Last Thursday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was walking back to his car after visiting a clinic in the Bedouin community of Arara in the Negev, he heard cheering. The cheers were coming from a few dozen young people, fans of the prime minister in an ostensibly unexpected place. One even invited Netanyahu for coffee.
In Bedouin society, an invitation says: You are welcome in my home. The coffee klatsch didn’t take place, but Netanyahu was charmed by the gesture.
His visit and that culmination quickly made waves on social media. The Israeli Arab community couldn’t ignore it, particularly after the videos from the prime minister’s visit to the Arab city of Nazareth a few weeks earlier, where Netanyahu was received much less warmly. Had something changed in two weeks? The answer is complicated.
People involved in Israeli-Arab politics say that Netanyahu’s support in the Arab community is confined to a handful of people who won’t be much of a factor on Election Day, March 23. But they also acknowledge a change. Representatives of Netanyahu’s Likud party are now finding an audience, among the Bedouins in the Negev and beyond.
“We sense it everywhere,” said a longtime political activist who asked not to be identified by name. In the last two elections, he worked on behalf of the Joint List of Arab parties, including by helping to drive voters to the polls. Suddenly Likud is trying to attract support in the Arab community, including by talking with family leaders and even mayors. In the Negev at least, there’s no doubt that in the Negev, Likud has gained a foothold.
Ibrahim al-Sayyid, from the Negev village of Al-Sayyid, vows that Likud will get several hundred votes in the next election. “I’ve been active in several parties in the past, including the United Arab List, Meretz and the Labor Party,” Sayyid said. “Now I’ve turned to the right. People are sick of parties with little or no influence so they’re going to try the parties in power, such as Likud.”
Actually – in his vicinity alone, Al-Sayyid claims to have has recruited thousands of people prepared to vote Likud on March 23. Asked about ideological issues such as the so-called nation-state law, which many Israeli Arabs view as reducing them to second-class citizens, or practical matters such as Israel demolishing homes in unrecognized Bedouin communities in the south, he remains adamant. Asked if voting left-wing might not be preferable: “On the contrary,” he said. “Maybe now with our support, we can gain influence from the inside. It’s clear that Likud will be in the government, so what’s better? Being in the game or on the outside? We want to have influence.”
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By which he means, regarding the violence and crime rates in the Arab community. “After trying them all, now we’ll support Netanyahu and Likud,” he says.
To live like human beings
Over the years, the Negev and its Bedouin population has been considered a safe bet for the United Arab List. This year, however, it looks like things may change, and not only because their vote is being wooed by Likud. The United Arab List seems to be breaking apart and Baled, one o f the parties in Joint List, has placed a Bedouin candidate, former Knesset member Joumah Azbaraga, high enough up on its slate to have a realistic prospect of sitting in the next Knesset.
Other parties, including Yaron Zelekha’s New Economic party and the Israel Democratic Party affiliated with the regular demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence, are also eyeing the Bedouin vote. “Likud’s advent steps up the pressure,” said Democratic party candidate Hanan Alsanah. “They’re investing a lot of resources in the Negev.”
It bears mention that votes for parties that don’t pass the threshold for inclusion in the next Knesset are wasted.
Among those considering voting directly for the prime minister’s party is Sultan Abu Bakar, a resident of the Bedouin town of Rahat. He’s still waiting to see whether the United Arab List does split from the Joint List before deciding how to vote, but Likud is certainly an option for him, guided by the principle of seeking influence from within. “I talk to people and they’re saying, ‘Enough! No one is moving anything forward and there’s a party in power that can have an impact.’”
Abu Bakar owns land in the unrecognized village of Al-Araqib, which has been demolished and rebuilt dozens of times in recent years. “I don’t think Netanyahu is personally responsible for this,” he said. “There are pressures on him.” So even in this context Abu Bakar sees advantages in voting for Likud, a party that is part of the governing coalition. “For decades, we have been fighting for recognition. If we are merely observers or in the opposition, it won’t help,” he said. “This time we will demand change, because we do want to live like human beings. “You have to understand,” he added, “that many today in Arab society weigh their support based on basic things – a home, making a living and personal security – and it looks like only the right wing can advance that now.”
