Israeli president worried about anti-Arab sentiment in April election

During an iftar for Muslim leaders in Israel, Reuven Rivlin expresses concern about Arab-Jewish relations

epa06313324 Israeli President Reuven Rivlin opens the Spain-Israel Business Meeting at Confederation of Spanish Industry's headquarters in Madrid, Spain, 07 November 2017, during the last day of his visit in Spain.  EPA/Javier Lizon
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Israelis are holding their breath to see if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will resolve a deadlock in his coalition by Wednesday — or call for new, snap elections in an attempt to maintain power.

But Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday warned that the country should also be concerned with the anti-Arab sentiment that characterized the last election in April – and in all likelihood would dominate a re-run.

Speaking at an annual Iftar hosted for Arab and Palestinian leaders in Israel, Mr Rivlin described the last campaign’s “negative records concerning the relationship between Jews and Arabs.”

“The first were the harsh attacks on the political legitimacy of the Arab parties and Arab elected officials,” he said. “The second, which worries me even more, was the low percentage of Arab voters in Israel.”

Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel, also called Arab Israelis, make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population. But only half of the eligible Palestinian Arab voters turned out to vote in April, compared to over 60 per cent in the previous election in 2015.

Analysts attributed the low voter turnout rate to the anti-Palestinian rhetoric and marginalization of Arab views and voices among the major parties, as well as calls for a boycott as well as infighting between the few Arab majority parties.

In the 2015 election, Mr Netanyahu made a last-minute Election Day pitch to his supporters to vote by warning that Arabs were turning out in “droves.”

In contrast, Mr Netanyahu disparaged Palestinian citizens of Israel throughout his 2019 campaign, such as challenging the loyalty of Arab citizens.

Mr Netanyahu’s main competitor, the Blue and White party led by newcomer Benny Gantz, also made very little outreach to Arab voters.

Mr Gantz, who headed Israel’s military during the 2014 Gaza war, released a video at the start of his campaign glorifying the numbers of Gazans killed during the fighting. The move may have found Mr Gantz some favour among Israelis who viewed him as too far to the left and soft on security, but it deeply angered and alienated Palestinians.

On Election Day itself, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party confirmed that it dispatched 1,200 election observers armed with hidden cameras to polling stations in Arab areas in order to counter what they called “voting irregularities and fraud,” despite this not being an issue in previous elections.

Palestinian politicians in Israel said it was an intimidating tactic meant to deter Arab citizens from voting.

Mr Rivlin, who speaks Arabic, has previously criticized Mr Netanyahu for his incitement against Arabs. However, as a largely figurehead position, the president has little say in actual policy.