Netanyahu could pick up 2 seats among Israeli Arabs - analysis

Netanyahu is doing a U-turn and pitching for the Arab vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces that he will request immunity from Knesset, Jan. 1, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces that he will request immunity from Knesset, Jan. 1, 2020
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Photo ops of the prime minister marking the round-number milestone of anything – the three millionth tourist, the one millionth recipient of the coronavirus vaccination – are carefully staged events.
The lucky person to be highlighted and greeted by the prime minister is chosen. These events are not left to chance.
So the fact that the Prime Minister’s Office did not realize that the man selected as the lucky one millionth Israeli to receive the coronavirus vaccination Friday in Umm el-Fahm and be photographed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was someone who spent 14 years in jail on a manslaughter charge dating back to 1978 was, simply put, a foul-up. Good intent, bad execution.
Not that anybody is saying that an ex-con does not deserve to be vaccinated, but rather that you probably don’t want to make him the poster boy of the vaccination drive – especially for a vaccination drive in the Arab sector plagued by runaway crime.
And although this faux pas was and will be used to mock Netanyahu, his decision to go to Umm al-Fahm to mark this milestone – rather than, for instance, Bat Yam, Holon or Kiryat Tivon – is significant.
It would be an error to shake one’s head, laugh at this organizational misstep and miss the larger picture: Regardless of the identity of the millionth person vaccinated, Netanyahu is pitching for the Arab vote. And, as an astute politician, he would not be wasting his time and energy if he did not think there was a real possibility of capturing some of it.
What, Netanyahu has a chance to capture Arab voters? The same Netanyahu who in 2015 warned that Arabs were going to the polls in droves? The same Netanyahu who single-handedly led to a surge in Arab turnout last time precisely because steps his party advocated, such as setting up cameras at voting booths, were interpreted by many Israeli Arabs as an attempt to get them not to vote?
As one Israeli Arab in his mid-20s, a pharmacist in the Jerusalem area, said after the last election: “I’ve never voted in an Israeli election before. I voted this time because Bibi told me not to.”
Yet now Netanyahu is doing a U-turn and pitching for the Arab vote.
A photo op at a vaccine center in Tira on Thursday was one example of how this pitch is playing out; the picture in Umm el-Fahm on Friday was another; as was talk that the Likud is considering reserving a realistic slot for an Arab on its list and even a ministerial appointment; and Netanyahu’s saying at a party meeting on Saturday, “I believe in the teachings of [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky that full civil rights need to be given to all the citizens of the State of Israel. We are turning to Arab residents: This time, vote for us.”
But will they?
Even before mounting a major campaign push in the Arab sector, polls are showing that the Likud could pick up two seats there, and two seats could make a huge difference – as the previous three elections have shown – in the coalition-building math.
Yousef Makladeh, who heads the Daliat al-Carmel-based Statnet Institute, which conducts polls in the Arab sector, in October said his polls were showing that with two seats, the Likud could become the second-largest party among Israeli Arabs. In the elections in March, the Likud won only about one-third of a seat, or just over 12,000 votes, as did Labor-Gesher-Meretz, while Blue and White won one of its 33 seats in this sector.
And that was before Netanyahu’s highly publicized relationship with MK Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am faction, one of the four parties – the Islamist one – that makes up the Arab Joint List.
Netanyahu’s political jockeying with Abbas broke the taboo that the Likud would never rely on the Joint List to create or prop up the government (granted, Ra’am is just on the party’s factions), and Abbas’s unabashed political footsie with Netanyahu made it clear in the Arab sector that dealing with the Likud was no longer beyond the Pale.
In an interview last month, Abbas said he would not rule out sitting in a government led by Netanyahu, and that the Left has not delivered for the Arab sector. While Netanyahu’s dealing with Abbas gave a stamp of approval to work with the Arab parties to form a coalition, Abbas’s working with Netanyahu gave a stamp of approval for Arabs to cooperate with the Likud.
And this is the latest link in a chain triggered by the peace accord with the United Arab Emirates: If the UAE could deal with Netanyahu, Mansour reasoned, so could his faction, and if Ra’am can consider sitting with the Likud, then Arab-Israelis could consider voting for it.
Those Arabs who voted last time for Blue and White, according to Makladeh, were disenchanted with the Israeli Center-Left because of Blue and White’s decision to form a coalition with Netanyahu, even though they said they would not. There was a feeling among those who voted for Blue and White that since it went into a coalition with Netanyahu anyway, they should just cut out the middleman, vote for Netanyahu directly and then perhaps get something in return, Makladeh said.
And there is definitely something to that logic. Is the Arab sector – not the Palestinian cause, but rather the Israeli-Arab sector – better served in terms of attention and focus by being inside the frameworks of power or always left outside them, partly because of their own political choices?
The agreements with the Arab countries have also opened up opportunities for the Likud to drive a wedge between Arabs who stand to benefit from the agreements and the Joint List, which voted against them in the Knesset.
Polls have shown that the Joint List’s vote against the accords was out of step with the will of its constituency, which strongly favored the accords. A Tel Aviv University poll in December found that 62% of Israeli Arabs supported them.
The Israeli-Arab public has made clear that it is in favor of the accord because it brings them economic benefits. More trade with the UAE, more UAE investors coming to Israel, and Israeli companies going to the UAE, means more opportunities for Israeli Arabs who will be seen as the logical middlemen.
Netanyahu is well aware of the attraction the accords have for Israeli Arabs. In his appearance at Umm el-Fahm, he said being able to travel to Dubai was one of the reasons to take the vaccine.
“It is important to me that the Arab public get vaccinated quickly,” he said. “This saves lives. When we reach a critical mass of vaccinations, it will be possible to open businesses, stores, restaurants, do business and tour in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. All that is possible.”
The Abraham Accords are something Netanyahu will stress in his pitch to the Arab street because the accords enjoy popularity there. His pitch may only resonate with a minority, but if that minority accounts for two seats, then it is definitely worth his while.