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Israel's Prime Minister May Benefit From A Rift Over LGBTQ Rights

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Palestinian citizens of Israel, a fifth of the population, are usually opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But in this month's elections, Netanyahu could benefit from a split among Palestinians over LGBTQ rights. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports. And a note - this story contains language some listeners may find offensive.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Gay Palestinian dancer Ayman Safiah tragically drowned in the sea last May, and his Muslim funeral was a landmark for the Palestinian LGBTQ community. His friends openly honored him as a gay Palestinian artist. It turned heads in his conservative society.

KHADER ABU-SEIF: There was a lot of LGBT community in the funeral, and they were, like, out and loud there. And you got a dancer dancing in a Muslim funeral.

ESTRIN: Khader Abu-Seif is a Palestinian LGBTQ activist in Israel.

ABU-SEIF: And it's something that is unusual to see in the Palestinian Muslim community.

ESTRIN: Then a few months later, a Palestinian tahini maker in Nazareth donated money to start an Arabic hotline at an Israeli LGBTQ organization. Some Arab supermarket owners in Israel protested by removing the tahini from their shelves. Arab politicians weighed in, some supporting LGBTQ rights. The Palestinian community in Israel wasn't used to talking about these issues publicly.

ABU-SEIF: And that actually divided the party.

ESTRIN: He means the coalition of Palestinian Arab parties that was the third-largest bloc in Parliament last year, a powerful counterweight that helped prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from having a right-wing majority. But Arab lawmakers disagreed over LGBTQ legislation, like whether Israel should allow gay men to have children through surrogate mothers. The Islamist Party released a video using a derogatory Arabic word for gays - shawadh (ph) which means deviants or perverts.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

IBRAHIM HIJAZI: (Through interpreter) Some lawmakers support civil marriage for the deviants. Some of them support renting out wombs. They should not support laws that disseminate vice and obscenity in our conservative society.

ESTRIN: That's Islamist Party representative Ibrahim Hijazi explaining why his party is splitting from the other Arab politicians and running independently in the elections. They've suggested they'll support Netanyahu if he invests in their community. It's a surprising move considering Netanyahu's policies sidelining Palestinian Arab citizens and his past warnings against Arabs gaining power. Progressive Arab lawmaker Aida Touma-Suleiman.

AIDA TOUMA-SULEIMAN: All his actions were incitement against our population. But he smelled the election, when he understood that the main obstacle for him to be able to form a new government will be the votes of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, he started to play this game.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu has jumped at the chance to gain Arab votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's party is campaigning in Arabic with the slogan Netanyahu works for Arabs and Jews alike. He's branded himself with an Arabic nickname, Abu Yair. He's visited Arab towns and promised to fight organized crime and violence there. In these elections, Netanyahu is flipping the script. Last year, he antagonized Palestinian citizens so much that they voted against him in record numbers. This time...

HONAIDA GHANIM: The campaign of Netanyahu is more talking to them sweetly.

ESTRIN: Sociologist Honaida Ghanim.

GHANIM: This way, the Arabs will not feel the urgent that they felt in the last elections, that they are under attack.

ESTRIN: That could lead some to stay home in this month's elections. A divided Arab electorate would mean a weaker opposition to Netanyahu and a greater chance for him to win another term as prime minister.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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