What can explain Netanyahu's sudden concern for Arabs?

Bibi’s too busy with MK Mansour Abbas to phone Joe Biden.

MK MANSOUR ABBAS (middle front) and members of the Arab Joint List vote  in December to dissolve the Knesset. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
MK MANSOUR ABBAS (middle front) and members of the Arab Joint List vote in December to dissolve the Knesset.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Where once Benjamin Netanyahu had Donald Trump to make deals with, today Israel’s prime minister is busying himself currying favor with Knesset member Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Ra’am Party, which forms part of the Joint List alliance of Arab parties. In fact, Netanyahu is so busy with Abbas, he hasn’t even had the time to pick up the phone to Joe Biden and personally congratulate the president-elect of the United States.
Prime ministers rarely attend lowly Knesset committee meetings. And yet last week, the prime minister cleared his packed schedule so he could participate in a meeting chaired by Abbas on the topic of violence in Arab society. To put this into perspective, the last time Netanyahu turned up for a Knesset discussion on combating violence in Arab communities was in 2012.
The prime minister’s appearance at the meeting is of course welcome. Violence in Israel’s Arab communities is a matter of huge concern: The homicide rate among Israel’s Arab population is eight times higher than in the Jewish sector, according to a report published this summer. Moreover, Netanyahu didn’t just play a passive role in the meeting; he told the committee he intended to bring a proposal to fight organized crime and violence in the Arab sector for government approval in the very near future.
This is not the only move the prime minister has made recently to improve the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens. At the end of last month, the government surprisingly extended by a year a multi-billion shekel program to close the extensive gaps between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. The program – called the 922 plan – was set to expire in December, with more than a third of its funds still unused.
So what’s going on?
Why, in the midst of coronavirus, the lack of a state budget for 2021, and the loss of the prime minister’s best friend ever in the White House, is Netanyahu suddenly concentrating on issues that are of little interest to the majority of his voters? Was it just coincidence that the government’s decision to extend the 922 plan came only days after Abbas, in his role as deputy Knesset Speaker, jumped to the Likud’s defense during the Knesset fracas over the nullified vote for a committee of inquiry into the submarine affair, which involves several of Netanyahu’s closest associates?
The answer is a clear no. Netanyahu and Abbas seem to be cooking up a deal in which the government will pour its largesse into Israel’s Arab community in return for Abbas and his faction supporting Netanyahu’s only real objective as a prime minister: legislation to protect him from criminal proceedings. As Abbas told Channel 12 News at the end of last week: “If I get funds and [beneficial] legislation, I don’t mind giving Netanyahu what’s needed.”
Not surprisingly, Abbas has come under severe criticism from his Joint List colleagues for this cozying up to the prime minister. Given Netanyahu’s past history of labeling the Joint List supporters of terror, his government’s passing of the Nation-State Law, which Israel’s Arab citizens view as officially turning them into second-class citizens, and his infamous racist dog whistle in the 2015 election regarding Arab voters turning out “in droves” to vote, active cooperation with the prime minister is viewed as beyond the pale by much of the Arab sector.
Abbas takes a different view. He sees his role as bringing what he termed in a Facebook post as a pragmatic new political style. “I truly believe,” he wrote, “that if we want to bring about real, tangible change for our community, we have to become influential in decision-making.”
Abbas is right to want to make a difference and bring benefits to his community, and Israel’s Jewish sector should not make the mistake of lumping the different parties that make up the Joint List as one single unit. There are huge differences between the progressive Hadash Party, the stringently Palestinian nationalist Balad movement and the conservative, Islamic Ra’am faction. Their coming together as the Joint List is purely a marriage of convenience to ensure as large as possible representation inside the Knesset for Israel’s Arab voters.
And Netanyahu is well aware of this. No one is the prime minister’s equal in terms of inciting different segments of Israeli society against one another. In his decades as a political leader he has sown division between Left and Right, Jew and Arab, religious and secular and between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. And all in the name of securing his grip on the levers of power.
Now Netanyahu is looking to splinter Abbas away from the other Arab parties to escape the wheels of justice. But before Abbas decides to take the final plunge and come to the prime minister’s aid, perhaps he should have a word with Benny Gantz and ask him how his deal has gone with the prime minister.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.