JERUSALEM (VINnews) — On the 17th of March 2015, the day of the elections to Israel’s 20th Knesset (soon to be followed by the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and who knows how many more in the near future…), Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a video exhorting his followers to go and vote. The prime minister adopted the most effective scare tactic by stating that “the Arabs are flocking to the polling booths” in a reference to Israeli Arabs voting for left-wing or anti-Zionist parties. He added that V15, an ad-hoc group funded by left-wing funds abroad in an attempt to topple the right-wing, was providing transportation for the Arabs to the voting booths.
Netanyahu’s tactic, which later became known as a “gevalt campaign”, worked wonders at the time, but would come back to haunt him in all of the ensuing election campaigns. Despite polls predicting a majority for Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog, Netanyahu handily defeated him, garnering 30 mandates for the Likud and setting up a government which lasted a full four years- an eternity in Israeli politics.
What Netanyahu did not take into account was the bruised ego of the Arab sector and their subsequent reaction. Had he said that the left were flocking to the polls he wouldn’t have hurt anyone and might well have won the election with the same results. However targeting the Arabs and implying that their votes are less legitimate than the rest of the country smacked of racism and Netanyahu was blasted both in Israel and abroad. The New York Times published an editorial stating that Netanyahu had referred to Israeli Arabs as enemies and that such demagoguery would exacerbate existing tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, sent a public letter to Netanyahu calling on him to apologize to Israeli Arabs since his statement was not synonymous with government investment in the Arab sector.
Technically speaking, Israeli Arabs represent about one fifth of the electorate and could theoretically attain some 24 Knesset seats. However many have shunned previous elections out of lack of interest or due to their ideological differences with Israel, seeing themselves as more affiliated with the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. Thus the Arab representatives in the Knesset were usually within splinter parties and mustered only about 10 or 11 seats, with many Arabs voting for Meretz or other left-wing parties. Yet in the 2015 election they managed to form a joint list around Aymen Odeh, a charismatic Haifa lawyer who is credited for giving the Arab political union a more moderate, pragmatic face, and gained 13 seats.
In the April 2019 the Arab parties, disappointed that their extra seats had not translated into political achievements, split and this led to a drop in voter turnout. However in September’s election they managed once again to unite and to attain 13 seats. The politicians utilized their power to demand more police protection in the Arab sector, which has a disproportionately high rate of violence and crime. The massive government response helped Israeli Arabs realize that they had political power and could use it to promote their causes. Moreover in the interim Meretz joined up with Labor, leaving lone Arab MK Issawi Freij far down the list.
The Joint Arab list used this in the current election to drum up more support for their own list, which surprising also includes a (albeit radical left-wing) Jew. They also capitalized on opposition to the Trump plan which had the temerity to suggest that densely populated Arab regions be transferred to the Palestinian Authority. Stung by this betrayal of their status as Israeli Arabs, the entire sector galvanized to vote and thwart the plan, which is also part of Avigdor Liberman’s platform. Even moderate Arabs felt the need to express solidarity with their maligned sector and vote for the joint list despite its including radical elements like Hiba Yazbak, who expressed sympathy for convicted terrorists and barely succeeded in being allowed to contend in the election after a 5-4 Supreme Court decision which severely criticized her inflammatory statements.
Thus Netanyahu’s original statement in 2015 materialized in 2020, with some cities and villages reaching 80% voter turnout as opposed to the usual 50% or 60%. Even moderate Arabs felt the need to express solidarity with their maligned sector and ultimately they gained 575,000 votes, more than 100,000 more votes than the September election. The Joint Arab List attained 15 seats and were not far from a 16th seat but more importantly they prevented Netanyahu from reaching 60 seats which would have made it relatively simple for him to form a government. Now he is once again paralyzed and dependent on the slight chance that defectors will arrive from left-wing parties. He may well now rue his previous statement but the damage has been done and it remains to be seen whether the Arab sector will prove influential in future elections as well.