Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a lot more than his job to lose in Israel’s upcoming March 23 election, its fourth in less than two years.
If he falls from his perch as Israel’s longest-serving leader, Netanyahu would have to face the prosecutors at his corruption trial as an average citizen. So he is hoping that Israel’s world-leading speed in vaccinating its citizens against Covid-19 will help give him enough votes to create the stable coalition government that has eluded him in the last three rounds of balloting.
And Netanyahu, known by supporters as Bibi the Magician, is courting a new voting bloc — Israeli Arab citizens.
“A new era begins today, of prosperity, integration and security,” Netanyahu said in a recent speech in the Arab city of Nazareth. “If Jews and Arabs can dance together in the streets of Dubai,” he added, referencing the Abraham Accords Israel has recently signed normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries, “they can dance together here in Israel.”
Given Netanyahu’s race-baiting rhetoric in prior campaigns and controversial policies prioritizing Israel’s Jewishness, many observers are skeptical. In recent interviews with liberal Zionists, both in the United States and Israel, assessments ranged from “cynical ploy” to “positive development.”
Over the past few months, Netanyahu has struck up an alliance with Mansour Abbas, the Arab-Israeli member of Knesset who heads the United Arab List. Analysts see this as an effort to drive a wedge among the 15 Arab members so that they do not leverage their power in an effort to oust him — and to maximize the share of the Arab community’s vote for the Likud.
In recent days, the Netanyahu-Abbas alliance seems to have achieved part of the goal. On Thursday, the four factions that had made up the so-called Joint List announced they were breaking up, increasing the odds that Arab representation in the next Knesset will significantly be reduced.
At the same time, the prime minister has increased his pace of voter outreach, using the vaccination drive as an opportunity to travel to Arab villages. Recent polls show Netanyahu’s Likud Party projected to win an average of 30 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, including one or two based on Arab votes. On Thursday, following a visit to the Bedouin town of Ar’ara in the Negev, Netanyahu told reporters that Arab voters disappointed in their leaders now have an opportunity to vote for his party.
It is a striking turnaround from 2015, when Netanyahu’s election-day call on Likudniks to head to the polls to counter Arab voters that he said were turning out “in droves” led to a rebuke from the Obama administration and widespread criticism from mainstream American Jewish groups.
Some liberal Zionists who were outraged by that incitement and have been critical of Netanyahu’s treatment of Arabs citizens, including in his advocacy of the nation-state law that emphasizes Israel’s Jewishness, said this creates an opening for more dialogue.
“The Jewish tradition believes that people can make mistakes and can change,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in an interview this week. “That’s a critical part of anyone’s leadership.”
But Jacobs said Netanyahu would have to show he is sincere by changing his government’s policies towards the Arab minority, including repealing the controversial nation state law, which demoted Arabic to a status below Hebrew and enshrined residential segregation, among other things. “If it’s simply a point for an election, it will backfire in a very profound way because one can’t make a shift like this only out of a political calculation,” he said.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles echoed those sentiments, saying that the statements are “important and overdue” and he believes Netanyahu “means it.” Wolpe said he’s hopeful that it “opens an avenue for exploration” for what implications it will have on the government’s policy.
Others are not as convinced that Netanyahu has turned the page.
Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, a think tank, said he has no doubt that this is “a self-interested attempt to add a couple of seats to the Likud” in the upcoming election. “It beggars belief,” he said, “that after years of delegitimizing Arab voters and the parties for which they vote and after making the nation-state law a central campaign issue, that suddenly Netanyahu wants to open the door to Arab citizens in a full way.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a visiting professor in Israel studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., agreed. “I don’t think anybody that follows Israeli politics closely would see this as anything other than an extremely cynical ploy to try to siphon votes away from other parties that have been doing a better job of representing the Arab Israeli community,” she said.
Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public-opinion analyst who worked for the Joint List in last year’s March 2 election, said the test of “whether this is anything more than a cynical move” is to look at Netanyahu’s record and what he will do after the elections.
“There’s endless stuff that he’s done,” she said, referring to legislation that targeted Arab communities, “or what figures within the government under his leadership have said rhetorically to demonize the Arab community and to demonize their leaders in ways that are well beyond legitimate political criticism.”
And Matt Nosanchuk, president of the progressive advocacy group New York Jewish Agenda, said for American Jews “Netanyahu’s actions speak louder than words.” Nosanchuk, who served as the White House Jewish Liaison under President Barack Obama, stressed that if Netanyahu “actually believed in Arab rights, he’d revoke the nation-state law and promote a two-state solution.”
Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli columnist contested that notion. He said that liberal Zionists might “be surprised to learn” that beyond symbolic gestures, Netanyahu’s government “did advance Arab society” by increasing spending and economic-development programs in their communities more than previous Israeli leaders.
Rosner compared Netanyahu to the “ Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” character, saying that the prime minister has used “one hand for positive advancement of Arabs, while the other — or more accurately, the mouth — is used to annoy them with unnecessary words.” Sometimes, he added, “political ploys prompt positive outcomes.”
Scheindlin, who is now co-host of the Haaretz Election Overdose podcast, suggested that Netanyahu as “a classic populist” will always seek to target some enemies, whether it’s internal or external, to drive his base to the polls. “It’s hard to imagine him not being internally divisive,” she said. “It just means he will find somebody else as the target.”