Netanyahu’s cynical play for ‘Arab’ voters

The Arab public knows… that Likud is their home,

said Miri Regev of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party this week in an interview with the Israeli Ynet.

Campaigning for the March 23 election in Israel, Regev elaborated:

We go to Israeli Arabs who know that the only ones taking care of them in the last 10 years are Likud. Who brought 15 billion Shekels, who brought police stations? The Arab public knows today, and there’s an awakening, that the Likud is their home. The one who brought four peace agreements is PM Netanyahu.

This might appear counter-intuitive for many – isn’t the Likud, the ruling party, a right-wing, ultra-Zionist party that is supposed to be the antithesis to Palestinians — whom Likudniks would naturally only call ’Arabs’?

Indeed, Likud is highly opposed to any sort of Palestinian nationalism or statehood. Its charter “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” Just to make that one clear geographically: Likud explicitly claims Jewish State ownership of the whole of historical Palestine including the West Bank and Gaza.

But all that is no antithesis for Likudniks in terms of courting the ‘Arab vote’, at least when it seems politically expedient to do so.

In 2015, Netanyahu famously warned on the eve of the elections, that Arabs are heading to vote “in droves”, in an attempt to increase turnout of his nationalist, anti-Palestinian voters. He later tried to turn it around, saying that it didn’t mean what people thought it meant. It meant exactly what it meant at the time, and it got him the vote.

Likud wants to have it both ways – incite against Palestinians, but also have their vote. And this is not a completely new idea. As the margins become narrow (Likud is polled to just possibly cross the 61-seat majority and make a right-wing government with the Kahanist Religious Zionism, religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism and Yamina – ‘rightwards’), then every individual vote that could possibly account for that extra seat is crucial.

A year ago, when Israel was heading towards the third of the forever-elections (the upcoming one is the fourth within two years), Kan reported that Likud was campaigning among the ‘Arab public’, seeking to separate between the Joint List, which represents most Palestinian Israeli citizens, and the “actual Arab public”:

The Likud will attempt to present its achievements which benefit the Arab sector, among which are budgets, collection of weapons, police stations and more. The main message – the Likud took care of the Arab public more than the Joint List.

And it’s a win-win for Likud, even if it doesn’t result in many ‘Arab’ votes:

In the Likud they don’t really expect to cause mass voting for Likud from the Arab public, but they do believe that the campaign can reduce voting for the Joint List, and that’s the main goal.

Let’s look at that last sentence with some scrutiny:

Likud knows that its party is toxic for most Palestinians. But if it can cause negative publicity to the Joint List, it can suppress the Palestinian vote, then there will automatically be a higher relative turnout for Zionist Jewish parties, and that will increase the possibility of getting an extra seat, because if there are fewer voters, you need fewer of them to constitute one seat.

Yes, there is that cynical, racial calculation. And no one ever wants Palestinian parties in government in Israel, it’s always considered a nuisance – so this is a way of reducing their influence.

We can see the same patterns of last year’s reported campaign in Miri Regev’s recent claims: She talks about the budgets, the police stations etc., and now she can throw in the “peace agreements,” the normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

The normalization deals may provide some symbolism that is important for Likud. That “we don’t have anything against the Arab society” – as Miri Regev said lately. We just want it to support our Zionist goals.

Here’s how Regev both incites and reaches out to those ‘Arabs’:

The Joint List is the one which lends a hand to terror, with [former parliamentarian Haneen] Zoabi and the [Mavi] Marmara, we never cooperated with them. We have nothing against the Arab society – we have a problem with the Joint [List] who don’t believe in the state of Israel and incite and back terror. We always vote for banning the [Joint] List…

Regev is referring to former Balad leader Haneen Zoabi, who showed courage and solidarity in being a passenger on the Turkish boat Mavi Marmara, a humanitarian mission headed towards the besieged Gaza strip in May 2010, which was violently raided by Israeli commandos, resulting in the killing of 10 peace activists. Zoabi has been a regular target for those wishing to incite against Palestinians as “terrorists” – even the ‘liberal’ current rival to Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, coined a derogatory populist term based on her name: the “Zoabis” to refer to Palestinian lawmakers. (Lapid later apologized, as Netanyahu did, saying that “it wasn’t the right expression to use”).

