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Israel election: Why Netanyahu's makeover made him an improbable 'Arab lover'

After years of inciting against Israel's Palestinian citizens, Netanyahu is running as 'Abu Yair' and keen to be seen sipping coffee with Bedouin elders
An electoral billboard by the Joint List depicting Premier Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption in Arabic saying "the father of the nation-state law, says 'a new approach', who is he fooling?", in Umm al-Fahm on 12 March 2021 (AFP)

It is another closely contested Israeli election, the fourth in two years, and that has meant a rerun of recent campaigns. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, is once again fighting dirty against rivals in the hope of winning a decisive parliamentary majority to force through legislation to overturn his current corruption trial. 

But something is dramatically different this time. 

After six years of campaigns in which Netanyahu repeatedly characterised the votes of the country’s large Palestinian minority as a threat to Israel’s self-declared Jewish democracy – while attacking his political rivals as “Arab lovers” – he appears to have had a conversion worthy of St Paul on the road to Damascus.

Reinvented as Abu Yair

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During this election, Netanyahu has been so keen to win over the country’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens that he has plastered billboards in their towns reinventing himself as “Abu Yair” – Father of Yair – adopting the Arab custom that refers to parents by their eldest son’s name. 

Meanwhile, he has paid more visits over the past three months to Israel’s much-neglected Palestinian communities than he has done in the rest of his long political career.  

‘When [Netanyahu] incites against the Palestinian population, his rivals are frightened to be seen as ‘pro-Arab’. And when he gives legitimacy to the Palestinian public, everyone adopts his agenda too’

- Michel Warschawski, founder of the Alternative Information Centre

His social media accounts are likewise trumpeting his new good neighbour policy. TikTok videos show him smiling as he sits cross-legged on rugs inside a desert tent taking coffee with Bedouin elders.  

He has suggested too that he may appoint to the cabinet the first Muslim on the Likud party’s candidate list, though Nail Zoabi is not in a realistic slot to win a seat in the parliament. 

Netanyahu’s allies argue that the charm offensive is working, and that his Likud party could pick up a seat or two from Palestinian voters, making them potentially the key to his winning the election.  

It is Israel’s most improbable political makeover. 

Missed chance

Other Israeli politicians are following Netanyahu’s lead. They appear to have forgotten that only months ago he made it toxic to be associated with the country’s Palestinian legislators and the public they represent. 

His chief rival in the last election, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, even spurned the chance to form an alliance with Palestinian parties that could have ousted Netanyahu, and instead joined his government.  

That seems like an age ago now. 

Gideon Saar, who broke from Netanyahu’s Likud party this election to create his own faction, New Hope, has accused the prime minister of not doing enough to ensure the safety of Palestinian citizens.  

Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Yamina party, has opened a new “Arab sector field office” and promised he is as committed to Palestinian citizens as he is to their Jewish compatriots. 

The number two in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, best known for threatening to strip “disloyal” Palestinians of their citizenship, has demanded equality for the minority. Eli Avidar has also publicly disavowed the nation state law, which denies Palestinians a right to self-determination in the region alongside Jews.  

From Zoabis to new dawn

If the right is wooing the Palestinian electorate directly, what Israelis call “the centre-left” parties now appear ready to forge a partnership with the Joint List, an electoral pact between the main Palestinian parties.

Yair Lapid, who previously offended Palestinian citizens by derisively labelling them “Zoabis”, after Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian politician unpopular with Jewish voters, has vowed a new dawn in Jewish-Arab relations: “We changed, and they changed.” 

The new Labor leader, Merav Michaeli, has suggested allying with the Joint List is all but inevitable – a sea change from her predecessors. One of her recent predecessors Isaac Herzog, by contrast urged Labor members to “shake off” the feeling that they needed to behave like “Arab lovers”.  

And the most liberal of the Zionist parties, Meretz, is fielding two Palestinian candidates in its top five slots – double their proportion in the population. Its leader, Nitzan Horowitz, has proudly declared: “I think that in no party since the establishment of the state has there been such a ratio of Arabs to Jews.”  

