Bibi Barometer: Netanyahu’s Arab Spring

TEL AVIV (Axios): Ahead of Israel’s March elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to win over an unlikely constituency: Arab voters.
Why it matters: Netanyahu has used inflammatory and even racist language against Arab politicians and voters in every election since 2015. But as he attempts to secure a majority for his “pro-Bibi” bloc, he’s changing his tune.
Between the lines: Arab turnout surged to a record-high 65% in the previous election, motivated in part by Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaigning. That earned the Arab Joint List 15 seats in the Knesset.
But many Arab voters were left disappointed after center-left candidate Benny Gantz elected to join Netanyahu’s government rather than try to form a government with the support of the Joint List.
The List has become increasingly politically irrelevant, and its decision to oppose Israel’s peace treaty with the United Arab Emirates also divided Arab voters.
Turnout is expected to drop sharply among Israel’s Arab minority, which comprises about one-fifth of the population. Polls show the Joint List falling to 10 or 11 seats in polls.
Driving the news: Netanyahu rarely visits Arab towns, but he made stops last week at COVID-19 vaccination stations in two Arab cities.
While visiting the city of Umm al-Fahm, Netanyahu appealed directly to Arab citizens to vote for his Likud party.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu said at an internal Likud meeting that he wants to save a spot for an Arab candidate on the Likud list. He added that he’ll consider appointing an Arab Cabinet minister if he forms the next government.
In recent months, Netanyahu has opened a backchannel to Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Joint List’s Islamist faction — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Netanyahu’s move has implications for other parties, many of which had avoided naming Arab candidates for fear that Netanyahu would exploit such a move politically.
Since Netanyahu began courting Arab voters three other parties announced that they would add Arab candidates to their electoral lists.
What to watch: Netanyahu hopes to win two to three seats from Arab voters and further weaken the Joint List. He sees that as one route to the 61 seats he needs for a Knesset majority that would allow him to pass laws to block his corruption trial.
Netanyahu hopes to travel to the UAE and Bahrain in the coming weeks as part of a pre-election appeal to Arab voters.

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