JERUSALEM • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure in his fourth re-election battle in two years, is trying to court voters he has previously demonised: Arab Israelis.
"A new era begins today," the veteran right-wing Premier said during a rare visit this month to Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city.
Mr Netanyahu, threatened by a damaging split in his Likud party, has made several stops in a game-changing charm offensive towards Arab voters that some observers have found jarring.
He highlighted Israel's rapid Covid-19 inoculation pace at a vaccination centre in Umm al-Fahm on Jan 1, while in Nazareth, he promised investment and anti-crime initiatives and apologised for potentially offensive past remarks.
Arab Israelis - Palestinians who stayed on their land following the Jewish state's creation in 1948, and their descendants - make up about 20 per cent of the country's roughly nine million people.
The community's growing political importance was evident in the last vote, in March last year, when the mainly Arab Joint List alliance won an unprecedented 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset, forming a key part of the anti-Netanyahu bloc. The next election will be held on March 23.
Mr Netanyahu, a hardliner on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, has on several occasions in recent years condemned Arab Israelis and their political leaders as terrorism supporters and enemies of the Jewish state.
Experts described his new pitch to Arabs as a nuanced political manoeuvre aimed at boosting his own support while also sowing enough political chaos to discourage some Arabs from voting, thereby reducing the influence of his Arab rivals.
Multiple recent polls suggest that right-wing Likud defector Gideon Saar, who has formed his own New Hope party, could peel a substantial number of seats away from Mr Netanyahu.
Mr Saar has categorically ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government. The pledge, if true, could deliver a hammer blow to the Prime Minister, who failed to secure a majority in three elections since April 2019, when Likud was united behind him.
The fraught coalition he formed with his centrist rival Benny Gantz in May last year following the third inconclusive election collapsed last month.
Because of Mr Saar's threat and the dangers posed by his upcoming corruption trial, Mr Netanyahu has been forced to seek support in unfamiliar terrain, experts said.
Political analyst Yoav Stern told Agence France-Presse that he believes Mr Netanyahu's true strategy is "to confuse Arab voters" so they will "tell themselves that all parties are equal and there is no reason to go and vote".
Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday urged Israel to "halt and reverse" its decision last week to build 800 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.
The decision is "a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution, and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace" in the Middle East, Mr Guterres said in a statement.
Mr Ahmad Tibi - a member of the Arab Joint List - more bluntly, charged that underlying Mr Netanyahu's bid to win over Arabs is a dishonesty that has defined the Premier's political career.
"If we gave Netanyahu a polygraph test," Mr Tibi said, "the machine would break because it wouldn't be able to cope with that many lies."