In Fight Over Arab Votes, Netanyahu's Nazareth Appearance Backed Joint List Into a Corner

Jack Khoury
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in Nazareth, an Israeli-Arab city, ahead of Israel's election, January 13, 2021.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in Nazareth, an Israeli-Arab city, ahead of Israel's election, January 13, 2021.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Wednesday in Nazareth was seen as an act of defiance in the Arab city before he even opened his mouth. His very presence in the capital of Israeli Arab society demonstrates how Netanyahu sees the community as no-man’s land in the electoral battle – and maybe even the group that will decide the election in his favor.

In the past, such a scenario would have been considered to be fantasy. During the recent election campaigns, Likud and the other Zionist parties had almost no foothold in Arab towns – and the Joint List received 87 percent of the Arab votes.

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The demonstration against Netanyahu’s visit in Nazareth was not the most attended the city has seen in recent years – but it was definitely among the most tense. Most protesters were representatives and activists of the best known parties in the Arab community’s political arena – especially those of Balad and Hadash, who were the first to call to come out and demonstrate as soon as news of the visit broke.

The MKs and activists of the Ta’al party also made their presence known, but hanging over all of this were the questions concerning the representatives of the United Arab List party, whose leader MK Mansour Abbas is in direct contact with the Prime Minister’s Office.

The United Arab List did not send its MKs to the demonstration, but party sources said the MKs were either in isolation or had other commitments – and rejected attempts to present their absence as a lack of support for the protests. The party sources even noted that a number of the party’s senior activists were at the protests.

In spite of the relative unity in the protest against Netanyahu, it is impossible to have missed the tension and mutual accusations between the factions of the Arab Joint List – both on Wednesday and over the past few months. The internal conflicts within the party, which are making their way down to the street level, are what – to a great extent – helped Netanyahu to come and visit Nazareth and look for support.

Nonetheless, it is possible that his speech, which began with an attack against the Arab Joint List – will actually serve as a shot of encouragement for the party. The Arab Joint List “is in a state of brain death, but if they had known how to take advantage of the momentum around the visit to Nazareth – they could have led to a change for the better,” sociologist Dr. Nohad Ali said. “The Arab community is not that naïve to adopt what he said.”

Israeli police officers detain Palestinian protesters during a demonstration against a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the northern Arab city of Nazareth, Israel, January 13, 2021.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Legal expert Dr. Raif Zarik is also skeptical about Arab society accepting what Netanyahu has to say – especially everything concerning the fight against violence, which Netanyahu spoke about at length.

“Netanyahu has been the ‘all-powerful’ prime minister for 10 years already. Organized crime in the Arab community blossomed under his watch and the auspices of the police – so he is the problem, and not the solution,” Zarik said. “The real problem is not Netanyahu, but the people in the Arab community, such as Nazareth mayor Ali Salam, who have turned spinelessness into an art.”

At the same time, Arab mayors active in the Federation of Local Authorities have complained that Salam has turned into the spokesman for Israel's Arab society – even though he is not part of the numerous discussions held between local governments, the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

In addition to being suspicious of Netanyahu, the participants in the meeting with him in Nazareth said his promises raised hope for them – assuming that he will use his influence in national and local politics to carry them out. “It was clear to everyone that his speech was based on systematic and precise studying of public opinion among the Arab public,” said Mohammed Khaliela, a political science professor who studies Arab society.

“He made use of the constantly repeated demands for changing the political discourse and focusing on socioeconomic issues, including the problem of increasing violence – along with the desire for a true foothold in decision making processes. Netanyahu’s speech could fall on attentive ears for many people – both because of the change in mood in the Arab public and because of the lack of stability of the Joint List,” he added.

In a similar vein, there are those who see symptoms of the sad state of Arab politics in Netanyahu’s speech. “Arab politics is in an unprecedented decline because of the behavior of the parties, and Netanyahu is exploiting the crisis and disputes very well, and is turning directly to the Arab public,” political science researcher, Prof. Asad Ghanem said.

“It is a fact that there are parts of the Joint List that gave its approval. As a media wizard and experienced politician, (Netanyahu) explains to the Arab public that they don’t need the Arab parties and it is possible to turn directly to the ruling party. The situation we have fallen into is a clear sign of the lack of leadership. This is a situation that requires thought and reconstruction of the political arena in Arab society,” said Ghanem. 

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