Once upon a time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the specter of Israel's Arab citizens turning out to vote en masse to frighten his own right-wing base into casting their ballots. Now he's courting those same Arab voters—who comprise 17 percent of the Israeli electorate—in a desperate bid to save his political skin. Arab Israeli political leaders were flummoxed to see the prime minister campaigning in Nazareth, the country's biggest Arab city, and receive the endorsement of its mayor. As Netanyahu's surprise appearance set off street riots in the city revered as Jesus's hometown, the leader of one of the country's Arab political parties hinted that he, too, may strike a partnership with Netanyahu.
Fresh from clinching diplomatic alliances with two Gulf Arab countries and a pair of North African nations, the 71-year-old political sorcerer is trying to hang on to his job—which, incidentally, would give him immunity from three corruption indictments. But Netanyahu's improbable overture to Arab voters is only one part of his chess game. As Israel's greatest political survivor, Netanyahu is operating on a multiplicity of levels to prepare for Joe Biden's presidency. If his rivals fail to dethrone him in Israel's March 23 election, Netanyahu has a clear agenda: polish his legacy as peacemaker with the Arab world—Palestinians be damned—neutralize Iran, retain the support of the United States under Biden, and stay out of prison.
As Biden settles in, Netanyahu must avoid picking up where he left off in bitter showdowns with Barack Obama when he was president. Lowlights included Netanyahu's Republican-arranged speech before a joint meeting of the House and Senate to denounce Obama's 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. In a parting shot the following year, Obama dismissed Israel's appeals and sat by as the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning West Bank settlement construction.
Now Netanyahu is doing his best to embrace the new U.S. administration. Cast aside are his previous campaign boasts about his intimate alliance with disgraced former President Donald Trump. (Last year, Netanyahu's Likud party put up 15-story billboards in Jerusalem of the two men shaking hands.) Turning up in Nazareth isn't just geared toward winning votes. Ever the tactician, Netanyahu is also trying to show Biden and Gulf leaders that he is sensitive to Arab concerns. To that end, he promises to plow billions of shekels into long-neglected Arab schools and hospitals and bolster police presence in the Galilee to stem a crime wave in Arab cities. Netanyahu has also temporarily shelved plans to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank, a promise made to the United Arab Emirates to acknowledge the Palestinian plight as they signed the Abraham Accords.
But that's not going to win him an election in Israel's rowdy political arena, where the once dominant Labor Party and other left-of-center parties have all but disappeared. Once he has pacified Biden, Netanyahu will pivot to secure his hard-line Likud base and the smaller ideological parties he needs to build a governing coalition. Only with them, and perhaps a seat or two peeled off from the Arab parties, will he be able to stay in office and maintain leverage over the justice system.
When his campaign gets to that point, look for the real Netanyahu to shed any statesmanlike wrapping. Fired up at campaign rallies, his ardent followers will chant his name as fervently as Trump's chanted his before they stormed the U.S. Capitol. Head to head with his less cunning challengers—Gideon Saar of the New Hope party, Naftali Bennett of Yamina, and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid—Netanyahu will come out swinging.
Those criminal indictments? Petty revenge by political enemies on the left who dominate the courts, he says. Annexation freeze? A courtesy to the Emiratis while the West Bank's Jewish population grows and construction sites proliferate within its existing 130 settlements. Central to Netanyahu's bid to stay in power will be Israel's acknowledged leadership in battling the COVID-19 pandemic by vaccinating its population faster than any other country. Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu will trumpet his new Middle East agreements, including the smashing of the Arab boycott of Israel, as testament to his unparalleled diplomatic skills. "[Netanyahu's] maneuvers, including the recent wooing of Arab voters in Nazareth, prove once again that he is a master tactician," said Riad al-Khouri, a political risk consultant for the Middle East at GeoEconomica in Amman, Jordan.
While Netanyahu is unlikely to stop Biden from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal after Trump's pullout, he will use the debate to stoke Israeli fears of Tehran and mobilize his voters. His passionate denunciation of the pact before the U.S. Congress impressed the UAE's and other Gulf states' leaders, setting up the subsequent alliance over their shared antipathy for Iran.
Netanyahu will resist being drawn into the enduring quagmire with the Palestinians, whose plight has largely ceased to be a significant factor for Israeli voters. But the Palestinians, too, are planning to hold elections in coming months—the first since 2009—with expectations that a sympathetic U.S. administration will eventually try to help them establish an independent state. While incoming U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has put out signals that the Biden administration will have other priorities for its first year, past experience has shown that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a way of crashing into the White House agenda.
In four elections over the past two years, Netanyahu has confounded pollsters, vanquished opponents, and clung to his perch in Jerusalem. After being cast for decades as a nightmare for Israel's Arabs, how ironic it will be if Netanyahu avoids following his buddy Trump into the dustbin of history only with their help.
Jonathan H Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.