Israel's Arabs Should Thank Netanyahu for Striking Their Most Painful Nerve

The prime minister's fear campaign against the Arabs shook them of their indifference, and now the Joint List needs to try to depose Netanyahu without putting all their eggs in Benny Gantz's basket

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A polling station in Ramle.
A polling station in Ramle, Sept. 17, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat

Instead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanking the country’s Arabs that only half the community turned out to vote in the first round of Knesset elections in April, and instead of lulling this sleeping giant into a deeper sleep, he kicked it hard and non-stop. On Election Day in April, supporters of the prime minister brought cameras to polling stations in Arab communities, riling the dozing giant.

Later the prime minister raised the specter of anti-Semitism, saying that the Arabs were stealing the election, and a horrifying statement was posted on his Facebook page that the Arabs would kill Jewish children. Even worse, when he tried to disassociate himself from the post, he looked like he was backtracking against his will.

As usual, Netanyahu also launched a fear campaign among the country’s Jews. This campaign against the Arabs and their Jewish supporters was such a huge success that it even frightened the Arabs. And it was this fear-based stew, with a generous pinch of insult, that shook the Arabs of their indifference. By all indications, the Arab voter turnout in Tuesday’s election was up.

So Netanyahu deserves a big thank-you. He hit the Arabs’ most painful nerve when, in upside-down logic, he explained to them that they have a role in protecting their own rights and shaping the face of the country. But there are also other things that produced the increased Arab turnout.

The Arab parties managed to reconstitute a united slate, the Joint List, despite the lingering feelings from the April election. And no less important was the interview that the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, gave to Nahum Barnea of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in which he forthrightly and unhesitatingly described a way forward for the Arab population as an active player in the country’s politics.

But now, in the wake of the elation at the Joint List and among its supporters, comes the test: What will they tell President Reuven Rivlin in a few days about their choice for prime minister? On one hand, nearly their entire campaign revolved around ousting Netanyahu – and that is apparently what will happen. The question now is whom to crown in his place.

Should it be Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, who rejected the proposal that Odeh described in his Yedioth interview, or Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, with his venomous incitement against the Arabs in all of his campaigns? In fact, the Joint List’s leaders will have to walk a thin high wire to get through the next few days – in an effort to oust Netanyahu without putting all their eggs in Gantz’s basket.

That also depends no less upon Gantz. Will he try to pave a path into the center of the Arab community, which he encouragingly embarked on before the election with his clear denunciation of incitement against Arabs and his rejection of a bill that would have allowed party representatives to film at polling places.

The ray of light that illuminated the sky in Israel Tuesday night like a searchlight is that all of the supporters of democracy, even on the right, have had the expectation that Arab voter turnout would steadily increase. And the Arabs realized that without enlisting Jewish supporters of democracy to their cause, their situation would hardly be stellar.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said in his day that if the number of Arabs that remained in Israel didn’t exceed 15 percent of the population it would be tolerable. This surprising generosity was a masterpiece from a man gifted with the ability to tell the future. Deep in his heart, Ben-Gurion knew that the Arabs are the factor ensuring that Israel remains a normal country.

And in fact, how would Israel be a light unto the nations with far-right politicians such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir? What won’t be done to save the Jewish state!

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