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Netanyahu’s Fate May Depend on Israeli Arab Voters. Will They Turn Out?

BAQA AL GHARBIYEH, Israel — Arab citizens of Israel have no love lost for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who routinely resorts to fear-mongering against them to rally his right-wing Jewish base. But when they had a chance to help toss him from office in April, fewer than half of eligible Arabs voted — a record low.

Now, with a do-over election on Tuesday, they have a second chance, and Israeli Arab leaders say they are doing things differently this time.

The often-overlooked Arab vote will be one of the most important subplots in this election, and could well determine Mr. Netanyahu’s fate. A robust enough turnout could deprive Mr. Netanyahu of the 61-seat majority in Parliament he needs to secure another term.

Turnout is a thorny issue for Israeli Arabs, who represent a sixth of the electorate. Some always boycott Israeli elections as a silent dissent.

But in April, many said they were fuming at Arab lawmakers for having broken into rival splinter parties, dissipating what little political strength they had. They won just 10 of the 120 seats in Parliament, down from 15.

The politicians got the message. First, they put the squabbling aside and reunited into a single Arab ticket. And now, with polls showing that voters overwhelmingly want them to do more than just carp from the sidelines or rail against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians living under occupation, they have for the first time broached the idea of joining an Israeli government.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List, made history last month by saying he would consider joining a center-left coalition if one is formed by Benny Gantz, the former army chief who is Mr. Netanyahu’s main challenger in this election.

Mr. Odeh’s ads practically beg Palestinian citizens to vote on Tuesday, saying that one million citizens, if they all voted, would translate into 28 seats in the Knesset.

“We want to prove to Arab voters exactly how powerful they are,” he told foreign journalists on Wednesday.

The election is happening because Mr. Netanyahu was unable to assemble a majority coalition of 61 seats after the April 9 ballot, and he dissolved Parliament rather than letting another lawmaker be given the chance to do so.

Mindful of the stakes, Mr. Netanyahu has only amped up his fear-mongering.

After warning his right-wing supporters in the final hours of the 2015 campaign that Arabs were being bused to the polls “in droves,” Mr. Netanyahu sounded the alarm for weeks before the April ballot, saying that Mr. Gantz would “hand over parts of the homeland to the Arabs” and that the Arab parties wanted “to destroy” Israel.

On Election Day, his Likud party sent 1,200 activists with cameras into Arab polling places, and political operatives working with Likud boasted that they had suppressed the Arab vote.

Heading into Tuesday’s election, Mr. Netanyahu spent weeks on a failed legislative effort to allow videotaping in Arab polling places, ostensibly to crack down on voter fraud. Opponents called it another attempt at intimidation and voter suppression.

He has also ratcheted up the rhetoric: A chatbot operated by the prime minister was suspended by Facebook on Thursday for violating hate-speech rules after it sent out a message that Israel’s Arab politicians “want to destroy us all.”

Slightly more subtly, the same day on a different platform, Mr. Netanyahu’s Instagram account posted a photo showing an iconic Tel Aviv skyscraper with its facade displaying the Palestinian national flag.

“If you don’t come out to vote,” he warned, “this is where we’re headed.”

“He understands that if 65 percent of the Arab citizens vote, he won’t be prime minister anymore,” Mr. Odeh said. “He’s only thinking about the election. He doesn’t think about relations between Arabs and Jews after the election.”

Polls are projecting Arab turnout will not reach 60 percent.

Many Arabs say they stay home because they see voting as an endorsement of an Israeli government they consider illegitimate.

“All the political system in Israel is working against us,” said Fahima Ghanayem, 40, a computer-science lecturer from Baqa al Gharbiyeh, an Arab city not far from Haifa. “Our presence in the Knesset is just an empty frame.”

But Samer Swaid, director of a get-out-the-vote effort being mounted by 10 civil-society organizations, said Arab voters also too often respond to hateful political tactics by getting depressed rather than by letting it spur them into action.

The group has volunteers knocking on doors in Nazareth and other Arab cities and the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa; “influencers,” including a popular reality-show winner, spreading the word online; and a bus touring Arab towns from the Negev to the Galilee, carrying the message: “This time, we vote.”

“We’re reminding people that we have enormous power,” Mr. Swaid said. “We’ve done so well in professions like high-tech and medicine. We can also do it in politics.”

The steady integration of Arab citizens into the Israeli economy has fueled impatience among younger voters to participate more actively in politics, experts said.

“They really would like to stop this kind of political alienation,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a Jewish-Arab group that promotes integration and equality.

A poll by Tel Aviv University and the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation this week found that 78 percent of Arab voters favored Arab lawmakers joining a governing coalition or at least supporting one from outside government.

In Baqa al Gharbiyeh, Malak Naddaf, 21, a medical student, said she had been arguing with boycotters.

“My vote can change something, even a little bit,” she said. “But they think nothing is going to change.”

She said she wished Arab lawmakers would devote themselves to parochial concerns. “Leave the Palestinians aside, and focus on our issues, as citizens of the state,” she said. “Jobs, budgets for the municipalities, infrastructure, and crime. We have police here, but when things happen, they pretend they can’t do anything about it.”

In announcing his willingness to join Mr. Gantz in a center-left coalition, Mr. Odeh laid down several such conditions: more hospital beds in Arab areas, new housing construction, an end to the demolition of homes built without Israeli permits, a crackdown on gun violence and increased financing for battered-women’s shelters.

He also demanded repeal of the so-called nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the national home of only the Jewish people and effectively downgraded the status of the Arabic language, and to hear Mr. Gantz’s plans for ending the occupation of the West Bank.

Mr. Gantz’s right-of-center partners in the Blue and White party quickly dismissed the idea of welcoming Arab lawmakers, some of whom expressly oppose the Zionist enterprise, into any governing coalition.

Still, Mr. Gantz has been making a concerted push for Arab support, giving interviews on Arab television and placing billboards and digital ads in Arabic promising to fight crime, close the educational achievement gap between Arabs and Jews, and enact a basic law of equality.

“He’s saying, I’m counting on you, you’re legitimate, your problems are legitimate, and I’ll deal with them,” Mr. Abu Rass said. “This is something new. Arabs are not used to listening to Jewish Zionist leaders to come talk to them. That gives Arabs some hope.”

Mr. Odeh’s colleagues in the Arab faction do not all support joining a coalition, and some of Mr. Gantz’s partners in Blue and White refused even to share a stage with Mr. Odeh at a campaign rally in Tel Aviv.

But bridge-building Arab leaders have other options: In 1992, two small Arab parties that did not join Yitzhak Rabin’s government nonetheless struck an agreement with him that provided crucial support as he negotiated the Oslo Accords. In exchange, the Arabs gained increased education funding and official recognition of a number of Arab villages, according to Abdulwahab Darawshe, one of the party leaders at the time.

If Mr. Netanyahu wins re-election, or if Mr. Gantz forms a broad unity government, the Arab parties could again be left on the outside looking in.

But Mr. Odeh could still make history. The largest party outside the coalition traditionally chooses the opposition leader, a ceremonial role that comes with security briefings, bodyguards and an enhanced public platform — including monthly meetings with the premier and rebuttal speeches in Parliament.

No Arab lawmaker has ever held the post. “I’ll be happy to speak after the prime minister and to sit with foreign dignitaries,” Mr. Odeh said. “And to get security briefings sounds interesting,” he added wryly.

But the real privilege, he said, would be to be able to articulate “a real ideological alternative,” and to provide a “vision of hope, for everyone here in Israel.”

Source: NYT > World News

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