Argument

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How Netanyahu Learned to Love Israeli Arab Parties

The prime minister who once presented Arab citizens and political leaders as a threat has legitimized them as potential coalition partners.

By , the president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.  
A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag near an electoral billboard for the predominantly Arab Israeli electoral alliance, the Joint List, depicting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption reading in Arabic "whom is he fooling?" in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel on March 12.
A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag near an electoral billboard for the predominantly Arab Israeli electoral alliance, the Joint List, depicting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption reading in Arabic "whom is he fooling?" in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel on March 12. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

This past December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to pass a budget during an unprecedented economic crisis, thus dissolving his country’s short-lived unity government and setting up the fourth national election in two years.

Initially, Netanyahu was expected to rely on the three key elements that have driven his electoral success since 1996: an unshakable alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, a fierce determination to crush any potential successor or political rival, and a consistent bid to delegitimize any political partnership that relies on the support of Arab parties.

Over the course of the latest campaign that concluded in March, Netanyahu switched tactics and conducted an open bid to gain support from Arab Israelis. His reason for this about-face was simple: He believed the legitimization of Arab politicians had become critical to his political survival.

This past December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to pass a budget during an unprecedented economic crisis, thus dissolving his country’s short-lived unity government and setting up the fourth national election in two years.

Initially, Netanyahu was expected to rely on the three key elements that have driven his electoral success since 1996: an unshakable alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, a fierce determination to crush any potential successor or political rival, and a consistent bid to delegitimize any political partnership that relies on the support of Arab parties.

Over the course of the latest campaign that concluded in March, Netanyahu switched tactics and conducted an open bid to gain support from Arab Israelis. His reason for this about-face was simple: He believed the legitimization of Arab politicians had become critical to his political survival.

Ironically, Netanyahu’s success in accomplishing this latest goal has not only challenged the existing conventions of Israeli politics by turning the Arab parties into parliamentary kingmakers but perhaps also legitimized a potential center-left governing coalition that could eventually oust him from the Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, already in the next few weeks Israel could see a governing coalition voted into office with the support of parties ranging from those to the right of Netanyahu to the far-left and Arab-supported faction.

Once he decided on elections, Netanyahu pulled out his old playbook. First, he made sure that his allies on the more extreme right and in the ultra-Orthodox parties would remain loyal to him throughout his legal travails. He has lavished patronage and budgets on their voters, disregarded their defiance of public health regulations amid soaring COVID-19 infection rates, and recruited them in a joint campaign against the institutions of law and order, which they also distrust. This ensured that they remained by his side after the March elections as well.

At the same time, Netanyahu has continued to display his uncanny ability to dismantle rival political parties through a variety of parliamentary maneuvers, political patronage, and his powers of persuasion. Over the past decade alone, Netanyahu has succeeded in disassembling the Labor party, the Kadima party and—in the latest Knesset—Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. All of these parties were at one time considered viable contenders for leadership and all are now shadows of their former selves or have ceased to exist completely.


In this most recent election, Netanyahu identified a new political threat. Over the course of the previous three rounds of elections in 2019-2020, voter participation among Arab Israelis rose from 49 percent to approximately 65 percent—steadily increasing and moving closer to the estimated 73 percent turnout among Jewish Israelis.

More significantly, following the September 2019 and March 2020 elections, the Arab Israelis’ party—the Joint List—officially recommended Gantz as their candidate for prime minister to President Reuven Rivlin. These were the first two times an Arab-supported party did not remain neutral and instead made a recommendation to the president. Then, in the coalition negotiations that followed, the Joint List was seriously considered to be a partner in forming a Gantz-led center-left government.

Netanyahu has long stigmatized the Arab parties in a way that intimidated most center-left parties into disavowing even the possibility of political cooperation with them.

At the time, Netanyahu successfully defused this threat by painting the Arab parties as extremists and fellow travelers with terrorists. This was a continuation of the strategy that has served him well since the infamous “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” campaign in 1996, when he insinuated that Arab support for his rivals was illegitimate, and most famously in 2015, when he galvanized his supporters by warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.”

