The Mercury News

Netanyahu courts Arab voters

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JERUSALEM >> Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent much of his long career casting Israel’s Arab minority as a potential fifth column led by terrorist sympathize­rs, is now openly courting their support as he seeks reelection in the country’s fourth vote in less than two years.

Few Arabs are likely to heed his call, underscori­ng the desperatio­n of Netanyahu’s political somersault. But the relative absence of incitement against the community in this campaign and the potential breakup of an Arab party alliance could dampen turnout — to Netanyahu’s advantage. He might even pick up just enough votes to swing a tight election.

Either way, Netanyahu’s overtures have shaken up the Arab community. The Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties that secured a record 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset last March, is riven by a dispute over whether it should work with Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud at a time when less objectiona­ble center-left parties are in disarray.

Its demise would leave the community with even less representa­tion as it confronts a terrifying crime wave, coronaviru­s-fueled unemployme­nt and persistent inequality. But given the complexiti­es of Israel’s coalition system, a breakaway Arab party could gain outsized influence if it is willing to work with Netanyahu or other traditiona­lly hostile leaders.

The struggle was on vivid display last week when Netanyahu traveled to Nazareth, the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, his third visit to an Arab district in less than two weeks. Outside the venue, dozens of people, including a number of Arab members of parliament, protested his visit and scuffled with police, even as the city’s mayor welcomed and praised him.

“Netanyahu came like a thief to try to scrape together votes from the Arab street,” said Aida Touma Suleiman, a prominent lawmaker from the Joint List. “Your attempt to dismantle our community from within won’t succeed.”

Arabs make up around 20% of Israel’s population. They have full citizenshi­p, including the right to vote, and have a large and growing presence in universiti­es, the health care sector and other profession­s. But they face widespread discrimina­tion and blame lax Israeli law enforcemen­t for a rising wave of violent crime in their communitie­s.

They have close familial ties to Palestinia­ns in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with their cause.

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