Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has spent much of his long career casting Israel’s Arab minority as a potential fifth column led by terrorist sympathizers, is now openly courting their support as he seeks reelection in the country’s fourth vote in less than two years.
Few Arabs are likely to heed his call, underscoring the desperation of Netanyahu’s political somersault. But the relative absence of incitement against the community in this campaign and the potential breakup of an Arab party alliance could dampen turnout — to Netanyahu’s advantage. He might even pick up just enough votes to swing a tight election.
Israel’s Joint List is meanwhile showing signs of breaking up. Mansour Abbas, the head of an Islamist party within Joint List, has expressed openness in recent months to working with Netanyahu to address issues like housing and law enforcement. An aide to Abbas declined requests for an interview.
A full-scale breakup of the Joint List could further reduce turnout and potentially leave one or more of its four parties with too little support to cross the electoral threshold.
Thabet Abu Rass, the co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, which works to promote equality among Jews and Arabs, says Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s current overtures to Arab voters may attract a small number, but that far more of them would simply boycott the election.
“They are waiting to see if there is going to be a Joint List or not, and if you ask me, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “There are a lot of deep differences this time.”
A poll carried out in December forecast Arab turnout at around 55%, far lower than the 65% seen last March.
Although Arab parties have historically performed worse on their own, some feel the parties might be more effective individually. In Israel’s political system — which requires would-be prime ministers to assemble majority coalitions — small parties often wield outsized influence.
“When we speak about the Palestinian community in Israel, we don’t speak about one bloc, we have different ideologies,” said Nijmeh Ali, a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, an international Palestinian think tank. “Sometimes you need to break up in order to gain power.”
Netanyahu appears to be focused on the margins ahead of a tight race that could determine not only whether he remains in office, but whether he secures immunity from prosecution on multiple corruption charges. With only a few seats, a pragmatic politician like Abbas could determine Netanyahu’s fate.
“This is the new thing in Arab politics,” said Arik Rudnitzky, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “They are ready to hold direct negotiations with Likud.”
He said it doesn’t mean they will be part of a governing coalition, but they could offer outside support to secure benefits for the Arab public. “It might be a win-win situation,” he said.