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How the rising power of the Arab electorate is thwarting Netanyahu

The prime minister didn’t reckon with the rising power of the Arab electorate. For the first time, he’s seeing his anti-Arab incitement stymied by old-fashioned realpolitik.

By Meron Rapoport

An Arab woman casts her vote at a polling station in the city of Lyd on October 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

An Arab woman casts her vote at a polling station in the city of Lyd on October 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Netanyahu probably did not really believe he would be allowed to pass into law a bill permitting camera surveillance in polling stations on Election Day — not with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s objection on record and the High Court all-but certain to strike it down. The surprise is that the government-supported bill never made it past committee to a first vote in the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s new campaign tactic is to claim that Palestinian citizens are “stealing” the elections by voter fraud. Four years ago he claimed in a notorious video that Arab voters were coming to the polls “in droves;” and more recently, polling station workers in areas with majority Palestinian populations were discovered wearing hidden cameras. Netanyahu is weaponizing his racist base by inciting against Palestinian citizens. This could result in right wing activists trying to intimidate voters at polling stations in majority Arab areas.

Netanyahu is playing the long game: not a single poll shows the Likud-ultra-Orthodox-religious right bloc reaching the necessary 61 Knesset seats to form a government. Even if the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party passes the electoral threshold — which would boost Netanyahu’s chances of forming the coalition — the bloc would only get 60 seats at best. In most polls, the Kahanists don’t pass the electoral threshold.

Netanyahu knows that if this ends up happening, his days as prime minister are numbered. He is convinced, it seems, that a tagline such as “the Arabs are stealing the vote” could be used as an effective tool both against those inside the Likud who would want to oust him in order to avoid a third election, as well as Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Liberman, who seems to have found a new partnership with the Blue and White party. Netanyahu believes that neither Liberman — who regularly attacks Palestinians — nor senior Likud officials would want to come across as those who allowed the Arabs to “steal” the vote.

All of this could still happen, but the first obstacle came earlier than expected. The so-called camera law collapsed even before it was fully formed, which is perhaps where the most interesting development in this story lies. This law targets, first and foremost, Arab voters — to intimidate them from casting their votes and drive a lower Arab turnout. The opposition to the law, however, became far from merely an Arab issue.

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Not only did the “usual suspects” on the left, Meretz, attack the law, but also the generals who have attached themselves to the party. So did the Labor party, which in the past had taken great caution from standing up for issues that “favor” Arab voters. Blue and White, which many justifiably describe as a soft-right party, also opposed the law. Even Liberman, who once used to boast about how the only thing further to his right was the wall, pulled his support for the bill, effectively killing it.

Of course, this doesn’t suddenly make Liberman a leftist politician. Liberman was and remains a man of the right. However, it does mean that, at this point in time, Liberman has found a larger, more immediate goal than to “screw the Arabs:” unseating Netanyahu. In order to achieve that goal, he’s willing to make a move that he knows Netanyahu will use against him, to rebrand him as a leftist.

There are many reasons for that, but one of the more interesting takeaways is the political strengthening of Palestinian Arabs citizens of Israel. One sign of that is Ehud Barak’s apology for the October 2000 events, in which Israeli police killed 13 Palestinians at a demonstration at then-prime minister Barak’s instruction, so that Meretz’s Esawi Frej would agree to Barak’s merger with the party to form the Democratic Camp. As +972 Magazine writer Noam Sheizaf noted, the question of whether Barak’s apology is sincere is less interesting than the fact that Palestinian voters managed to force this former chief of staff and prime minister’s hand.

A similar thing is now happening with Blue and White and even Liberman, even if they refuse to admit it. They understand that without significant participation of Palestinian voters, Netanyahu will remain prime minister. Otherwise, it would be hard to make sense of such a stark opposition to the bill.

Their interest is to have the bill fail, even if its alleged goal is to intimidate “only” Palestinian voters. As with Barak, it’s less important whether Gantz or Liberman think fondly of Arabs when they are finally realizing this groups’s political power. Palestinian voters are now a force to be reckoned with, and that has to mean good news.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call, where this article first appeared in Hebrew. Read it here.

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    1. Tommy Goldberg

      Well, at some point, cosmopolitan, secular Jewish Israelis will have to realize that they need all the help they can get to prevent the country they love from becoming an intolerant theocracy run by ultra-orthodox rabbis.

      The only feasible alternative will be a multiethnic liberal democracy with immutable constitutional protections for all.

      This will require a written constitution and a wide liberal coalition that must include secular and liberally religious Arabs.

      Soon the choice really will be binary:
      • A state where only Jews have real political power (but that is run by extremist rabbis.)
      • A republic of and for all its citizens (with a near 50-50 Palestinian-Jewish split.)

