“Bibi or Tibi” is the election slogan hammered home at nearly every opportunity on the campaign trail by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Rhyming, pithy and playing on Netanyahu’s nickname, the slogan targeting Arab politician Ahmad Tibi seems a puzzling choice for a right-wing leader whose main rival in Monday’s election is not Tibi but Benny Gantz, leader of the center-left Blue and White party.
But Israeli political analysts say there is a method to Netanyahu’s tactics in an election that opinion polls suggest could be as close as two inconclusive ballots last year that failed to produce a governing coalition.
They say that by framing the election as a choice between himself and an Arab-Israeli parliamentarian to whom Gantz might have to look for support during coalition talks, Netanyahu hopes to fire up his right-wing base, many of whom believe Tibi and some of his colleagues are supporters of Israel’s enemies.
“Gantz cannot create a government without Ahmad Tibi, this is the secret of these elections,” Netanyahu told a rally in Or Yehuda on Feb. 13.
“Ahmad Tibi says don’t operate in Gaza, Gantz will not be able to operate in Gaza,” he said. “Ahmad Tibi will tell him not to operate against Iran in Syria, Gantz will not be able to operate.”
And for those Israelis who have tuned out the campaign chatter, Netanyahu’s Likud party has driven the message home with posters showing a caricatured Gantz riding on Tibi’s back.
The tactic forced Gantz to deny that a government led by his party would rely on the Joint List, an Arab coalition which currently has 13 Knesset members, making it the third-largest party in the country.
Tibi, a physician, says Likud’s “obsession” with him “can be diagnosed as Tibi-phobia.”
“He is focusing on Ahmad Tibi, Ahmad the Arab, trying to incite his (right-wing) base, Jewish base, saying: ‘Look, the Arabs are controlling the government,'” Tibi, 61, told Reuters at his East Yerushalayim home.
Israel’s Arab minority has long accused Netanyahu, in power from 1996-1999 and since 2009, of fear-mongering. On election day in 2015 Netanyahu urged his voters to turn out, warning that Arabs were flocking to the polls “in droves.”
In April last year, Likud sent monitors equipped with body cameras to polling stations in Arab towns on election day, prompting allegations of voter intimidation.
“Benjamin Netanyahu’s election strategy is to use the Ahmad Tibi icon as a red alert to his voters,” said Arik Rudnitzky, a researcher with the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“The idea is to signal to those Likud voters who stayed home last time that if you don’t go out and vote this time, well, this is going to be the (result),” Rudnitzky said.
Netanyahu has denied allegations that he is anti-Arab, and cites his government’s 15 billion shekel ($4.37 billion) investment program to improve social services in Arab communities is more than any government has ever invested in them.
However, Tibi believes that Netanyahu’s rhetoric will prove counterproductive on election day, adding to the 13 seats the Joint List has now in the 120-member parliament.
“These attacks are pushing our voters, our supporters, to go and vote,” he said. “This is the side effect of this campaign.”