In his third visit to an Arab city in two weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Nazareth that "Arab citizens should fully be a part of Israeli society," heralding an "opportinuty to start a new era."
Dozens protested Netanyahu's arrival in the northern city, seen by critics as part of his Likud party's efforts to court Arab voters ahead of Israel's March 23 election.
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Protesters clashed with officers at the scene after they refused an order from the police to move the demonstration off the road and onto the sidewalk. According to police, the protesters prevented police from putting up security fences in advance of Netanyahu's arrival. 19 protesters were detained.
In a speech at the Nazareth Municipality, Netanyahu apologized for statements he made during his 2015 election campaign, in which he said "Arabs are heading to the polls in droves" in order to mobilize right-wing voters. He claimed that political figures distorted his words, and that he sought to warn against voting for the Joint List alone.
"My intention was not to warn about the fact that Arab citizens of Israel were voting in an election," Netanyahu said. "Every citizen of Israel, Arabs and Jews as one, must vote."
Nazareth Mayor Salem said that Netanyahu "spoke truthfully from the heart." He added, "I'm telling you all: The time has come to believe in these words, that we can truly live side-by-side."
He also called on the Joint List to "switch out your tapes, say that you want peace, that you want what's good for the Arab community."
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Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh responded to Netanyahu's statements, tweeting that the prime minister "thinks that Arabs' memories are even shorter than his memory in his [criminal] investigations. He will not succeed in dividing us into good and bad Arabs."
During the protest, a police officer at the scene attacked Haaretz photographer Rami Shllush, who was trying to photograph an arrest. Joint List lawmaker Sondos Saleh said she was taken to a local hospital after police forcefully shoved her. Three other lawmakers from the party, Heba Yazbak, Mtanes Shehadeh and Aida Touma-Sliman also reported being shoved by police.
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin said of the protest, "The removal of Knesset Members Sondos Saleh and Mtanes Shehadeh [from the protest area] by police is unacceptable. Freedom of movement for Knesset members is a crucial component of our ability to carry out our jobs. We must ensure that this right is respected by the police as well."
Touma-Sliman called Netanyahu's speech "A miserable attempt to gather votes from a public that Netanyahu has incited against for ages. On the way to his speech in Nazareth, Netanyahu encountered real resistance from the Arab community – who sees in him a threat to Arab society, not a partner in it."
She continued, "Netanyahu snuck into the city under the cover of the brutal violence of the police, who acted as a political police force in the service of the prime minister – beating Knesset members, arresting at least eight activists and using disproportionate force. If the police had used this kind of force against criminals, perhaps the situation would be better."
Regarding the protest, Netanyahu said: “The Joint List protests are a sign of despair… They, too, see the growing support for me and for Likud in the Arab community. It’s exciting for me to see [this] massive change. You are joining Likud because you want to join society.”
Netanyahu, alongside Salam, visited a health maintenance organization clinic in the city. The prime minister has visited several health clinics in Arab-majority cities and towns in recent weeks.
Israeli Arabs have been wary of these visits, suspecting Netanyahu of using them to exploit a rift in the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in order to attract its voters ahead of the upcoming election.
According to Likud figures, the party received about 11,000 votes from Arab and Druze communities in the last election, and likely hundreds more from Arabs and Druze living in mixed cities and towns.
This is slightly more than it received in the two election campaigns that took place in 2019, when the party received about 9,000 votes in each round. Likud expects to gain more votes from the Arab communities in the March 23 election.