Israel’s Arab community in the campaign for the Knesset elections

Summary: in an attempt to appeal to right-wing voters, Netanyahu has targetted Israel’s Arab citizens and their representatives, adding insult to the injury which resulted from last year’s Nation-State law.

Ahmad Tibi, Member of the Knesset since 1999, a leading representative of Israel’s Arab community and a target for PM Netanyahu’s electoral rhetoric (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Prime Minister Netanyahu, campaigning for the Knesset elections scheduled for 9 April, has made disobliging statements about Israel’s Arab community – or Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin, as many now prefer to be called. These statements will probably win him votes among right-wing Jewish Israelis but have at the same time highlighted the ambiguous status of Israeli Arabs. 

One of Netanyahu’s recurrent themes in the campaign has been his assertion that his Likud party’s main rivals, the Blue-and-White party led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, would not be able to form a government without including Arab parties. (The unstated assumption is that Arab Members of the Knesset – MKs – cannot be relied upon to protect Israel’s interests, including its security – a view that resonates with many Jewish Israelis.) In advancing this idea, Netanyahu has focused on Ahmad Tibi (perhaps the best-known Israeli-Arab politician and an MK since 1999), who has lobbied for better treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as the improvement of conditions for Israeli Arabs. Using his own nickname, Netanyahu told voters that they would have to choose between “Bibi or Tibi”. Tibi responded by declaring wryly that he was not aware that he was a leading candidate for prime minister but also pointed out, more seriously, that Netanyahu’s remarks delegitimised the Arab parties, their MKs and the Arab public in general. 

For his part, Gantz was quick to reject the suggestion that he would include Arab parties in his coalition, were his party to gain the largest number of Knesset seats and hence become the front-runner to form a government. According to one media report, this has caused anger among Israeli Arabs.

In implying that the Israeli Arabs cannot be trusted, Netanyahu has been adopting a tactic like the one he used on election day in 2015. At that time, fearing that Likud voters were not turning out in large-enough numbers to give him victory, he took to social media to declare that “the Arabs are heading to the polls in droves.” Following the elections, he apologised for his statement. By then, however, the damage to the self-confidence of the Arab community and its feelings about its standing within Israel had been done. 

Since then, the damage has been greatly compounded by the adoption by the Knesset in July last year of “The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People”. The law defines Israel as principally a Jewish state and gives Arabic a lower official status than Hebrew. There has already been one indication of the practical effects of the law: new signposts have appeared in Hebrew and English but not Arabic.

Ayman Odeh MK, the head of the Israeli Arab Joint List, said at the time the law was passed that the Knesset had approved a “law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens”. Moreover, while the law may reflect the views of many Jewish Israelis (and to a large extent only formalised the existing reality of widespread discrimination), others would wish to see the country behave as a state of all its citizens. When Rotem Sela, an Israeli actress, said just that on Instagram, Netanyahu responded, “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.” Gal Gadot, another Israeli actress (famous for her role as Wonder Woman), expressed her support for Sela’s stance. And Israel’s President Rivlin, without naming Netanyahu, spoke of “entirely unacceptable remarks about the Arab citizens of Israel”. 

If Israeli Arabs took some comfort from these statements, recent election-related decisions of the Supreme Court may also have had the same effect. On 17 March, the Court banned a far-right politician, Michael Ben-Ari, from running in the elections on the ground of persistent racist incitement against Arabs. On the same day, the Court reversed the disqualification by the Central Election Committee of the Balad-United Arab List party and of Ofer Cassif, a Jewish member of the Hadash-Ta’al Jewish/Arab party. 

Despite these developments, many Israeli Arabs may be tempted, through disillusionment, to boycott the elections on 9 April. Nevertheless, in polling carried out by the University of Maryland, 73.5% of those Israeli Arabs questioned said they intended to vote (although, based on a similar exercise in 2015, the actual turnout is likely to be several percentage posts lower).  Israeli-Arab politicians such as Ayman Odeh appear to hope that, despite their community’s distaste for Gantz’s refusal to countenance the inclusion of their parties in any coalition he might lead, Israeli Arabs may come out to vote as an expression of their antipathy to Netanyahu

The Arab community is a substantial one, making up around one in five Israelis. If Israeli-Arab voters do turn out in large numbers on 9 April, this could have an impact on the outcome, by preventing some of the smaller Jewish parties from crossing the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes cast. This could, in turn, deprive Netanyahu of the right-wing allies he would need to form a coalition government. However, this is just one scenario among many, in a finely-balanced and unpredictable electoral contest.