Analysis: Will Arab-Israelis determine Netanyahu’s fate?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent effort to make the fear of Arab-Israelis a central part of his re-election campaign came under heavy attack from the country’s president this week.

Reuven Rivlin did not name the prime minister, but few would have been unaware of the target of his remarks made at a conference on Monday.

“There are no, and there will be no, second-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters,” the president said. “We are all equal in the voting booth. Jews and Arabs, citizens of the state of Israel.”

The president’s comments came amid rising criticism of Netanyahu’s tactics as he faces a tough battle to win re-election next month, with tightening polls following his indictment on corruption charges.

Arab-Israelis constitute 20 percent of Israel’s population and are seen as potentially critical to the outcome of the closely fought contest between Netanyahu and his centrist challenger Benny Gantz.

Utilising his nickname, Netanyahu has adopted “Bibi or Tibi” as a constant reprise in his campaign speeches. Ahmad Tibi is a well-known Arab-Israeli politician and the slogan refers to Netanyahu’s contention that Gantz would not be able to form a government without the support of the Arab parties in the Knesset.

“Until this week, I didn’t know that against my will I was a leading candidate for prime minister,” Tibi, whose wit has made him the most popular Arab member of the Knesset, responded, before accusing Netanyahu of “delegitimising the Arab parties, the Arab lawmakers and the Arab public in general”.

In 2015, 82 percent of Arab-Israelis voted for the Joint Arab List, a coalition of four parties which achieved a major breakthrough in the elections, becoming the third biggest grouping in the Israeli parliament. That coalition has since splintered, but Arab-Israeli politicians, neutral observers and Netanyahu all agree its successor parties could help determine who becomes Israel’s next prime minister.

While Netanyahu’s governments have invested record amounts in Arab communities in an attempt to close the socio-economic gap between Arab-Israeli and Jewish communities, the prime minister is accused of having played the race card in previous elections to shore up his right-wing base. In 2015, he caused anger by delivering a polling day message warning voters that Arab-Israelis were voting “in droves”. After pulling off a last-minute upset victory, Netanyahu apologised for the remark. Last year, he also backed the controversial nation-state law. It enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” but omitted a reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens akin to the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

This weekend, Netanyahu appeared to double-down on these tactics with remarks suggesting that Israel is “not a state of all its citizens” but only its Jewish citizens. At Sunday’s cabinet he reiterated his comments saying: “I would like to clarify a point that, apparently, is not clear to slightly confused people in the Israeli public. Israel is a Jewish, democratic state. What this means is that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone,” he declared. “Of course it respects the individual rights of all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

The Arab-Israeli vote comprises of four principal components. Slightly less than one-fifth of voters back one of the Jewish Zionist parties, several of which – including Labor and Likud – have Arab-Israeli MKs.

The other three elements, which came together in the Joint List in 2015, are Islamist, nationalist and socialist. Acrimony within the bloc has been growing over the past year – partly, it is believed, over places on the list for the forthcoming elections – and in January Tibi announced his Ta’al party was going it alone. Three months on, Tibi and Ayman Odeh’s socialist Hadash party will be running together, while the Islamist Ra’am and Arab nationalist Balad parties have formed an alliance. The latter, which has been polling poorly, was last week barred from running by the Central Elections Commission; a decision which is being appealed to the Supreme Court.

Hadash-Ta’al, however, looks set to win nine seats, according to the latest BICOM poll of polls thus placing it in a potentially pivotal position. There are fears, however, that Netanyahu’s rhetoric may lead some Arab-Israelis to simply boycott the elections altogether. Turnout – which once outstripped that of Jewish Israelis – stood at 64 percent at the 2015 election (against an overall figure of 72 percent) but surveys suggest it may drop to 56 percent.

Asked recently about Netanyahu’s “it’s Bibi or Tibi” slogan, Odeh (pictured) argued: “There is one man in the state of Israel who understands this equation better than I do. His name is Benjamin Netanyahu,” Odeh said. “Netanyahu was opposition leader in the early 1990s when [Yitzhak] Rabin was prime minister. Rabin built his government in 1992 thanks to an obstructive bloc created with the Arab parties. Thanks to the Arab population, Netanyahu had no majority in 1999. For him this isn’t theoretical; it’s existential. Delegitimising the Arab citizens is his political strategy.”

Odeh’s reference to the 1990s is crucial. In 1992, Arab-Israeli parties did not join Rabin’s government, but they provided a form of “confidence and supply”, providing the votes necessary in the Knesset to stop the minority administration losing a confidence vote. In 1999, Arab-Israelis helped Labor’s Ehud Barak defeat Netanyahu in an election where Israelis voted directly for prime minister.

Moreover, Hadash-Ta’al could also play an important role in helping Gantz to the premiership. After Israeli elections, each party in the Knesset is asked by the president to recommend who should serve as prime minister. The president then invites the individual whom most MKs have recommended to assemble a coalition. In 2015, the Joint List did not make a recommendation, thus weakening the position of Isaac Herzog, the Labor leader and Netanyahu’s principal challenger.

This time, however, Odeh is dropping heavy hints that he wants to oust Netanyahu and help Gantz into office. “Our main goal is to change the government in Israel,” he said recently. “This government has incited against the Arab citizens more than all previous governments put together. There’s no doubt about that.”

But the Arab-Israeli parties won’t give their support to Gantz without extracting a price and are aware of their possible power. “We’re only 20 percent of the Israeli population and can’t do it alone,” Odeh has argued, “but without us it would be impossible.”

Joel Braunold of the Alliance for Middle East Peace agrees: “There is no path to a centre-left government in Israel without some iteration of a coalition or a supply arrangement with the Arab bloc, something that the right has continued to make impossible in the current reality.”

Interviewed this week, Odeh laid out his bargaining terms. “We would be willing to recommend Gantz and Lapid to Rivlin to stop the formation of a right-wing government, but they need to show us they are willing to negotiate peace with the Palestinian leadership, support equality for all citizens including Arabs, increase budgets to the local authorities in Arab villages and cancel the nation-state law,” he argued.

Both Gantz and Lapid have suggested they want to “fix” – though not repeal – the nation-state law, while their centrist Blue and White alliance has consciously avoided questions about contentious question of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Polling shows that Arab-Israeli voters value pragmatism above ideology. According to the findings of the 2018 Israeli Democracy Index survey, the three most important qualities that Arab citizens expect from any public figure is the ability to get things done (39 percent), to keep promises to voters (33 percent), and incorruptibility (24 percent). By contrast, ideology is considered to be of negligible importance (cited by less than two percent of the respondents).

As Braunold has argued, Arab-Israelis could play a more fundamental role than simply helping to decide who serves as their country’s prime minister: “The Arab citizens of Israel could be the link between Israel and the Palestinians, able to sooth the fear and mistrust that decades of failure has generated. In order for them to be able to play that role however, they need to be respected and included.”