Cynical posturing

So what explains Netanyahu’s apparent change of heart – and why has it so rapidly transformed the other Zionist parties’ approach to the Palestinian minority? 

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Yousef Jabareen, a member of the Joint List, issued a statement this week, stating that the Palestinian public “is not fooled by Benjamin Netanyahu’s sudden interest in our community. His legacy towards us will be one of racist incitement.” 

Analysts who spoke to Middle East Eye agreed that Netanyahu is engaged in yet more cynical political posturing. And paradoxically, they point out, the current flirtation with the Palestinian public is evidence that the Palestinian parties are weaker and more divided than they have been in years. 

“This is really about Netanyahu finding another way to damage the Palestinian community in Israel to serve his own self-interests,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

Michel Warschawski, a founder of the Alternative Information Centre, which has long promoted dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, concurred.

“Netanyahu’s strength is that he can fix the political agenda in Israel like no other politician,” Warschawski said.

“When he incites against the Palestinian population, his rivals are frightened to be seen as ‘pro-Arab’. And when he gives legitimacy to the Palestinian public, everyone adopts his agenda too.”

Need for clear majority

Netanyahu’s change of tack, noted the analysts, is simply the latest strategy for weakening the Palestinian vote in Israel. 

Netanyahu has been grappling with the problem of how to deal with the Palestinian minority’s large block of votes since its four main parties created the Joint List in time for the 2015 election. 

Since then, the Joint List has emerged from each election as the third-largest party in parliament as Palestinian voters have increasingly rallied behind it. Last year it won a record 15 seats in the 120-member parliament.  

That has effectively stymied Netanyahu’s efforts to form an ultra-nationalist coalition government with the clear majority of seats he needs to pass an immunity law to block his trial. 

‘Coming out in droves’

Buttu noted that back in 2015 Netanyahu tried to nullify the List’s influence by scaring his base into voting in greater numbers. Notoriously he warned the right that “the Arabs are coming out to vote in droves” – earning a rebuke from then-President Barack Obama. 

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By the 2019 election, Netanyahu switched tactics and sought to intimidate the Palestinian minority into staying home. He sent Likud election “monitors”, armed with body cameras, into polling stations in Palestinian communities.

After the courts ruled his party’s use of cameras illegal, in the next election Netanyahu defamed the Palestinian public as threatening to “annihilate us all”. 

After these various tactics backfired, Netanyahu is now pursuing a third – and potentially more successful – tactic of “divide and rule”. 

Good and bad Arabs

Amal Jamal, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, said Netanyahu had shifted away from inciting against the Palestinian public and focused instead on portraying the Joint List as betraying its supporters. 

“This election has been about drawing a clear distinction between good Arabs and bad Arabs, between pragmatic Arabs and dogmatic Arabs, between those who will work with Netanyahu productively and those who won’t,” Jamal said. 

In this new political discourse, most Palestinian citizens are presented as keen to improve their situation with Netanyahu’s help while their leaders serve as an obstacle to progress.

As a result, Netanyahu has been hot-footing it to Palestinian communities to play up the benefits another term of his government would bring to the minority. 

He has highlighted the windfall of vaccines he secured for Israel, and has promised extra budgets to stop a wave of criminal violence in Palestinian communities that is largely the result of years of police neglect and hostility.  

He has also suggested that the Palestinian minority, if it is forward-thinking, will be well placed to reap the rewards of recent “peace deals” with Gulf states. The implication is that decades of systematic discrimination could be about to end. 

In speeches, Netayahu has told Palestinian citizens: “Likud is your home.”  

Pact with Jewish Power

Few analysts believe Palestinian citizens will be directly gulled into voting for Netanyahu. After all, he is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, in power for more than a decade. 

Jamal observed: “When he addresses the Palestinian public, he insults their intelligence – as though they have forgotten about his incitement and his role in passing racist laws over the past decade.

“He treats them like idiots.”

