Perfect Storm Brings Arab Israelis Into the Political Mix

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Netanyahu visits a vaccination center in the Arab majority town Tira, January 2021.
Benjamin Netanyahu visits a vaccination center in the Arab town of Tira in January. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

When Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu decided in 2013 to raise the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent, they wanted to reduce Arabs Israelis’ representation in the Knesset. The chairman of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party at the time, Mohammed Barakeh, said that “this percentage was precisely chosen to get the Arabs out of Israeli politics, or put them in one box as Lieberman wants.”

Well, talk about tempting fate; those who wanted to destroy something ended up blessing it. The uniting of the Arab parties produced a huge success at the polls.

Two years later, in the 2015 election, Netanyahu warned his voters about the Arab community’s electoral power. Who would have believed that six years later Netanyahu – and all the other parties on his heels – would be frantically courting the Arab vote, tears welling up in his eyes as Arab young people shouted at him “Abu Yair.” Who would have believed in 2013 that eight years later, Netanyahu would call on Israel’s Arabs: “Be part of the government, be part of the state, come with us.”

The importance of this metamorphosis cannot be overstated. Both left and right are wooing the Arab vote, making sure there are Arab candidates on their party slates. For the first time, the struggle against violence in the Arab community is on the Israeli agenda.

The seminal move by the chairman of the United Arab List party, Mansour Abbas, who said the Arabs aren’t in the left’s pocket, cracked the Arab cohesiveness, and Jewish Israelis are starting to discern the various ideological streams in Arab society. They’re noticing those very nuances that were trampled on eight years ago when Lieberman and Netanyahu forced the Arabs to concentrate in one partisan ghetto to survive politically.

Abbas in fact smashed the truism that the Arab minority’s natural place is on the left. By so doing he laid the cornerstone of the Arab Israeli right. He didn’t do this by denying his Arab identity and assimilating into the progressive Israeli image of the left-wing camp. Quite the contrary: Viewing Arab society from the outside, the leftist Ayman Odeh is “more of an Ashkenazi” than Abbas, who is also chairman Islamic Movement’s southern branch.

To understand how dramatic this is, you should have heard (and not believed) Meir Kahane’s student Itamar Ben-Gvir giving the kosher stamp of approval last week to a right-wing government leaning on Abbas. Ben-Gvir quickly renounced this and made Kahanist noises to get people to leave him alone, but it doesn’t change the fact that a tectonic shift has taken place. It’s so natural that the Arab right and the Jewish right have a common language, but it became natural only after Abbas crossed the lines.

The amazing thing is that none of this would have happened if Abbas hadn’t felt betrayed by the head of the “Anyone but Bibi” camp, Benny Gantz, who refused to give the Arabs any role in the governing coalition even after they recommended him to the president as prime minister.

Gantz wouldn’t have acted that way had it not been for Zvi Hauser, Yoaz Hendel and Orli Levi-Abekasis’ objection to forming a government with the Joint List of Arab parties. Those four wouldn’t have been in the same camp to begin with (with Lieberman as well!) if it weren’t for the corruption indictments against Netanyahu. Only thanks to those indictments did Netanyahu have no political option but to start wooing the Arab community.

It took three indictments, a rift in the right, a nation-state law, a “crazy” American president, the Abraham Accords, four general elections in two years, a mass betrayal of voters and a global pandemic to break through the wall of the “illegitimacy” of the Arab representation in the Knesset. So can anyone still deny that God, or Allah, is great?

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