By Ray Hanania
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not my favorite Israeli leader, but he has managed to win election after election and continues to have the greatest influence on what happens to my relatives and friends who struggle to survive there.
Netanyahu is the quintessential politician and he knows better than most how to manage and manipulate public opinion to his advantage. That is why I am not surprised that the Israeli PM has announced plans to mount a campaign to win support from Israel’s Palestinian voters, who represent 20 percent of the country’s population. It is a smart strategic move to build support in the run-up to the next election, which is expected to be held on March 23.
Netanyahu has served a total of more than 15 years over his two spells as Israel’s prime minister. He, more than anyone else in the Middle East, has influence over Palestinian lives, human rights and statehood. Yet, despite all that time in power, Netanyahu has already had to struggle through three elections in the past two years. While facing charges of corruption, Netanyahu failed to win a decisive victory in the most recent election last March, but he still managed to land on top in a coalition with his chief rival, Benny Gantz.
Gantz, who is slightly less conservative than his coalition partner, was supposed to share the prime minister’s role, but Netanyahu orchestrated the collapse of the governing agreement and now believes he can win outright in March.
One bump in the road for Netanyahu was the rise of the Palestinian Arab vote in the last election. Clearly, this community is a minority that cannot be ignored. However, until now, that is exactly what Netanyahu has done. In the last election, he fanned the flames of racism by warning that, if he did not win Jewish support, the Arabs might take over.
Having reported on US and Western elections for nearly 45 years, I know that racism is sometimes less about race and more about politics. Smart politicians “manage” race and racial issues to manipulate voter turnout. Oftentimes, it is not because they are racist but because they see race as an instrument that could help ensure an election victory. It may be an amoral strategy, but the manipulation of race is often seen in Western elections.
Instead of fomenting racist division in Israel, as he did last year, Netanyahu has this time decided to pander to the Palestinian Arabs. They are a prime target for his manipulation considering that their own leaders have never truly understood the fundamentals of elections and always seem to rely on emotions rather than strategy.
That weakness in the Palestinian Arab leadership probably explains why the community’s vote has never reached its true potential. If it did, Palestinian Arab voters, who make up 20 percent of the electorate, should be able to elect 24 representatives to the 120-member Israeli Knesset. The most they have ever achieved is 17. With seven more seats, the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel could pretty much determine who will be the next prime minister and reverse the Israeli government’s embrace of apartheid policies and its opposition to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Netanyahu sees that and, if he can’t decisively win by fomenting anti-Arab hate among Israeli Jews, then as a politician he will try to manage at least a portion of that vote so that he won’t have to share power once again.
He also understands how emotional the Palestinian Arab population is. It is not inconceivable that these victims of violence and crime will find themselves looking toward their oppressor for answers. It would be like a variation of the famous Stockholm syndrome, which sees hostages bond with their captors.
All Netanyahu needs to do is show more concern and compassion for the Palestinian Arabs, not in terms of nationalism but in terms of treating them more equally. Israel has adopted more than 65 laws that discriminate against non-Jews. Without losing his right-wing conservative support, which opposes Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu could reduce the racism and increase non-Jewish rights to almost being equal.
He just needs to win a small portion of the Palestinian Arab vote to solidify his leadership and maybe even wriggle out of the corruption prosecution that looms over him. He certainly has an open road to try. The Palestinian Arab leaders in Israel have never reached their full potential and really don’t understand the power that strategic communications has on election results. They will respond to his strategy by advancing a very emotion-driven campaign, as they are already doing.
If Netanyahu can maintain clarity in his purpose and truly make a difference to the lives of Israel’s non-Jews, reaching out to win Arab votes would be a smart move.