Reality has shifted a lot over the past year. Our social dynamics might never again be the same following the Coronavirus crisis. And now we have an avowed Zionist (some say anti-Arab racist) Israeli prime minister being supported by an ever growing number of Arab voters.
What in the world is going on?
If you had asked anyone just two years ago to list Benjamin Netanyahu’s strengths and achievements as prime minister, most would not have listed among them the fostering of closer Jewish-Arab relations.
In fact, Netanyahu has for years been maligned as an unrepentant racist who oversees a government that systematically discriminates against Israel’s Arab population and oppresses their Palestinian brothers in the West Bank and Gaza.
But if that were true, why do so many Israeli Arab voters say ahead of this month’s national election that they want Bibi to remain at the helm?
Arguments that Netanyahu is merely the lesser of two or three evils (namely, the further-right-wing Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett) don’t quite hold water. After all, the Arabs could throw their weight and that of their Knesset representatives behind the center-left Yair Lapid, who is expected to command the second largest parliamentary faction following the election.
Nevertheless, a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute on behalf of Channel 12 News revealed at the weekend that a full 31 percent of Israeli Arab voters prefer Netanyahu.
Sure, a strong 56 percent majority of Arab voters want Bibi replaced, but the fact that nearly a third favor the long-time right-wing leader further belies allegations of his racism and the notion that he rules over an apartheid state. (See related: Poll: Huge Increase in Arab Sense of Belonging in Israel)
Interestingly, the numbers in regards to Arab voters are fairly similar to those representing Jewish voters. Forty-three percent of Jewish voters want Netanyahu to remain prime minister, while 52 percent are adamantly opposed to such an outcome.
So why do Israeli Arab voters increasingly approve of Bibi?
There are many possible reasons, including the fact that Netanyahu remains the candidate with the best chance of stabilizing Israel’s fractured political landscape. But there are three big points related to the past year that are believed to have significantly altered Arab perceptions of the prime minister.
- Netanyahu made peace and normalized relations with four Arab states, including some that are going to bring a lot of new business to local Arabs and Jews, alike. See: Arab Voters Praise Bibi for Bringing Peace
- Criticism of his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis notwithstanding, Netanyahu succeeding in making Israel the first country on earth with enough vaccine doses for all its citizens, Jews and Arabs.
- Netanyahu began openly cooperating with the Islamic political party Ra’am, one of four that until recently made up the Joint Arab List. See: Mansour Abbas and Netanyahu: New Best Friends?
There is also the “right-wing threat” aspect, which Netanyahu reportedly tried to exploit last month to convince the Palestinian Authority to encourage Israeli Arabs to vote Likud.
Lapid’s expected gains notwithstanding, the center-left simply won’t have the numbers to form a coalition. The next government will be right-wing, at least at its head. And that head can either be Netanyahu or Gideon Sa’ar (with a smaller chance that it’ll be Naftali Bennett). The argument goes that while Netanyahu might maintain a status quo that the Palestinians find stifling, Sa’ar (and even more so Bennett) would be far more likely to push for new settlement construction and the annexation of large portions of Judea and Samaria.
- Netanyahu Courts Arab Voters; Nazareth Mayor: We Support You!
- Bibi, the Dove of Peace for the Palestinians