The conservative prime minister of a major country in Europe calls a general election, confident he will win another term. Much to his chagrin, pollsters inform him he’s fallen behind his main competitor and may yet lose.
In desperation, he issues an appeal to his core constituents. He says, “Right-wing rule is in danger. Jewish voters are streaming in droves to the polling stations. The left-wing non-profit organizations are bringing them in buses.”
What would you think of this if you were a decent, tolerant person? You’d be disgusted. You’d accuse the prime minister of antisemitism. You’d say he’s a racist. You’d might also say he’s unfit to be leader of a nation.
Welcome to Benjamin Netanyahu’s world.
On the eve of Israel’s March 17 election, with Netanyahu’s Likud Party trailing Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party, Netanyahu uttered these inflammatory and infamous words, using the phrase “Arab voters” instead of “Jewish voters.”
Netanyahu, a polarizing figure of the first rank, was supposedly concerned that the Joint Arab List — an amalgamation of four Israeli Arab political parties — might draw votes away from the Likud and become a significant factor in the Knesset. As it turned out, the Joint Arab List, headed by Haifa lawyer Ayman Odeh, won 13 parliamentary seats, as many as pundits had expected.
The Joint Arab List, the third largest bloc in parliament, will doubtless play a role in Israeli politics after the next Knesset convenes. It should. Nearly two million Israeli citizens are ethnic Palestinian Arabs. They can neither be sidelined nor ignored, much less maligned. But as it happens, they’re effectively second-class citizens in terms of employment opportunities and government allocations to Arab municipalities.
In descending into the stinking morass of race baiting, Netanyahu demeaned himself and his party. Most important of all, he tarnished Israel.
Forty years after the United Nations passed an infamous resolution branding Zionism as a form of racism, Netanyahu validated the views of anti-Israel bashers who claim that Israel is a racist state. The United Nations revoked that resolution in 1991, but Netanyahu resurrected it, in spirit at least, by pandering to his supporters’ lowest instincts.
Realizing he had shot himself in the foot, Netanyahu tried to make amends, saying he would “take care of the welfare and security of all Israeli citizens” and explaining he was trying to “counter a foreign-funded effort to get votes that are intended to topple my party.” In short, he said, he was merely “calling on our voters to come out.”
The explanation is not only crassly expedient, but rings hollow. Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric was disgraceful and shameful, and he cannot blithely walk back what he said in the heat of the moment. He meant what he said.
It boggles the imagination that the prime minister of the world’s only Jewish state could have stooped so low in the pursuit of political survival. Israel is a nation whose identity is bound up with the Holocaust — a disaster that claimed the lives of some six million Jews, including Netanyahu’s distant relatives in Poland.
Netanyahu has made it his practice to invoke the Holocaust when Israel’s security interests are at stake. In particular, he harps on the Holocaust when the topic is Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
As Netanyahu is doubtless aware, the Holocaust was built on a foundation of racial demonization and incitement in which horrible words were translated into terrible actions. Anti-Arab rhetoric can’t be equated with the Holocaust, but words really do matter.
Netanyahu’s racist discourse may yet affect Israel’s vital relationship with the United States, its chief ally and benefactor. White House press secretary Josh Earnest correctly described Netanyahu’s rhetoric as “deeply concerning” and “divisive” — an attempt to “marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens.” Earnest reminded Netanyahu that racism is inconsistent with the democratic values and ideals that bind the United States and Israel. This is especially true in light of the fact that Barack Obama, the first African American president, sits in the White House.
Netanyahu is also alienating major segments of the Jewish Diaspora with his reckless outpourings. Israel, besieged by enemies on all sides, cannot afford to cast aspertions on its Arab citizens and turn friends like Obama into adversaries.