Over the years, he has stigmatized the Arab parties in a way that intimidated most representatives of the center-left parties into disavowing even the possibility of political cooperation with Arab parties, as they last did by supporting the coalition without joining the government during the administration of Yitzhak Rabin. This saddled the opposition bloc with a built-in handicap in the race to 61 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament. After a few months of contemplating the idea of Joint List support in order to win the premiership, Gantz abandoned his potential partnership with the Arab parties and joined forces with Netanyahu instead, leading to the ill-fated unity government that prompted the most recent election.

This time, faced with a shrinking number of Zionist party leaders who would pledge to support his most radical plans to stay in power despite his legal troubles—including former allies on the right like Gideon Saar—Netanyahu changed his tactics and turned his attention to Israel’s Arab voters and particularly to the Islamist Raam (United Arab List) faction within the Joint List. This relationship was especially surprising as the ultraconservative Raam is loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement known for its extremist ideology throughout the Middle East.

Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu made appearances at Knesset committees chaired by Raam, visited Arab localities, and promised budgets for alleviating crime and violence in their communities. In return, the members of Knesset loyal to Raam did not vote with the rest of the Joint List party on a number of parliamentary maneuvers that were advantageous to Netanyahu before the last Knesset was dissolved in December.

Netanyahu’s efforts were successful in two key areas. For a start, he convinced Mansour Abbas, Raam’s chair, to run independently from the other Arab parties, and then—to the surprise of many pollsters—the Islamist party succeeded in passing the electoral threshold and won four seats in the current Knesset. At the same time, Netanyahu’s campaign to convince Arab voters that he was no more dangerous than other Jewish politicians, coupled with the disarray among the Arab parties, succeeded in suppressing the vote and resulted in turnout plummeting, with only about 45 percent turning out in Arab municipalities, compared to roughly 65 percent in the March 2020 elections.

Initially, it appeared that Netanyahu had achieved both of his goals. First of all, Arab representation in the latest Knesset dropped from 15 seats to just 10. And four of these seats belong to Raam, which has publicly expressed its willingness to cooperate with any coalition government—including one led by Netanyahu as he continues his corruption trial—as long as their budgetary demands are met and government focus is placed on the issues important to them.


Netanyahu’s actions, however, may have unintended consequences. The path to Arab political legitimacy, which began with coalition negotiations with Gantz, has now been completed by Netanyahu himself. His meetings with Raam Knesset members, campaign stops in Arab towns, and statements about his willingness to cooperate with the Islamist party have changed public opinion among Jewish Israelis and paved the way for all parties to intensify their cooperation with Arab political leaders.

In February 2020, only 38 percent of self-identified Jewish centrists supported parliamentary cooperation with Arab parties to prevent another round of elections. Now, 55 percent of them do. Among Jewish Israelis on the right, 34 percent now say they support such cooperation, while only 10 percent said they were in favor back in February 2020.

The path to Arab political legitimacy, which began with coalition negotiations with Gantz, has now been completed by Netanyahu himself.

It is therefore no surprise that centrist leader Yair Lapid recently released official photographs of his coalition negotiations with the leaders of the Joint List and Raam. At the same time, Netanyahu’s Likud party negotiated a deal giving the Raam party a deputy speaker of the Knesset position and the chairmanship of a parliamentary committee. Even Naftali Bennett, once considered the leader of the settler far-right and now himself a potential kingmaker and possible rotating prime minister, recently met with Abbas for the first time and then released a joint statement with an official readout of their meeting. While these may seem like small steps to those outside of Israel, they were inconceivable just a few months ago.

The immediate ramifications of Netanyahu’s shift are unclear. He has so far failed to form a coalition, but he could still do so by forging some sort of cooperation with Raam and the religious right. On the other hand, Bennett could now join forces with Lapid and the parties on the left, and either the Joint List or Raam. There is also still the chance that after these negotiations, all efforts will fail and Israel will head to a fifth round of elections.

But no matter the immediate outcome, a dramatic change is occurring in Israel that will likely be impossible to reverse: A broad consensus is emerging regarding the legitimacy of Arab Israelis throughout the political system. That means 10 to 20 Knesset seats once considered off-limits are now fair game in future coalitions. This phenomenon will only increase as awareness of their newfound political power drives up voter participation among Arab Israelis.

In the end, when historians assess his complicated legacy, Netanyahu might one day assume the somewhat surprising mantle of the great legitimizer of Arab political power in Israel.

Yohanan Plesner is the president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. He previously served as a member of the Knesset from the Kadima Party from 2007 to 2013. Twitter: @IDIisrael

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