By Rami Ayyub
HAIFA (Reuters) – Israel’s Arab lawmakers plan to commandeer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim in the last election that Arabs were heading to the polls “in droves” to encourage their own voters in April’s election.
Netanyahu’s election-day message to mobilise his right-wing voter base became a defining moment of the 2015 election, drawing criticism and accusations of racism from across the globe. Netanyahu, who won the election, later apologised.
Now Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List party said he plans to use Netanyahu’s phrase, which has become an iconic and sometimes ironic part of the language in Israel, to whip up turnout amongst the Arab minority in the April 9 vote.
“Arabs are not going to forget Netanyahu’s incitement,” Odeh told Reuters. “Netanyahu benefited from the slogan the first time around. Now it is our turn to benefit.”
Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office. If successful, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The party will run the slogan in Arabic and Hebrew, said Odeh, whose faction holds 13 of the 120 Knesset seats.
Israel’s Arab citizens, many of whom identify as Palestinian, comprise mainly descendants of the Palestinians who remained in their homes or were internally displaced after the 1948 Arab-Jewish war that surrounded Israel’s creation.
Today they make up just over one-fifth of Israel’s population. Although the Arab minority has full equal rights, many say their communities face discrimination and are treated as second-class citizens.
Arab citizens have typically turned out to vote at a rate below the national average, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
Odeh said that the Arab lawmakers’ main task will be to convince potential voters that their participation can effect real change, even if no Arab party has ever been included in an Israeli government coalition.
So far polls show Netanyahu’s Likud will be the largest party in parliament with around 30 seats. The Joint List, a coalition of four parties, may split in to two, each taking about six seats.
Odeh said a key campaign issue will be Israel’s “nation state” law, passed in 2018. It said only Jews had the right of self-determination in the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” and downgrades Arabic as an official state language on a par with Hebrew.
The law angered the Arab minority and Israeli left-wing and centre-ground politicians, many of whom opposed its passage in parliament. The bill’s supporters said it was largely symbolic and Netanyahu said it was needed to fend of Palestinian challenges to Jewish self-determination. [L5N1V20CX]
“I can argue that if we had only voted in greater numbers, we would have been able to block the law,” Odeh said. “They simply wouldn’t be able to ignore us.”
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Alison Williams)