Why Bibi fears Arab voters

The Israeli-Arab politician Ayman Odeh (front, third from right) at a campaign rally for the Joint List alliance of Arab parties ahead of Israel’s September election, Aug 23, 2019. (photo: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images)
For the first time in decades, many see an unprecedented opportunity for an Arab-Jewish partnership in Israeli politics.

By Yardena Schwartz | New York Review of Books | Sep 10, 2019

‘The Arab vote actually matters this time. Not since Rabin have we witnessed such attention paid to Arab voters.’
— Thabet Abu Rass, Arab-Israeli co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, an organization promoting equality in Israel

The giant yellow billboard near the Arab town of Nahef in northern Israel declares in Arabic, “This time, we are the decision-makers.” It is a reminder to the nearly 2 million Arab citizens of Israel that in this election, which will be held on September 17, they could decide Israel’s future as a democratic state. Their votes, should they choose to wield them, have the power to end the reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Long relegated to the margins of Israeli politics, Arab voters are playing a central part in this do-over election, triggered when the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted to dissolve itself after Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition following an election in April. Arab voters suddenly find themselves under a spotlight from every direction. On the right, they are being weaponized to scare Israelis into going to the polls and keeping “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is popularly known, in power. On the left, Arab voters are being actively courted by Israeli politicians who finally understand that they need their support to unseat Netanyahu.

There are, of course, obstacles on all fronts. This is, after all, Israel. Arab-majority parties have never served in any Israeli government, and have historically refused to join any governing coalition. Jewish parties, in turn observing a reciprocal taboo, have ruled out forming a governing coalition with them. These hardened positions now appear to be melting.

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