Will Arab Voters Give Netanyahu the Victory?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech in Nazareth and his courtship of Israeli Arabs’ votes constitute a tremendous strategic change for him.
Only six years ago, in the 2015 elections, Netanyahu cynically used condemnation of the high turnout in the Arab sector (“the Arab voters flock to the polls”) to encourage right-wing voters to vote for Likud.
Yet his fear of an election defeat has led Netanyahu to change direction drastically. At present, Netanyahu understands that his chances of gaining a majority of 61 MKs with his natural right-wing partners (Shas, United Torah Judaism, Bennett’s Yamina, and Smotrich’s Religious Zionists) are not high. Therefore, in order to secure a coalition majority for the continuation of his rule, Netanyahu is trying to turn to other sectors. And of course, Netanyahu will do everything in his power to secure an immunity law for himself, even if it involves a flattery campaign for the Arab public.
Netanyahu is not popular in the Arab sector. In fact, the situation is just the opposite.
In the 2020 elections, Likud won only 2% of Arab votes (which is equivalent to barely one-third of a Knesset seat), a figure that illustrates the magnitude of animosity toward Netanyahu among Israeli Arabs.
However, despite the ideological gap between Netanyahu and the Arab sector, history has shown that right-wing parties have already received quite a few votes from Israeli Arabs.
For example, in the 1992 election, the Likud Party, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, won 9% of Arab voters, which was then equivalent to one Knesset seat. This was the same Yitzhak Shamir who vehemently opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state. Shamir’s case illustrates that it is possible for Netanyahu to improve his vote totals with the Arab population.
In addition, the mobilization of Mayor Ali Salam of Nazareth, the largest city in the Arab sector, alongside Netanyahu is not just a media gimmick.
Salam, who has in the past challenged Knesset members of the majority-Arab Joint List party and accused them of not pursuing Arab-Jewish coexistence, symbolizes the winds of change among a significant portion of Israeli Arabs.
Placing Salam high on the Likud list for the Knesset would constitute a real statement of intent by Netanyahu, a move that in a certain situation may lead to a shift in the Arab sector’s attitude toward him and the Likud.
Whether Salam will eventually join Netanyahu and the Likud is still a mystery. It is not inconceivable that Salam will eventually prefer to refrain from demonstratively acting against the majority of the Arab public. But there is no doubt that there are quite a few voices among Israeli Arabs calling for a change of course.
Criticism of the Joint List is accelerating, and the peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco constitute a major crack in the wall of hostility between Israeli Arabs and Netanyahu.
The Arab public is well aware of the fact that that the way to change their lives passes through the various government ministries and the ruling party; not through sitting on the opposition benches and endless preoccupation with the Palestinian question. Thus, Netanyahu’s latest political move may prove to be the one that brings him victory in the upcoming elections.
In conclusion, Netanyahu’s relative success in the Arab sector in the 2021 elections is not a delusional forecast.
Assuming that the turnout in the Arab sector will be the same as in the 2020 elections (65%), one seat in the Knesset is equal to roughly 6% of Arab votes. Hence, in order to obtain two seats, Netanyahu and the Likud must win 12% support among Arab voters. And Netanyahu may not need more than that to secure a majority of 61 Knesset members.
It will certainly be a difficult task to win two seats from the Arab public, but not an impossible one. Israeli Arabs “forgave” Yitzhak Rabin, the defense minister in the first intifada who cracked down harshly on Palestinian rioters, and gave the Labor party around 20% of their vote in the 1992 elections. If the latter won 20%, why would Netanyahu not be able to win at least half the amount?
Ori Wertman is a PhD candidate at the University of South Wales, UK and an Adjunct Researcher at the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, Israel. He was a foreign affairs and political adviser to former Labor party chairman Isaac Herzog, deputy chairman of the Labor Party Youth, and a candidate on the Labor Knesset list.