One of the longtime mayors in the Negev is confident that all such talk will evaporate by Election Day. “People in the Negev are not naïve. They haven’t forgotten who demolished homes and who strove to evict hundreds of families,” he said. “Here and there, of course, some people who will vote Likud, but ultimately I believe that most of the support will go to the Arab parties.” The main challenge, in his view, isn’t to stop Arabs from voting for Zionist parties, but getting them to vote at all.
All this said, the newfound interest in Likud isn’t limited to Arabs in Israel’s south. Longtime Arab activists in Likud say the positive campaign that Netanyahu is leading is having the desired effect among Arab voters, in boosting support for the party and also in tempering opposition to the party.
Majdi Qasem, a counselor for youth at risk from the Arab town of Tira, in central Israel, supports Netanyahu and although he represents a minority point of view, his support is increasingly meeting understanding among his peers. “People are more pragmatic and practical today and are looking for the basic things,” he said, “not the major political issues.” Apropos of which: The normalization agreements Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have made their mark in Arab Israeli circles.
He does note that some in the Arab community won’t admit it but might vote Likud either as a protest over the situation and disagreements within the Joint List, or simply because they believe only a party in power can change things.
Near Tira is Kalansua, where Netanyahu made rather less alluring comments regarding the Israeli Arab community a few years ago. “Our forces are demolishing 12 Arab homes in Kalansua,” the prime minister tweeted at the time. But time has passed and so has the animosity felt by some residents.
“I’m for Netanayhu,” said Ali Kashkush. Asked about the prime minister’s tweet, he said, “So he said it,” and absolved Netanyahu of some of the responsibility. “People familiar with the situation know that it doesn’t depend only on Netanyahu,” he added.
Like other new supporters of Likud, Kashkush says he wants to be involved, to have impact from the inside. And while he may be a brand-new Likud supporter, another Kalansua resident, Nidal Taya, is a longtime party activist. He says that he can sense the growing support for Likud, averring that he’s hearing about people who plan to vote for the party on a daily basis.
Ahmed Natour, for instance, who in the past has voted for the Labor Party, Meretz and the Joint List, won’t give any of them his vote this time. “I’ve had bitter experience with them,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve made a contribution or influenced the Arab public’s way of life. It’s the right rather than the left that tends more to bring peace, and that’s a fact,” he added, based on his own research, adding: “The right wing tends to speak openly and straightforwardly, including with the Arab public.”
This time around he believes that government will create a plan to curb the crime in the Arab community, albeit belatedly. While he hasn’t finalized his decision, Natour says, he definitely won’t be voting for a left-wing party.
Internal polling data that various parties are getting, which include opinion surveys in the Arab community, also show the trend.
Yousef Makladeh, whose firm Statnet polls among Israeli Arabs, said, as it stands now, Likud might even pick up close to two Knesset seats due to the support of Arab voters.
But what is true now may not be true on Election Day. “There are several scenarios giving the Zionist parties, most notably Likud, about 25 percent of the Arab votes,” he said, but quickly added: “It’s very fluid.”
Things very much depend upon the conduct of the Arab parties. If the four parties constituting the Joint List split into two separate slates, going “head-to-head, it could reduce the support for the Zionist parties by a significant amount, Makladeh predicted.
Political scientists hesitate to predict the outcome of the Arab vote on March 23. Prof. Amal Jamal of the political science department at Tel Aviv University, for example, told Haaretz that despite all the buzz, although Likud may see increased support from Arab voters, it could be on the margins, rather than a massive shift. It should also be borne in mind, he said, that the Arab parties, particularly the United Arab List, will be targeting that same lower socioeconomic group of voters as Likud. As he puts it: “I think the expected strength of Likud in Arab society is exaggerated because the Arab public knows Netanyahu rather well and it’s hard to bring about significant change in voting patterns just because of one or another campaign.”