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On Israeli election day, Netanyahu warns of Arabs voting ‘in droves’

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, casts his ballot in Haifa, Israel, accompanied by his family on Tuesday, March 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new government, and the country's incumbent leader was very worried.

Over the past few months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw what some assumed would be a comfortable reelection morph into a tightly contested race. In the final days ahead of the vote, Netanyahu's rhetoric grew increasingly hawkish, even for his standards. On Monday, he declared there would be no independent Palestinian state under his watch. And on Tuesday, as Israelis cast their ballots, he sounded the alarm about who was voting.

"The right-wing government is in danger," Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post. "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out."

Netanyahu then made his appeal on behalf of his rightist Likud party, which is trailing the Zionist Union, led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog:  "Get out to vote, bring your friends and family, vote Likud in order to close the gap between us and Labor."

Some 20 percent of eligible voters in Israel are Palestinians, also referred to as Israeli Arabs. In recent elections, many have opted to boycott the polls in protest of the Israeli political status quo and the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. But this year, a coalition of Arab parties opted to run on a joint ticket and stands to become the third-largest bloc in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament.

It's a bit unclear how the seats won by the Joint List, as the alliance of Arab parties is called, will play into the calculations of a future Israeli coalition government -- they will not partner either with a Herzog or Netanyahu government. Ultimately, a large number of Arab-held seats would worsen Netanyahu's chances of building a majority.

It's also unclear whether Netnayahu's claims on Tuesday morning about a surge in Arab voters was even true. Some observers suggested that Arab voting trends this year were consistent with previous elections.

Whatever the case, it's startling when a sitting prime minister laments high voter turnout, and another sign of Netanyahu's desperation. Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's foreign minister and the head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, echoed the fears of his boss in a tweet, saying, "Netanyahu also knows that if the Arabs are voting in droves, only a strong Lieberman can stop them." Lieberman, known for his strident anti-Arab rhetoric, said last week that "disloyal" Israeli Arabs should be beheaded.

Critics on social media condemned the Israeli prime minister's racial scare tactics, which spawned a few satirical memes.

Netanayhu "is inciting against Arab voters who are taking advantage of their natural and democratic right as citizens," said Israeli Arab politician Ahmed Tibi. "Netanyahu and Likud are afraid, and therefore, I call on more and more of the Arab public to go to the polls so Netanyahu will continue panicking. Change is coming."

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