Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing his fourth re-election battle in two years, is courting Arab Israelis.
“A new era begins today,” Netanyahu said during a visit this month to Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city.
Netanyahu, threatened by a damaging split in his Likud party, has made several stops in a game-changing charm offensive toward Arab voters.
At a vaccination center in Umm al-Fahm on Jan. 1, he highlighted Israel’s rapid inoculation program amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while in Nazareth he promised investment and anti-crime initiatives, and apologized for potentially offensive past remarks.
Arab Israelis — usually Palestinians who stayed on their land following the Jewish state’s creation in 1948, and their descendants — make up about 20 percent of the country’s roughly 9 million people.
The community’s growing political importance was evident in the last vote, in March last year, when the mainly Arab Joint List alliance won an unprecedented 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset, forming a key part of the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
Netanyahu has on several occasions in the past few years called some Arab Israelis and their political leaders terrorism supporters and enemies of the state.
Experts described his new pitch to Arabs as a nuanced political maneuver aimed at boosting his own support, while also sowing enough political chaos to discourage some Arabs from voting, thereby trimming the influence of his Arab rivals.
Netanyahu is seeking to “win Arab votes, but especially wants to weaken the Joint List,” Tel Aviv University political science professor Jamal Amal told reporters.
Among Netanyahu’s record of anti-Arab rhetoric, a statement from Israel’s 2015 election stands out.
In a polling-day bid to energize supporters, he warned that Arab Israelis were voting “in droves” and suggested that left-wing groups had bussed Arab citizens to polling stations.
Then-US president Barack Obama accused Netanyahu of portraying Arab Israelis as “an invading force.”
Arabs have long complained of discrimination by Israeli police and say that their plight has worsened since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009.
The Israeli Nation-State law passed in 2018, which declared Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people,” was widely perceived as legally downgrading Arabs as lesser citizens.
Despite that record, Netanyahu has often argued that his governments have invested heavily in minority communities and “done more for Arabs than any other government.”
While some protesters in Nazareth attempted to shout Netanyahu down, he secured an endorsement from the city’s mayor, Ali Salam.
Netanyahu, known as the great survivor of Israeli politics, faces the daunting challenge of securing a 61-seat Knesset majority in Israel’s March 23 election.
Multiple recent polls suggest that Likud defector Gideon Saar, who has formed his own New Hope party, could peel a substantial number of seats away from Netanyahu.
Saar has categorically ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government.
The pledge, if true, could deliver a hammer blow to the prime minister, who failed to secure a majority in three elections since April 2019 when Likud was united behind him.
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