman and Heba Yazbak, were also present at the protest. Touma-Suleiman bore a sign decrying Netanyahu’s support for the 2018 nation-state law. Former Knesset member Hanin Zoabi also showed up, holding a sign which declared: “We will sweep the Zionist parties out of Nazareth.”
Members of three of the Joint List’s four factions — Hadash, Ta’al and Balad — attended the protest. But no parliamentarians from Mansour Abbas’s renegade Ra’am faction turned out to demonstrate.
Abbas, a conservative Islamist politician, has been publically seeking a rapprochement with Netanyahu for some time. He has said he would be willing to consider being a minister in a right-wing government — or even vote to provide the indicted premier immunity from prosecution — in exchange for advancing the key priorities of Arab Israelis.
A Ra’am party official told The Times of Israel that senior members of the Islamic Movement were present at the demonstration, but that most of Ra’am’s parliamentarians were currently in quarantine.
Israel Police reported 19 arrests while forcefully clearing demonstrators away from the Clalit health clinic which the prime minister was visiting. Videos from the scene showed riot police dragging away demonstrators behind a barricade, including parliamentarians, despite the immunity granted by their status as Knesset members.
Joint List MK Saleh was taken to a hospital after being dragged away from the scene, with injuries in her hand and back.
“Even though they knew she was a member of Knesset, the police dragged her and pushed her forcefully, hurting her. They violated her parliamentary immunity,” a spokesperson for Saleh said in a statement.
“Netanyahu ought to translate his ‘sudden love’ for Arabs into nullifying the nation-state law, ending home demolitions and uprooting criminal organizations,” Tibi said.
Nazareth Mayor Salam, speaking alongside Netanyahu, expressed disappointment with the Joint List. Salam, one of Arab Israeli politics’ wild cards, has never supported the Joint List; he first rose to notoriety in a viral video showing him yelling at Joint List chair Ayman Odeh.
“We voted for them, [and] with all due respect, the Arab community is disappointed by them. They got our votes and did nothing,” Salam said.
Salam did make sure to mention the Palestinian cause, however.
“I am declaring from here, to the whole world, from Nazareth… we have a good life [here] and we will continue to live together in our country and our request is that you don’t forget to make peace with the Palestinians,” Salam told Netanyahu.