      It seems obvious to me that the way of life of the “start-up nation” Gush Dan crowd should be much more comfortable in the latter than the former.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        An Israeli film series examines a possible future for Israel:

        Currently touring film festivals around the world, the six part series Autonomies envisions a clash between secular Jews and deeply religious ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi Jews…in this vision, set in the near future, civil war has cut the land into two countries. The coastal State of Israel is nonreligious, with the cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv as its capital. Jerusalem is a walled, autonomous city state, run by Haredi rabbis…at first glance dystopian, the show is in fact an artistic extrapolation of real life rifts in Israeli society…


        Reply to Comment
        • Tommy Goldberg

          I’d read that same article, but I haven’t seen this series yet. The question is, are there any Arabs in this non-religious coastal state?

          Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            Yes, but they will know what their place is.

            Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          But what about the moderate National Religious “knitted kippa” crowd?
          Which side will they support in your “civil war”?
          What about traditional Jews ?
          Also, haredim are divided into different sects – Sephardim versus Ashkenasim, Mitnagdim versus Hasidim. Even Hasidim are divided into different types – Chabad, Ger, Bobov, Vizhnitz etc.

          If you analyse it, you might realise that the “civil war” scenario is just BS !

          Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Lewis, we must leave these Anglo-Americans in their morbid dreams. If they are Jewish (which is far from certain) they are totally assimilated (with all the complexes that entails). Without living in Israel, and without knowing anything about the situation, they give opinions and advice based on texts by Haaretz and Amnesty International.However, challenging their arguments as leftists of a good family is an immense pleasure.

            Reply to Comment
        • Eliza

          Interesting link.

          Oddly enough, Gilad Atzmon touches on the fragmentation of Israeli society in his latest blog, but unlike ‘Autonomies’ which looks at the clash between the secular and religious within Israel, Atzmon includes the secular right-wing as a tribe in its own right. He states:

          “The picture that comes across is peculiar. As Israel becomes increasingly Jewish and fundamentalist its in nationalist and religious ethos, it has become more divided on everything else. The Russian immigrants find it impossible to live alongside the ultra Orthodox and vice versa. The secular enclave in Tel Aviv is committed to seeing their metropolis as an extension of NY. The Israeli left has morphed into an LGBT hasbara unit. It has practically removed itself from the Israel/Palestine conflict. Jewish settlers adhere to the concept of a ‘Two Jewish State Solution’. They want to see the West Bank become a Jewish land. Orthodox Jews are barely concerned with any of these political issues. They well know that the future of the Jewish state belongs to them. All they need to do is sustain a productive secular Jewish minority to serve as their milk cow. On top of all of that, we face Bibi’s survival wars that threaten to escalate any minute into a world conflict’.

          So maybe, its not so much cleaving Israel into two to accommodate the secular and the religious but also making room for a third Jewish State to meet the needs of the secular right-wing. Presumably, all three would relegate any Palestinian people remaining t their ‘proper’ place.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Without the “conflict” with external and internal “enemies” these various Jewish factions will go at each other and tear each other apart over these true, and long delayed and festering problems of modernity. Israel is like a society whose problems have been frozen in permafrost in this sense and when the thawing comes, watch out. Or, to switch metaphors, it’s like an adolescent with the usual problems that go with adolescence needing to be worked out and resolved, but somebody is feeding the adolescent hormones that keep it stuck in immaturity. This is one of the reasons Israelis secretly love the conflict and love the occupation and love the status quo.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            More sophisticated loony left analysis from our resident Haaretz-reader who does not even live here.

            Reply to Comment
          • Nathanael

            Doesn’t matter what the religion is, right-wing religious extremists *always* end up fighting with each other. Shas and UTJ will never merge, and will probably break up into their component smaller parties and be intent on killing each other. Israel Beitenu (a different sort of religious extremism) has already declared war on Shas/UTJ, and vice versa.

            So it’s impossible for right-wing religious extremists to really win. If they defeat the left, they will promptly start fighting each other. In Europe, this led to the “Dark Ages” which lasted hundreds of years. In the Middle East, the rise of right-wing “Salafis” led to religious wars which are still ongoing too.

            As a result, all sane people need to unite against the right-wingers, everywhere, no matter what sect they are part of. It is a pity that most voters in Israel are too racist to vote for the Joint List or Meretz, which they should if they knew what was good for their children in the long run.

            Reply to Comment
    2. itshak Gordine

      A survey shows that 23.6% of Israeli Arabs think that Mr. Netanyahu is the most likely to be Prime Minister of the State of Israel This should not be too appealing to our dear leftists who are once again more royalists than the king.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        aren’t you the one who calls him ‘king bibi’?

        Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        “Most likely” makes it sound like they just think he’ll win the election, not that they necessarily like him.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I for one hope Netanyahu wins so we can dispense with Fig Leafy Gantz and have full frontal Lunatic Right nakedness for all the world to see. That is, Blue and White has been saying in the last few days that Netanyahu copied THEM on Jordan Valley annexation. So we have the OPPOSITION party to Netanyahu saying full blown Apartheid was their idea first! You can’t make this stuff up. There is never going to be a two state solution. The Israelis killed it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Eliza

          Yes, at least the re-election of Netanyahu prevents Gantz from holding out the fig-leaf of a reset of Israeli politics and giving cover to liberal/progressives in the West to talk about the two state solution.

          I cannot see any substantive difference between Likud/Netanyahu or Blue and White/Gantz when it comes to Israel’s steady progress towards ‘Greater Israel’ nor Israel’s periodic mowing of the lawn in Gaza. Nor can we assume that even if Meretz combined with the Labour Party ever came into government that it would be that much different in terms of the occupation. Differences in style and language used, yes we can expect that, but even the left in Israel, when it did hold power, was committed to the settlement project and to refusal to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees exiled.

          But back to the contention that there is some finessing of the Palestinians or Arab vote within Israel indicating an increase in Arab power. I wish that was so but all I think is happening is that two right-wing parties are neck and neck in the polls with neither guaranteed an outright majority. And then there is all the horse-trading with the minor right-wing parties of who will or will not sit with who. I think it is this fine balance between the warring right-wing parties that makes even the small Arab vote valuable. But this value would barely last out the day in the event that it was the deciding factor between Netanyahu or Gantz. Courted as Cinderella for a night then back to being the dreaded Arabs who remain the demographic threat if not the ‘enemy within’.

          As for Israelis loving the occupation etc in your earlier post. It appears to me that most Israelis don’t even think there is an occupation. I think that are mainly perfectly comfortable with the status quo (and why shouldn’t they be given the acquiescence of the international community and the positive encouragement and aid of the USA) and see no need for change. As for the conflict in general terms, this is OK as well – there is nothing better to keep the tribe together even if increasingly under rabbinic control. Proof positive that the Amalek is always lurking is the rising anti-Semitism of the West – well, its actually just reasonable criticism of Israel and/or support of Palestinian human rights – but no matter, it still acts to cleave the tribe together.

          Basically, I get that the elections may be of great interest to the Israelis but I think that is all a lot of huff about nothing simply because the most important result is whether Netanyahu goes to jail or not. Nothing else can be expected to change. There simply are not enough Israelis who want good constructive change or for the Palestinian people to be treated as equals.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Courted as Cinderella for a night then back to being the dreaded Arabs who remain the demographic threat if not the ‘enemy within’.”


            “It appears to me that most Israelis don’t even think there is an occupation. I think that are mainly perfectly comfortable with the status quo (and why shouldn’t they be given the acquiescence of the international community and the positive encouragement and aid of the USA) and see no need for change.”

            Exactly, too. When I say they “secretly love” I mean more that unwittingly, unconsciously, or in a way they don’t even realize or admit to themselves, they love this thing called the conflict, the situation, the status quo, because it has among other benefits a way of imposing an anomalous unity and holding the lid on internal conflicts among themselves and holding on to a very comfortable tribal overlord status, holding on to old-fashioned 19th century privilege, to a kind of simplicity no longer nearly as available to other dominant ethnic groups in advanced modernized western societies. They get to have all the benefits of 21st century modernity and 19th century privilege at the same time. And the excuse is “the situation,” attached to a pose that they are helpless to change the status quo.

            And with all of that backed by the Trump’s USA, you are right, why would they change? No one in their right mind thinks Israeli Jews are going to solve this with “direct negotiations between the parties.” Please, that has long since become laughable. The posts of the national religious and the settlers in these pages are abundant testimony to that. Their refrain is that of the gangster or the molester: “Leave us alone, what business is it of yours?, we can handle this, everything is fine here.”

            Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      Meron Rapoport: “As with Barak, it’s less important whether Gantz or Liberman think fondly of Arabs when they are finally realizing this groups’s political power. Palestinian voters are now a force to be reckoned with, and that has to mean good news.”

      I guess so, but I still think it’s a mistake to think that Israeli society is an agent of change. (Nothing since the election makes me think otherwise.)

      Why Does Israel Still Occupy the Palestinians?
      by SHIR HEVER

      “…So how can those who hope for a better future deal with an Israeli society that refuses to seriously consider the rights of Palestinians? The first step is to abandon the notion that Israeli society is an agent of change. There are no historical precedents of empires willingly giving up their colonies. Only the subjects of occupation can win their own freedom. Israeli society is a decadent society in an unstoppable decline, resistant to internal calls for reform and politically paralyzed from within.

      Only external pressure can truly bring change to this society, and allow democracy to take hold in the region, not only for the benefit of Palestinians, but for the benefit of Israelis too. External pressure, by using political and economic tools such as sanctions and boycott, returns the issues of civil rights and democracy to the fore, and deprives Israel of the option to use its military might to make the problem go away.”

      Reply to Comment