Will Bibi make a comeback?

On 1 November, elections are set to take place in Israel for the fifth time in four years. If Arab minority voters decide to stay home out of frustration at their divided parties, they could help Netanyahu secure a comeback. Inge Gunther reports from Jerusalem

By Inge Günther

On this occasion, there is no sense of optimism in Umm al-Fahim. Not even a hint of election fever. The roundabout with the imposing obelisk at its centre – the first thing visitors notice when they arrive in Israel's third-largest Arab-Israeli city – is framed by walls of election posters.

But the slogans aren't exactly compelling. In bold lettering on a green background, the moderate Islamists of the "United Arab List" (known by its Hebrew acronym Ra'am) claim they're "closer" to the political discourse. The left-wing party Hadash, formerly Communists, asserts the same, but "with dignity", as their bright red poster promises. 

Ra'am, the smallest faction in the current Knesset, was indeed close to the centre of power. For an entire year, their leader – the avuncular Islamist realpolitiker Mansour Abbas – brought his charm and charisma to the cabinet of the most unusual government ever to exist in Israel. A coalition of eight parties, one that included the Arab Ra'am for the first time since the founding of the state.

Mansour Abbas and the Ra'am pragmatists

As key kingmaker, Mansour Abbas was able to make some significant gains for the long-neglected Arab sector. Perhaps his greatest success: three of over 30 Bedouin villages in Negev not recognised by the state were legalised and thereby connected to power and water supplies. Over a period of four budgetary years, the multi-party administration led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid also pledged billions in the form of investments in Arab local authorities.

Far-right candidate Itamar Ben Gvir (photo: Tania Kraemer/DW)
Election poster for Itamar Ben-Gvir, a right-wing Kach provocateur legitimised by Netanyahu: Gvir takes pleasure in inciting unrest, showing up regularly in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah flashpoint to support Jewish settlers and confront Palestinian protesters. Many Jewish Israelis see Ben Gvir as an immediate threat to democracy. Yet his right-wing extremist faction looks likely to make strong gains. His racist slogans and threats to expel Arabs who are "not loyal" to Israel resonate particularly with younger voters, says Inge Gunther

Nevertheless, "What use is money for a new school if there’s no land to build it," says Mudar Younes, the mayor of two villages near Umm al-Fahim and also head of the umbrella organisation of Arab local councils. Money alone is not going to change "our main problems", he continues: structural discrimination, the lack of sites for development, of master plans, of perspectives and security.

It is no coincidence that Arab cities in Israel are notorious for violence and organised crime – claiming the lives of more than ninety people in this year alone. Another reason, people complain throughout Umm al-Fahim, is that "there’s been no noticeable change in our everyday lives". 

As Younes himself admits, he is a supporter of the Balad (homeland) nationalists who reject any cooperation with a "Zionist government". Most of the two million Arabs who hold an Israeli passport value their cultural Palestinian identity. But the Balad dogmatists are, to a certain extent, the antithesis of pragmatists Mansour Abbas and Ra'am.

Balad's sticklers for principle

In 2015, both groups still belonged to the "Joint List", consisting of all four Arab parties which, with fifteen seats, made up the third-largest force in the 120-member Knesset. Ra'am pulled out in 2021. This time, three different lists are competing for Arab votes: Ra'am, Balad and the left-wing Hadash in alliance with Ta'al, the party led by Achmed Tibi, the best-known Arab-Israeli politician.

Election campaign poster in Umm al-Fahim (photo: Inge Gunther)
Exasperated by the renewed split, attributed to ego trips as well as ideological differences between the Arab parties, less than half of Israel’s eligible Arab voters intend to vote, according to polls. This is great news for ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu. The lower the Arab turnout, the greater the chances of his ultra-right, ultra-religious alliance achieving a governing majority of 61 parliamentary seats. "Bibi", as he is nicknamed, has thus renounced his notorious anti-Arab agitation of previous election campaigns, apparently realising that this could indeed drive many Arabs to the polls

They face a bitter wake-up call on election night, should their small parties not clear the 3.25 percent hurdle. Polls indicate that in exasperation over the latest discord, attributed to both ideological differences and ego trips, less than half of the Arab electorate say they will be casting a vote.

That suits ex-PM Benjamin Netanyahu fine. Reduced Arab voter participation improves the chances for his ultra-right-wing, ultra-religious alliance to capture a governmental majority of 61 seats in parliament. One reason "Bibi", as he's known, has dispensed with his usual notorious anti-Arab rhetoric in this campaign. Netanyahu has realised that in past elections, this approach probably drove many people to the polling booths.

Relying on Arab votes

Conversely: without Arab votes, the centre-left camp won’t be able to prevent a Netanyahu comeback. Yair Lapid, incumbent Prime Minister and leader of Yesh Atid (There is a Future), has conducted a series of interviews in Arab media to rouse the election-weary populace from their lethargy. Be it with declarations of support for the two-state solution as a vision for peace – or for the pledge to add an equality clause to the controversial Nation-State Law that reduces members of the Arab minority – still a quarter of the entire population – to quasi-second-class citizens.

But election campaigns are full of promises, most of which aren't credible. If there's someone who really can help to mobilise the Arab minority, then it's Itamar Ben-Gvir, a provocateur who's risen through the ranks of the right-wing radical Kach movement and who's been legitimised by Netanyahu.

Ben Gvir, chairman of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Force), representing the religious Zionists in the Knesset, takes pleasure in inciting unrest, for example in the East Jerusalem flashpoint district of Sheikh Jarrah, where he regularly shows up in support of Jewish settlers and confronts Palestinian protesters – recently even pulling out a pistol like a cowboy.

Yosef Jabareen at Hadash headquarters (photo: Inge Gunther)
Former Knesset member Yosef Jabareen at the local Hadash election campaign headquarters in Umm al-Fahim: "We need to motivate people to cast their ballots," he says. "That’s the key challenge for us." Hadash is currently the only Arab-Jewish party. As a disadvantaged minority, says Jabareen, “"we need to get into all Israeli institutions to defend our rights." But this requires a broad social alliance and not a solo effort by Mansour Abbas and his moderate Islamists from Ra'am

There are many Jewish Israelis who see Ben Gvir, who says he wants to oust the Supreme Court, as an immediate threat to democracy. Nevertheless, his right-wing extremist faction looks likely to make strong gains with this idolised figure at the helm. His racist slogans and threats to expel Arabs who are not loyal to Israel resonate particularly with younger voters who see him as someone who is finally willing to be direct. As for Ben-Gvir, he's set his sights on the post of police or interior minister in a future Netanyahu cabinet.

"We need to defend our rights"

A frightening prospect, says Yosef Jabareen. "We need to motivate people to cast their ballots," he continues. "That’s the key challenge for us." Jabareen, formerly a Knesset deputy, sits in the local Hadash election campaign office in Umm al-Fahim, kitted out with plywood furniture, plastic chairs and a "Long live the struggle of the working class" banner with hammer and sickle – relics of a bygone era.

Hadash, the only Arab-Jewish party, gave itself the additional name "Democratic Front for Peace and Equality" a long while back. Its frontman is the civil rights lawyer Ayman Odeh, a leading power broker for government participation.

As a disadvantaged minority, says Jabareen, "we need to get into all Israeli institutions to defend our rights." But this requires a broad social alliance and not a solo effort by Mansour Abbas and his moderate Islamists, he continues. 

Meanwhile, a broad coalition of Arab civil society NGOs is using quirky video clips to convince people that their voices urgently need to be heard – at the ballot box.

Inge Gunther

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Nina Coon