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Arab Politicians Might Sink Netanyahu’s Reelection Chances

Israel’s Arabs may play a decisive role in Tuesday’s election, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to stay in power.

“Arab citizens of Israel,” as the Israeli government calls them, are ethnic Palestinians who live in Israel, not the Palestinian territories, and constitute about 20 percent of Israel’s population. Historically, the parties representing them in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, have fought bitterly among themselves. But recent changes to the electoral rules have put them into the unusual role of kingmakers.

The Knesset’s 120 seats go proportionally to all parties whose share of the popular vote meets a certain threshold. Last year, that threshold was raised from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, which many saw as an attempt to block the fractured Arab parties from having a parliamentary voice. Instead, a group of leading Arab parties decided to face the 2015 election as a unified coalition called the Joint List, which is expected to come in third place on Tuesday. (RELATED: Netanyahu Slipping In Israeli And American Polls)

Since no party in Israeli history has ever won a large enough majority to form a governing cabinet, success depends on coalitions and unstable alliances. The current leading faction, Zionist Union, is itself a coalition between two top anti-Netanyahu politicians — one of whom, Tzipi Livni, was Netanyahu’s justice minister before the government was dissolved in December. (RELATED: Will Netanyahu Remain Israel’s Prime Minister?)

Among other issues, Israeli opposition to Netanyahu rests on the prime minister’s apparent unwillingness to seek any kind of peace deal with the Palestinians. In an interview on Monday, he affirmed that if reelected, he would block all attempts at a two-state solution.

Arab parties have historically kept out of Israeli governing coalitions. But the Joint List’s leader, 41-year-old Ayman Odeh, has signaled that he would support Zionist Union if it manages to oust Netanyahu, according to The New York Times.

The Joint List was far from inevitable when it was formed in January. Its member parties’ ideologies are stunningly diverse, including Islamists, Communists and secular Arab nationalist. While Odeh, its leader, was raised in a Muslim family, he considers himself an atheist. The bloc’s full list of candidates includes Arab Muslims and Christians, as well as an Israeli Jew named Dov Khenin, who has served in three previous Knessets under Odeh’s Hadash party.

Despite its shaky foundations, the Joint List may have found the right electoral moment to coalesce: after years of falling turnout, polls predict the highest Arab voting presence since 1999. Commenters have speculated wildly about whether Arab voters will fulfill these expectations, and whether the Joint List will back a viable coalition that excludes Netanyahu’s Likud. The bloc also faces disproportionately high expectations from those who complain that Israel’s Arabs are routinely ignored by the country’s government for the allocation of basic services.

Aside from these grievances, Arabs in Israel have faced hostility in the political mainstream, where their higher birthrate in comparison to Israeli Jews is euphemistically called “the demographic threat.”

In November, Netanyahu said that Arabs protesting police brutality in their Israeli village were “invited to move” to the West Bank or Gaza. And Avigdor Lieberman, the politician who led the push to raise the election threshold, said last week that Arab citizens who criticize Israel should be beheaded. (In response, Joint List legislator Ahmad Tibi called Lieberman “Jewish ISIS.”)

According to the latest polls, Lieberman’s stridently Zionist Yisrael Beiteinu party, is itself now struggling to overcome the threshold for entry to the Knesset.

Follow Ivan Plis on Twitter

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