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Netanyahu vows to appoint Likud’s Muslim candidate as minister in next coalition

School principal Nail Zoabi is first Muslim on Likud slate, but placed in low 39th slot; PM says he will be minister for advancing Arab communities

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Likud Arab candidate Nail Zoabi on February 5, 2021 (Scrrencapture/ Twitter)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Likud Arab candidate Nail Zoabi on February 5, 2021 (Scrrencapture/ Twitter)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Friday that he intends to appoint Nail Zoabi, who he picked Thursday as the first-ever Muslim on the Likud party’s Knesset slate, as a minister in his next government.

Netanyahu said that Zoabi, a school principal, would be appointed “minister for advancing Arab communities” if Likud forms the next coalition.

His announcement of plans to create a new ministry to be headed by Zoabi came as Netanyahu courts the Arab vote in the March elections and amid growing protests over the high levels of violence and organized crime in Arab communities.

“We have done a lot, but there is still a lot more to do and we will do it together,” Netanyahu said in a video announcement together with Zoabi.

Netanyahu on Thursday placed Zoabi in 39th place on Likud’s roster for the March 23 elections, a spot that likely would not be high enough for Zoabi to enter the Knesset, with the party currently polling at around 30 seats.

But Likud officials said later Thursday that Zoabi would become an MK because the party would use the so-called Norwegian law in the next government — which it hopes to form — so that Likud MKs who are appointed as ministers resign from the Knesset, freeing up spots for more MKs from lower down the slate. That promise was then superseded when Netanyahu, who met Friday with Zoabi, promised him the ministerial post.

Netanyahu also predicted that Likud will win a lot of votes from the Arab community.

“Arab citizens are disappointed with the other parties and are coming to Likud because they know that we are really advancing personal security, prosperity and equal opportunities,” Netanyahu said.

In previous elections, Netanyahu has been accused of racism toward the Arab communities, most famously with his remarks, made on the day of the 2015 elections, in which he urged Likud voters to go vote because “the Arabs are voting in droves.”

This was 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. He apologized for the remarks after those elections, and claimed last month that the comments had been taken out of context.

Likud is also known for the party’s previous unsubstantiated warnings of electoral fraud in Arab communities and repeated attacks on Arab lawmakers

Zoabi, 49, from the Arab Israeli village of Nein in the Galilee, is a supporter of Netanyahu and a longtime Likud activist. The Times of Israel and its Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Yisrael, reported the premier’s intention to recruit Zoabi in early January.

Netanyahu has publicly declared he hopes to win votes from the Arab community in the March elections and has made a number of high-profile visits to Arab Israeli towns.

He also fostered interaction with Mansour Abbas, from the Ra’am party, in recent months — prompting dissent within the Joint List of Arab-dominated parties, of which Ra’am was a constituent faction. Ra’am on Thursday broke away from the Joint List and will run separately in March — a shift that will almost certainly reduce already falling support for the Joint List, which won 15 seats in last March’s elections, and could also see Ra’am fail to clear the 3.25% Knesset threshold — developments seen as highly beneficial to Netanyahu’s reelection prospects.

At odds with his wooing of the Arab electorate, Netanyahu this week successfully pushed a merger on the far-right of the political spectrum, which could smooth a path into the Knesset for the extreme Otzma Yehudit party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to an unidentified woman during his visit to a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Israeli Arab city of Nazareth, on January 13, 2021. (Gil ELIYAHU / POOL / AFP)

Netanyahu on Wednesday unveiled a long-awaited plan to combat violence and organized crime in Arab Israeli communities.

“I cannot imagine a future of the State of Israel which contains a Wild West without law order, with violence, crime and terror. We will overcome it,” Netanyahu said, pledging NIS 100 million ($32 million) to the issue.

Arab Israeli politicians and civil society figures immediately chided the plan as “too little, too late.”

Netanyahu is offering us a bandaid,” said Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, adding: “It’s impossible to solve a decade of neglect with NIS 100 million.”

A 2016 government decision to fight organized crime in Arab communities had budgeted NIS 2 billion ($605 million) over four years.

Netanyahu said that “a much larger plan” would be passed at a later date, without specifying what would be included or when.

Police scuffle with protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on January 13, 2021 in the northern city of Nazareth (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Opinion polls consistently show that ending violence and organized crime is a top priority for Arab Israelis, who die violently at considerably higher rates than Jewish Israelis. According to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, 96 Arab Israelis died in homicides in 2020, the highest in recent memory.

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