‘This election has been about drawing a clear distinction between good Arabs and bad Arabs... between those who will work with Netanyahu productively and those who won’t’

- Amal Jamal, political scientist

And at the same time as wooing the Palestinian minority, Netanyahu has also been forging an electoral alliance with the Jewish Power party, refugees from the late Meir Kahane’s vehemently anti-Arab Kach faction, which was outlawed as a terrorist organisation back in the 1990s. 

Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s manoeuvring has managed to exacerbate discontent within the Joint List, breaking off one of its four parties, the conservative Islamic faction of the United Arab List (UAL). 

Netanyahu, said Jamal, was replicating the strategy he used against Gantz and the Blue and White party after the previous election, a year ago. 

“The aim then and now is to disable any bloc of parties from being able to form a rival government by weakening that bloc. Before, he succeeded by splitting Blue and White, and now, he’s done it by breaking apart the Joint List.”

The Gantz of this campaign is Mansour Abbas, the UAL’s leader.

He has been lured into running separately from the Joint List apparently in the belief that he can tap Netanyahu’s new-found goodwill towards the minority. 

Abbas has campaigned on the basis that he alone can extract concessions from Netanyahu for the minority, and indicated he might be ready to pass an immunity law to help extricate Netanyahu from his corruption trial. 

Political ‘rookie’

Polls show Abbas’ party hovering close to the threshold of four seats needed to enter parliament. 

Buttu called Abbas a “political rookie keen to make a name for himself”, and warned that the Joint List’s breakup was certain to erode turnout and support among Palestinian citizens.

Netanyahu has positioned himself so he gains whatever the outcome. 

“If his Likud party gets a few extra votes from the charm offensive, he wins. If disillusioned Palestinian citizens turn out in smaller numbers for the Joint List, he wins. And if Abbas passes the threshold and offers Netanyahu support, he wins,” Buttu observed.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu has needed to navigate a tricky campaign trail. He has distanced himself from Abbas both to avoid suggesting that the UAL leader is a traitor to his people and to avoid alienating his own base.

“If he needs Abbas after the election, Netanyahu will tell his supporters he had no choice because otherwise the ‘left’ would have won,” Jamal said.

Fighting for survival

The splintering of the Joint List has opened up possibilities for the right-wing Zionist parties, especially, that are keen to attract the small number of Palestinian citizens who voted “pragmatically” for Gantz’s party in the last election. 

Warschawski noted that the embrace of the Palestinian minority by the so-called Zionist “centre-left” had a different cause.

'[Abbas] taking on the role of kingmaker would create a deep and lasting fissure within the Palestinian community. It would undermine the whole rationale of Palestinian politics inside Israel'

- Diana Buttu, former PA advisor

He pointed to a large demonstration in Tel Aviv against the Nation State Law in 2018. It was the first time, he said, Jewish liberals had allowed Palestinian politicians to take the lead at a protest in Israel’s main city. 

“We are seeing a gradual evolution in the thinking of these ‘moderates’ as they find their position growing ever weaker against the right,” he said. 

“Very late in the day, they have started to understand that their political survival depends on making an alliance with the Palestinian population and their leaders.

“Otherwise, they are finished as an opposition to Netanyahu.” 

Government of occupiers

Both Jamal and Buttu said it would be a dangerous moment for the Palestinian minority if Abbas passed the electoral threshold and chose to participate in a Netanyahu government.

Jamal dismissed the comparison with the decision of Palestinian parties to support Yitzhak Rabin from outside his government in the early 1990s.

“That was done for the sake of Oslo. Now there is no peace process, even one on the horizon. In fact, it’s the very opposite. There is the [former US President Donald] Trump plan, and talk of annexing the West Bank. The atmosphere is entirely different,” he said.

Buttu said it would be disastrous if Abbas sat in “a government of occupiers”. 

“He would be legitimising a government that is besieging Gaza, dropping bombs on Palestinians, funding settlements,” she said.

“Taking on the role of kingmaker would create a deep and lasting fissure within the Palestinian community. It would undermine the whole rationale of Palestinian politics inside Israel.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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