But Miri Regev knows it’s exactly the right expressions to use today, even if Haneen Zoabi is not in politics anymore. “Zoabi” and “Marmara” ring a familiar sound for her voters, and it adds up to “terrorist”.

But what about Jewish terror supporters, like for example the political candidate Itamar Ben Gvir, the Kahanist from the Jewish Power party (now joined into Religious Zionism) with the poster of the 1994 Hebron massacre shooter Baruch Goldstein in his living room? No, he’s kosher. Regev:

The unification between [Bezalel] Smotrich and Ben Gvir is right, so as to not lose votes on the right. I say it straight and clear – Ben Gvir is part of Religious Zionism, he is part of Smotrich’s party and he will be part of the coalition.  

This is obviously highly toxic, for any decent person, not least a Palestinian person. Does anyone buy this?

Well, apparently many do, even some Palestinians. Globes reports last month that about a fourth of ‘Arab’ voters see Netanyahu as the most suitable for Prime Minister.

Indeed, Netanyahu is by far the most popular candidate for Prime Minister. On the personal evaluation in polls of this month he has about 35 points, while Yair Lapid is second with 20, Gideon Sa’ar about 15 and Naftali Bennett of Yamina at about 10.

Because no one is imagining a Palestinian leader really. After all, the Palestinian parties can’t even get into the government!

This has led some Palestinian leaders to suggest that they may actually support Netanyahu, as unseemly as that may be.

Breaking the Joint List

In November, Mansour Abbas, leader of the Arab Islamist party Ra’am, made overtures suggesting that he would support Netanyahu, because they share certain conservative values. The overture was reciprocated by Netanyahu, and that little bromance caused a major rift in the Joint List of four Palestinian-majority parties. Then Ra’am broke off a month ago, leaving three parties.

Leader of the Joint List Ayman Odeh all but called it a betrayal. In the vast majority of polls since the breakoff, Ra’am is not clearing the electoral threshold (3.25%, 4 seats), and the Joint List apart from it appears to be polling well under the 15 seats that it got last time (a historically high result), now polling around 9 seats. So the rift in the party appears to have a certain demoralizing effect upon Palestinian voters.

Netanyahu is said to be strongly campaigning at the top of Palestinian society – courting mayors who care a lot about budgets etc., visiting Palestinian-Israeli centers such as Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm. Netanyahu will have those ‘Arabs’ if they only support his agenda. At some point he even said Mansour Abbas should “give it up already and join Likud”.

And as I said, if this rift ends in the crash of Ra’am, the diminishment of the Joint List representation and a lesser Palestinian voter turnout in general, that would all be beneficial for Likud.

Bringing the ‘Arabs’ in

This is not the first time that Likud has sought to bring ‘Arabs’ into its fold. Historically, Likud capitalized upon the Zionist left’s racialization of Arab Jews– who are called ‘Mizrahim’ – ‘Easterners’ – in Israel. Likud argued that they could better accommodate their needs, and that they were less racist than the left. That’s largely how Likud (then Herut) rose to power in 1977, after three decades where the Labor party was overwhelmingly politically dominant. And they had a point, since the mainstream Labor Zionist establishment treated the Arab Jews who came from the Middle East and North Africa mostly in the 1950’s, with institutional contempt. This reached genocidal levels with a massive campaign of kidnapping of babies, which Israel has just recently agreed to compensate families for (though not apologize for).

In 1966, the ‘Mizrahi’ population reached the same numbers as the white European Jewish ‘Ashkenazi’ population, and Likud capitalized upon the sentiments of ethnic disadvantage. The Arab Jews could now be represented with more advantage, and they could find a leading role in oppressing other Arabs – the non-Jewish ones – the Palestinians.   

Jewish supremacy

So that’s where the Jewish supremacy really shows itself as a central and essential component of the Jewish State. Between Arab and Jew, Jew will always be first (and that’s why the campaign in the early days of the state was to de-Arabize the Arab Jews). Israel is a Jewish supremacist state – this is not a mere loose epithet – it is a conclusion reached soberly and unequivocally by the prominent Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem in a recent report.

So now, Likud seeks to sever the Arab from the Palestinian, and bring it into the ultra-Zionist fold. And the normalization deals with the various Arab states are an important symbol for it. It’s not only about showing diplomacy, it’s about breaking the solidarity with Palestinians, as part of the attempt to erase Palestine completely from the national lexicon, and consolidate a supremacist Jewish state from the river to the sea.        

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