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Arab Israelis Hope Their Votes Will Help To Oust Netanyahu


All right. A fifth of Israel's population are Arabs, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. And some want to play a bigger part in the country's politics. Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday, and some Arab Israelis hope to use their numbers to help oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.



DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Benjamin Netanyahu is singling out Arab voters and politicians in campaign videos.


NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Netanyahu says, "we are not going to let them steal the elections again." His party hasn't provided evidence but alleges Arab voter fraud blocked his path to victory in the last elections. This week, Netanyahu tried but failed to pass a law allowing filming at polling stations, which critics say was an attempt at intimidating Arab voters. And Netanyahu has issued a warning to his supporters.


NETANYAHU: The question in this election is a simple one. Who is going to be the next prime minister of Israel? Will it be me...

ESTRIN: Or an opponent who appoints Arab politicians to the Cabinet.


NETANYAHU: A leftist government that will include Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh as ministers in their government.

ESTRIN: About 20% of Israel's population are Arabs - that is, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They're not the Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank or Gaza without citizenship or voting rights. And since they don't want to be involved in policies targeting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, they've stayed out of Israeli Cabinet posts. But now Ayman Odeh, who heads the only Palestinian Arab ticket, says he's willing to join a centrist coalition against Netanyahu.


AYMAN ODEH: (Through interpreter) Without us, Netanyahu will definitely remain prime minister. We can tip the scales.

ESTRIN: That's him speaking to voters in the town of Sakhnin. But the leading centrist party led by former General Benny Gantz says it doesn't want him in the government it hopes to form - apparently to avoid alienating some Jewish voters.

JAFAR FARAH: Benny Gantz is not presenting vision of peace. The vision of peace is inclusion of the Arab community.

ESTRIN: That's political activist Jafar Farah. He says many in his community want to be more involved in Israeli decision-making. While many Jewish voters see Arab lawmakers as pro-Palestinian firebrands, he says they can promote peace.

FARAH: The Arab community is very important. We are a more than 20% of the population. We are not 2% like the Jewish American community. And we want to be game changer.

ESTRIN: But many don't even want to play the game, and they stay away from the polls.

MAJED GHANTOUS: It's not my game, you know?

ESTRIN: It's not your game.

GHANTOUS: Yes. If I vote or I don't vote, it's the same thing.

ESTRIN: Nineteen-year-old Majed Ghantous works at a cafe across the street from where Odeh is giving his stump speech. Ghantous says many Arab politicians are focused on the dead-end Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of bringing the changes he wants to see in his own backyard. He switches to Hebrew.

GHANTOUS: (Through interpreter) Look at our town and the nearby Jewish town. It's not the same. There, they have gardens, soccer fields, swimming pools. Here, we just have streets and stores.

ESTRIN: Some actually support Jewish political parties, hoping they'll address these problems; others boycott a system they say discriminates against them. But there's a younger generation climbing the ladder in Israeli academia and the workforce. And they say they vote to make a point, like a neurology student I met. Relatives with her asked me to only use her first name, Fatima.

FATIMA: We want to prove that we still - we are living here. We don’t want to just be oppressed by the Israeli policy. So we are going to vote in order, like, to show them that, hey, we are here.

ESTRIN: She's voting for Ayman Odeh's list next week. The question is, how many others in her community will vote, too? An activist group is planning to bus thousands of Arab voters to the polls, which Netanyahu's party has tried to block. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Sakhnin in northern Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.