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RAMLA, Israel – Israeli Arabs emerged from this week's parliament election with more political clout but also a greater sense of exclusion, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied his supporters by suggesting a high turnout of Arab voters would put his rule in danger.
The election, in which Netanyahu eventually secured his fourth term, highlighted the fraught relationship between Israel's Arab citizens and the Jewish state.
Arabs voted in larger numbers than before and turned the main party representing them, the Joint List, into the third-largest in parliament, signaling they are more willing to work within the political system to seek equality. But some also said the campaign, which has polarized Israeli society, reflected an increasingly hostile atmosphere toward Arabs.
"I felt like someone stuck a knife in my heart because I am always pushing for equality between Arabs and Jews," Zuhair Bahloul, a veteran Arab sportscaster known for his pitch-perfect game commentary in Hebrew, said of Netanyahu's election day remarks.
"There is a bit of a feeling of despair because the prime minister is not the prime minister of all citizens, and the right is trying to push the Arabs aside," said Baloul, 64, who will enter parliament for the center-left Zionist Union, which failed to unseat Netanyahu.
In what was seen as an attempt to galvanize his hard-line supporters during Tuesday's election, Netanyahu had warned that "Arab voters are going in droves to the polls," with the help of "left-wing" activists. A posting on his Facebook page at midday during the balloting said the high turnout by Arab voters was putting right-wing rule "in danger."
The Israeli leader has since said in interviews with U.S. media outlets that he had been misunderstood.
He told NBC that he hadn't been trying to suppress Arab voting rights, but to "counter a foreign-funded effort to get the votes that are intended to topple my party."
Asked by NPR if he would engage in fence-mending, given how his remarks were received, Netanyahu said: "Well, I certainly will make sure that everybody understands that I'm the prime minister of all of Israel's citizens, and I really believe that. It's something that my actions have shown. It's not a question of fence-mending, it's a question of real belief, and it's there. I don't have to fabricate it."
Earlier, White House spokesman Josh Earnest criticized the original comments as a "cynical election day tactic (that) was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab Israeli votes."
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, told The Associated Press that anti-Arab rhetoric by Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — who regularly accuses Arab politicians of representing terrorist groups — pose an "existential threat" to Arab citizens.
Odeh said his party, which won 13 seats in the 120-member Knesset, will respond by fighting to improve the lives of 1.7 million Arabs, who account for just over 20 percent of Israel's population. He has said his party will work on shared issues with center-left Jewish opposition parties and seek membership in key parliamentary committees.
Odeh and his allies may be in for a long slog in opposition. Netanyahu has signaled he will set up a government of right-wing and religious parties. That's a potentially more stable coalition than his previous one, which was beset by ideological differences between centrists and ultra-nationalists and lasted less than two years.
Some analysts have described the 2015 election as a "tribal" vote reflecting the deep ethnic and religious divides even among Jews, despite the campaign's focus on economic issues, such as the high cost of living.
After initially trailing in opinion polls, Netanyahu's Likud Party did well in traditional strongholds, including working class towns with large numbers of Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern descent. The Zionist Union made a strong showing in Tel Aviv, seat of Israel's economic and cultural elites. Odeh said 90 percent of Arab voters backed his party.
Working-class Ramla near Tel Aviv is one of just several mixed towns in the country, and Arabs make up 23 percent of its population of 77,000. It showed similar patterns, with Likud winning nearly 40 percent of the vote, while the Joint List won 15 percent, according to media reports citing official results.
Fayez Mansour, an Arab member of the city council, said Ramla is also typical when it comes to Jewish-Arab relations.
On a personal level, they are mostly good, even cordial, he said. Even in mixed towns, many Arabs and Jews still live in separate neighborhoods and study in separate schools, but the lines are increasingly blurred.
"In the day-to-day life, there is no open tension," Mansour said. "Many Arabs and Jews are neighbors. They invite each other to weddings and other occasions."
However, Jews get preferential treatment from the authorities on housing, education and resources, said Mansour, a member of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party that became part of the Joint List.
Arab neighborhoods are lined by highways or railroad tracks, with little room for expansion, and some Arabs seeking to buy apartments in Jewish areas had to resort to legal action against reluctant contractors or landlords, he added.
"We have major problems with all the government institutions, with the municipality," said Mansour, 65, a retired school principal. "The Arabs are being ignored."
Ofer Toder, a senior city official, said Arabs and Jews are treated according to the same standards and that the city is trying to foster co-existence. "We really invest a lot of money in Arab neighborhoods," he added.
In Ramla's open-air vegetable market, Jewish shopper Tamir Shlomo, 53, said he believes Arabs have a better life in Israel than elsewhere in the strife-torn region. "It's paradise for the Arabs," Shlomo said. "They are getting equality. They don't need to complain about anything."
A similar debate has been going on for years on the national level.
Some argue that Arabs have gained ground, including in education, and point to a growing Arab middle class. Twelve percent of Arabs have 16 or more years of education, up 4 percentage points over the past decade, though that's still less than half the rate of college-educated Jews.
Some Arabs have risen to prominent positions, including a Supreme Court justice who heads the central election commission. Arab and Jewish doctors have traditionally worked side by side in Israeli hospitals. Some top TV and cultural figures are Arabs, including the chief newsreader on Army Radio, who is Druze.
Netanyahu, defending his record amid widespread criticism of his election-day remarks, told NBC that his government has spent "billions" in Arab towns to upgrade infrastructure and schools. His spokesman, Mark Regev, said the government is also waging an "aggressive campaign to encourage employment of Israeli Arabs" in the private sector and has put in place affirmative action programs for Arabs in the public sector.
Sammy Smooha, a sociologist at Haifa University, said Israel's right-wing politicians are traditionally open to the idea of promoting greater economic equality but will likely pursue more legislation bolstering Israel's definition as a Jewish nation-state.
Critics say such efforts could weaken the communal rights of Arab citizens.
Many Arabs say they first felt more integrated in the 1990s, when the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin was pursuing peace with the Palestinians. The sense of hopelessness that now prevails seems to be having the opposite effect.
Bahloul, one of the earliest Arab success stories, said he believes Arabs have lost ground in Israel in recent years.
"The integration of Arabs is very slow, and the development of the Arab community is stuck, it's frozen," he said. "We are heading toward difficult years."
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.