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In turnabout, Netanyahu courts Arab voters he once called a threat

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, visits a coronavirus vaccination site in the Arab Israeli village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem on March 9. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

AL-SAYYID, ISRAEL — In previous elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast Arab voters as a peril, warning they were "heading to the polling stations in droves." He threatened two years ago to mount cameras at the polls in Arab communities — a move critics said was meant to suppress turnout — and he has disparaged elected Arab politicians as "supporters of terrorism."

Now, as the country prepares for elections on Tuesday, Netanyahu is the one asking Arab Israelis to come out in droves — to vote for him.

In a turnabout, the prime minister, who is routinely slammed for stoking anger and suspicion toward Israel’s Arab population, is coming to towns like this dusty Bedouin village in the Negev Desert looking for support.

He is finding at least a few takers. Some Arabs, frustrated with their own politicians, say they are willing to bet that Netanyahu will repay their votes with more spending on police, roads and other infrastructure in their communities, some of Israel’s poorest.

“This time, I’m going for Bibi,” said Ibrahim al-Sayyid, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. Sayyid was one of the village elders who sat down earlier this month for cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee with Netanyahu when his campaign brought him to this village of stone houses and metal shacks flanking the highway.

“For decades, the Arab parties and the left parties have not helped us. This time, we need to go with the biggest, strongest party of them all,” said Sayyid, 54, who owns a security company.

Pollsters say Netanyahu’s campaign blitz may produce a boomlet of 50,000 or so votes for his Likud party. That represents just a fraction of Israel’s 1 million Arab voters, but it could be enough to add a seat, possibly even two, to Netanyahu’s total as he scrambles to assemble a slim parliamentary majority.

And it would be a significant spike over the 10,000 votes Likud received from Arabs in the last election a year ago.

“It would be a historic achievement,” said Yousef Makladeh, an Arab Israeli pollster focused on the Arab population, a fifth of Israel’s citizens.

Netanyahu’s Arab outreach comes as he is scouring the Israeli electorate for any vote that could help fend off a serious challenge from his right. In Israel’s fourth election in two years, two of his former Likud proteges, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar, lead parties that could drain votes from Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions.

Netanyahu is reaching beyond them to pluck from both ends of Israel’s political spectrum. He has offered a spot on his slate to Itamar Ben-Gvir, the head of the Jewish Power party and a former activist in a now-banned extremist party that advocated pushing Arabs out of Israel.

The prime minister has also been visiting Arab towns and villages, from the southern desert to the predominantly Arab “Triangle” region north of Tel Aviv. He made a point of repeatedly stopping at coronavirus inoculation centers in these communities to tout Israel’s rapid vaccine rollout.

He has promised to tackle the years-long spike in violent crime, which has seen at least two dozen murders in Arab communities so far this year. Last year, more than 90 percent of shootings in Israel occurred in Arab communities, which their leaders blame on a double standard in policing between Jewish neighborhoods and their own.

Netanyahu said he has been greeted at times with cries of “Abu Yair!,” an Arabic term of endearment referring to the name of his eldest son. This made him cry, he said.

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To political analysts, the pitch to Arab voters is vintage Netanyahu, an audacious reversal by a politician whose nimbleness has helped make him Israel’s longest-serving leader.

To opponents, it amounts to outrageous hypocrisy.

“The idea that this about-face is sincere is laughable,” said Diana Buttu, an Arab Israeli lawyer and former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization who is based in Haifa. “This is a man who breeds discrimination.”

Yousef Jabareen, an Arab Israeli member of parliament, said Arab voters are unlikely to forget the litany of “offensive” positions Netanyahu has taken as prime minister. He cited Netanyahu’s support for the 2018 “Nation-State” law, which many Arabs saw as relegating them and their language to second-class status. Jabareen also pointed to the prime minister’s support for an unsuccessful attempt to restrict the volume and frequency of Muslim calls to prayer and said building permits in Arab towns have been ruinously limited during Netanyahu’s tenure.

“This is the real Netanyahu that we all know,” he said. “ ‘Abu Yair’ will not be able to hide him.”

But the prime minister’s strategy has already disrupted Arab Israeli politics and in particular the Arab “Joint List,” a disparate collection of parties ranging from communists to Islamists that formed in 2015. The Joint List won a record 15 parliamentary seats in 2020, leading activists to hail a new age in Arab Israeli political engagement.

Now, the Joint List has split, with the Islamic Raam party breaking away after it was courted by Netanyahu. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, said he was willing to align with Netanyahu to gain influence for his supporters. His religiously based party had also objected to votes by some Joint List lawmakers for a 2020 bill that would outlaw “conversion therapy” for gay people.

This split could divide Arab votes and dilute the Joint List’s impact as part of the “anybody-but-Bibi” bloc, which may be more important to Netanyahu than actually winning Arab support for Likud.

Overtures from Likud are not new. The party has previously nursed relationships with sympathetic Arabs without making significant inroads in the wider Arab electorate.

This year feels different to Hussam Masri, who works as a liaison between Likud and Arab Israelis. In the past, he said he was treated as a pariah by those who said his fealty to Likud put him on the wrong side of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Most Arab Israelis are descended from families that remained in Israel after many Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes after it was created in 1948.) “People say I’m a betrayer of my people, and that’s not true,” Masri said. “This is my country, too.”

Masri said he has never seen such willingness by his neighbors to consider Netanyahu’s pitch. Most figure they don’t have anything to lose, he said.

“Under the left parties, we never got color TVs and modern cars,” Masri said. “Arabs have a good life in Israel.”

Sayyid, the Bedouin elder in the village that bears his tribe’s name, is among those who have never voted for Likud before. Like most of the 7,000 Bedouin Arabs here, almost all members of his extended family, he supported Arab parties in recent elections. But he said they didn’t deliver much to his village.

“They promised to help us and nothing happened,” Sayyid said in his open-air office, next to a grocery shop.

Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure, however, has seen the opening of two new schools in the area and an increase in the number of home construction projects, Sayyid said.

He said the prime minister’s past conduct — his ugly anti-Arab rhetoric, support for the Nation-State law and promise to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank — doesn’t matter as much as the pledge he made over coffee: that he would pay attention to Arab communities like his after the election.

“We know all politicians are liars,” he said. “He can lie all he wants if he deals with crime.”