Israel election: 'Saying ugly things about Arabs' gave Likud victory

On the streets, many maintain that the election results reveal the true colours of Israelis

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 18 March 2015 20:02 GMT
An Arab Israeli girl casts her mother's ballot at a polling station on Tuesday
An Arab Israeli girl casts her mother's ballot at a polling station on Tuesday (Getty Images)

In the heady closing days before the polls, Israel’s Arab political parties were preparing for their role of influence behind a new centre-left government. The rise of their ‘Joint Front’ was one of the triggers behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous warning about the opposition “busing in Arab voters” to hijack the election.

The statement was widely criticised, with critics charging that the prime minister was plumbing the depths and cynically playing the religious card in a desperate attempt to cling to power. But the alarmist cry, and his pledge that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch helped to get out the hard-right vote, exploited the fear of wavering others, and ensured that Mr Netanyahu unprecedented return to office for a fourth term.

The ‘Joint List’ had been the first time in recent history that the Arab parties had presented a united front: it’s leader, Ayman Odeh, was viewed across the political spectrum as a moderniser who may, in the near future, become a minister in a coalition government.

The List increased its number of MPs by three seats to 14, making them the third largest party in the Knesset. But, with Mr Netanyahu forming a cabinet, their chances of being powers behind the scenes have been reduced drastically.

The leadership kept a low profile in the aftermath of the polls. While other politicians were out and about early this morning meeting supporters and the media, MPs from the List failed to keep an appointment with international journalists in the late morning. The reason, according to an official, was that they were enjoying a lie-in.

On the streets of Nazareth, an Arab majority town, the mood among some was that the election simply reinforced the view that it would change nothing. Hamid, the caretaker at the Church of Enunciation, stated: “I was born on the same month in the same year as Mr Netanyahu. I am not happy about that. I don’t think anything will get better as long as he stays in power.”

Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Alliance, who would be leading the government had it not been for Mr Netanyahu’s unexpected triumph, would have been far better for Hamid. “Then we may have seen some progress. We are in the land of Israel and the Israelis, of course, have a right to be here. But Palestinians have their rights too, and that has been forgotten.”

In East Jerusalem, which has seen regular outbreaks of violence since last Summer’s Gaza conflict, a group of young men loudly maintained how the election results revealed the true colours of Israelis.

“They make noises about living together with Arabs, both being part of society, but then we see what happens” Saeed Mansour, a 22 year old student wanted to stress. “Look at the opinion polls, Netanyahu was losing, then he starts saying these ugly things about Arabs and the Jews go along and give him a big majority, what are we supposed to feel?”

Not all Arabs are against the Likud leader. Alaa, 21, a fellow Christian of Hamid in Nazareth, was happy to declare his allegiance. “I voted for Bibi because it keeps things stable. I voted for him last time as well, no problem. We get lots of tourists here and business is good, why change it?”

Mr Netanyahu’s rhetoric was designed to win a tricky election and it helped him do so. Bibi watchers point out that he has a track record of backtracking on what he says on the campaign trail and there is no reason why this should not be the case with Arabs.

But the fear is that Mr Netanyahu is unleashing forces he may not be able to control. David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former senior advisor asked: “Tightness of exits in Israel suggests Bibi’s shameful 11th-hour demagoguery may have swayed enough votes to save him. But at what cost?” Even some of the Prime Minister’s supporters were reflecting on the same question the morning after the night before.

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