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A nationalist return? Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters after the results of the Israeli general election on March 18 (photo: Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As the extent of Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning victory in Israel’s recent elections became clear, his domestic and foreign detractors clutched at two statements he made in the final hours of the campaign, hoping to undermine his victory and prospective government before it had even been formed. But Netanyahu’s comments — one about Arab Israelis voting “in droves” and the other conceding the unlikeliness of a Palestinian state arising during his premiership — were rather less offensive than has been suggested. Indeed, they reveal more about Netanyahu’s detractors than they do about the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s comments about Arab Israelis voting in droves came in a video posted on election day to his Facebook page (electioneering on television on election day is restricted in Israel). He said:

The rule of the Right is in danger. Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses. We have no V15 movement. We have only a call to arms, and we only have you. Go to the polling stations. Bring your friends and family members. Vote Likud to close the gap between us and the Labour Party. With God’s help and with your help we will establish a nationalist government that will protect the State of Israel.

For these words he was pilloried in Israel — mocked by confident Arab candidates, criticised by the president, condemned as racist by liberals — and similarly rebuked abroad by, among others, the New York Times and President Obama. In an interview, Obama said that Netanyahu’s statement “starts to erode the name of democracy in the country”.

On the face of it, the comments do indeed seem a little jarring; Israel, after all, routinely (and rightly) trumpets its vibrant democracy, free elections and the participation of its Arab minority. For an Israeli prime minister to make remarks apparently lamenting that participation is hardly a public relations coup. And after the election, Netanyahu felt the need to issue an apology.

However, there was more to Netanyahu’s statement than his critics cared to acknowledge. First, there was the electoral concern underpinning the statement. Following all Israeli elections, the president meets with all the faction leaders in parliament to hear their endorsement for prime minister. The parliamentarian with the most endorsements is rewarded with the first opportunity to form a coalition government with the confidence of a majority of the Knesset. With many pre-election polls suggesting Isaac Herzog’s Labour held a slight lead over Netanyahu’s Likud, and with some Arab politicians suggesting they could countenance endorsing Herzog, Netanyahu fretted that the anti-Zionist Arab parties could hand Herzog the first shot at forming a government. Hence Netanyahu’s statement, carefully parsed, was not concerned with the Arab voters per se, but with the prospect of a Labour victory, and the Arab demographic effecting it.

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