Israel election 2021: Netanyahu woos Arab-Israeli vote amid Joint List split

The prime minister’s overtures to the community could pay off as voting begins in crucial election, voters tell Rosie Scammell in Umm Al Fahm

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“We are all with you,” reads an Arabic billboard bearing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s picture, outside the city of Umm Al Fahm, signalling the intense campaign for votes following a split among Arab parties ahead of Tuesday’s election.

The right-wing premier's unusual push for Arab supporters seeks to profit from divisions among the Joint List, which has been weakened in the polls after the Ra'am party broke away from the Arab-led alliance.

“Our campaign is really challenging, to convince people about the importance of supporting us and of voting,” said Yousef Jabareen, a Joint List legislator.

Final preparations ahead of Israel's election

Final preparations ahead of Israel's election

After soaring to win 15 seats in the election last March, the Joint List is slated to pick up just eight places in the 120-seat parliament on Tuesday. It is Israel's fourth election in two years.

The decline follows the decision by Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist party Ra’am, to run alone after suggesting he would be open to co-operating with Mr Netanyahu. The move proved deeply controversial for the Joint List, which vows it can best serve its constituents by being active in parliament from the opposition.

But some Arab voters, who make up 20 per cent of the population, believe ties to the government will provide funds to tackle poverty and a rise in violent crime within their community.

“They want to see something really changing their lives for the better, and they say maybe his (Mr Abbas’) way will make the difference, so more and more people are going to vote for him,” said lawyer Tawfiq Jabareen, an Umm Al Fahm resident who is not closely related to the politician of the same name.

Israel’s third-largest Arab city, Umm Al Fahm has been the site of weekly protests against gun violence and the perceived inaction of authorities. So far this year 22 Arab-Israelis have been shot dead, according to the Abraham Initiatives organisation which promotes equality.

Samah Salaime, a Palestinian feminist activist in Israel, said the Arab community is grappling with how to “survive this wave of crime”.

With community concerns focusing on violence, poverty and housing, she said the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not being discussed in this electoral campaign.

“All the priorities now that force themselves onto the agenda - we are in survival mode - we are talking about the basics,” said Mrs Salaime, who heads the communications and development office of Wahat El Salam/Neve Shalom, a co-operative village founded by Arab and Jewish Israelis.

While voters like Mr Jabareen remain committed to the Joint List, the lawyer said some of his siblings are backing Ra’am and he hopes the party will win parliamentary seats.

“I want him to succeed,” he said of Mr Abbas. “I also want to see this experience, what he will do. Maybe he will change our lives, I don’t know.”

Ra’am is forecast to pass the electoral threshold and pick up four seats, according to final television polls published Friday, which could prove decisive in determining the next government.

While Mr Netanyahu's Likud is set to emerge as the largest party, polling at 30 to 32 seats, he needs the support of smaller parties to form a governing majority of 61 seats.

It's time for the Israeli audience to see that the Palestinians inside Israel have differences. They are not the same.

It is doubtful that Ra’am would be welcomed into a Likud-led government, given no Arab party has joined a coalition before and Mr Netanyahu relies on right-wing and ultra-Orthodox alliances which are unlikely to govern alongside Mr Abbas.

The Ra’am leader could, however, prop up a minority government led by the incumbent, or alternatively support a coalition seeking to oust Mr Netanyahu.

One path to victory for Israel’s longest-serving leader would be for Likud to snatch seats away from Arab-led parties, hence the premier’s unprecedented campaign among the Arab community.

The overture could lead to Likud gaining two more seats, according to the Abraham Initiatives, though Joint List politician Mr Jabareen remained hopeful his constituents would not be drawn in by Mr Netanyahu.

“His appeal in this way is kind of like an insult to the Arab community and to the Arab voters, because we know that he’s personally been in power for 12 years,” he said. “So he cannot come today as if he’s a new candidate and ask for our votes.”

While the Joint List is expected to emerge from the election as a weakened alliance, Mrs Salaime noted its internal split has exposed the diversity among the Arab community to the broader public.

“It’s time for the Israeli audience to see that the Palestinians inside Israel have differences,” she said. “They are not the same.”

Art installation encourages Israelis to vote