Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to campaign heavily for Arab votes in the coming election, television reports and the prime minister himself indicated Friday.
During a visit to the northern Arab Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm to encourage vaccination against coronavirus and congratulate the one-millionth Israeli to get inoculated, Netanyahu told Channel 13 News that the Arab vote had “huge potential.”
“For many, many years the Arab public was outside the mainstream of leadership. Why?” he said. “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 said that “Arab citizens can see the great things we’ve done. We’ve brought four historic peace agreements with Arab nations that have changed the face of the Middle East and Israeli society. Arabs and Jews are embracing in Dubai and will embrace here too.”
And Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu, hoping to break the traditional paradigm in elections that has led to gridlock and paralysis after three consecutive elections, is planning on heavily courting the Arab vote.
Recent opinion polls have shown Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of its rivals as Israel heads to a new election in March, but without a clear path to forming a coalition, signaling the potential for ongoing political gridlock as the country holds its fourth election in two years.
The premier hopes to achieve two things, the Channel 13 report said: gain some two Knesset seats thanks to Arab support and reduce backing for the Arab-majority Joint List, which has been sliding in recent polls. Both tactics, Netanyahu hopes, will make it easier for him to form a coalition after the election in March, according to the report.
Netanyahu’s Likud has campaigned in the past on unfounded claims of electoral fraud in Arab communities. He has repeatedly demonized Arab lawmakers in the Knesset and gained global notoriety for warning his supporters on election day 2015 that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”
Ahead of the April 2019 election Netanyahu claimed, without evidence, that there was a massive voter fraud problem in Arab areas. He then worked on legislation — which ultimately failed — to allow cameras into polling stations, supposedly to prevent this, though critics said it was meant to suppress turnout in a community already distrustful of state institutions.
The anti-Arab campaigning was so blunt in September 2019 that Facebook temporarily suspended the chat bot on the prime minister’s page for hate speech over a message disseminated which said that Arab Israeli politicians “want to annihilate us all.”
In recent months, however, he appears to have formed a quiet alliance with the Joint List’s MK Mansour Abbas, to the chagrin of Abbas’s colleagues. Netanyahu leaned on Abbas’s Ra’am, the political wing of the Southern Islamic Movement, during the recent legislative vote to prevent the dissolution of the 23rd Knesset, a maneuver that ultimately failed, but the connection between the two politicians is no longer deniable.
On Thursday during an unprecedented visit to the Arab town of Tirah to encourage vaccination, Netanyahu said he did not rule out placing an Arab lawmaker on his right-wing list.
Asked by Channel 13 if he planned more visits to Arab communities in the coming months, Netanyahu said: “This is just the beginning.”
On Friday, while standing in Umm al-Fahm next to the mayor Dr. Samir Mahmid, Netanyahu focused on the vaccination effort, but did not forget to mention a major source of anxiety for many Arab Israelis — the failure to control gang violence and firearms in their streets.
“I am well aware of the challenges. My government launched eight new police stations [in Arab towns]. We did it to save lives, but here at the vaccination center, we are really saving people lives. It is irresponsible to allow the pandemic to rage on,” he said.
Mahmid thanked Netanyahu for coming to promote the vaccination program, but did not shy away from highlighting the second deadly problem facing the community.
“I am calling on our people to come and get vaccinated, but I am asking the government to engage on the issue of violence on a daily basis. It requires daily attention. The mothers are crying, we should grant them some hope,” he said.
Meanwhile, some residents of Umm al-Fahm criticized Netanyahu’s arrival, saying he was trying to score political points at their expense.
“The residents of Umm al-Fahm are not fans of Netanyahu or the right in general, due to the policy of incitement and racism [Netanyahu] has led toward the Arab public,” Mahmoud Adib Aghbaria, a local leader, told Walla News.
“We haven’t forgotten his statements and policies,” he said. “We still think he views us, Arab Israeli citizens, as enemies.”
Yousef Aghbaria, another resident, told the news site Netanyahu would do better to take care of the town’s failing infrastructure.
“What has he done for us for 20 years? There’s no funding, crime is raging and racism is at an all-time high.”