Speaking in Two Voices about Israeli Arabs

Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak in two contradictory voices about Israel’s Arab minority? Does he treat Israeli Arabs like a political football? It would appear so, judging by his comments and actions since 2015.

On the one hand, Netanyahu has marginalized and demonized Israeli Arabs, who comprise almost a quarter of Israel’s population. On the other hand, he has championed diversity and pluralism and allocated a substantial sum of government funds to develop the disadvantaged Arab sector.

Will the real Netanyahu please stand up.

Netanyahu’s seemingly schizophrenic attitude toward Israeli Arabs was laid bare a few days ago after the actress and TV presenter Rotem Sela blasted Culture Minister Miri Regev for claiming that the new centrist Blue and White Party, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, would join forces with Arab parties to form a coalition government after the April 9 election.

Arab political parties, though never having been members of an Israeli government, have backed such governments in the past. An example that comes to mind was Yitzhak Rabin’s reliance on Arab parties to build a majority in the Knesset following his electoral victory over the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir in 1992.

Acutely aware that history may well repeat itself after the forthcoming election, Netanyahu has been harping on a campaign mantra that incorporates his nickname: “Bibi or Tibi.” This slogan, of course, is a direct reference to Ahmad Tibi, a prominent Israeli Arab member of the Knesset who has been critical of Netanyahu’s hardline policies toward Palestinian Arabs. “Bibi or Tibi” implies that Israeli Arabs pose a national security threat to Israel and that Netanyahu’s Jewish political opponents are weak “leftists” conspiring with the Arab minority and a hostile media to unseat him come April.

It was against this highly-charged backdrop that Sela wrote a post on her Instagram account, which apparently has several hundred thousand followers. “What is the problem with the Arabs??? she asked. “Dear God, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal … ?”

Reacting to Sela’s indignant post with “an important correction,” Netanyahu wrote, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people  — and not anyone else.”

The controversial Nation-State law, approved by the Knesset last July, stated that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” The legislation also downgraded Arabic from an official language to a language of “special status.”

Two days after posting his “correction,” Netanyahu elaborated upon it.

“I would like to clarify a point that, apparently, is not clear to slightly confused people in the Israeli public,” he said. “Israel is a Jewish democratic state. What this means is that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone. (Israel) respects the individual rights of all its citizens — Jews and non-Jews alike. But (Israel) is the nation-state not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

Further elaborating on this theme, Netanyahu noted, “The Arab citizens have 22 nation states around us, they do not need another one.”

As might have been expected, Netanyahu’s ethnocentric remarks had a chilling effect, not only on Arabs,  but on Jews as well.

To suggest that Israel is the nation-state only of Jews is to leave Arabs in the lurch as second-class citizens who do not really belong in the country. This is an insulting insinuation that the vast majority of Israeli Arabs will not and should not accept. In a real democracy, one ethnic or religious group is not more equal than another one. That’s absolutely elementary.

Netanyahu’s attempt to sow divisions in Israeli society for political gain is disgraceful.

Lest it be forgotten, he adopted the same strategy during the final hours of the 2015 election when he warned that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls with the help of “left-wing” Jewish activists. As he indicated on his Facebook page, a high turnout by Arabs could spell the end of his right-wing Likud government.

Amid the ensuing uproar, Netanyahu apologized, saying he had been misunderstood. Several months later, in a bid to clear his name and lift Arab-Israeli communities from the slough of underdevelopment, he announced a $3.8 billion economic plan to “assist minority populations and reduce (societal) gaps.” By any measure, this was a great step forward.

In January 2016, he said he would allot $510 million to develop Druze and Circassian communities.

Six months later, in an attempt to extract something positive from his polarizing comments in 2015, he said, “I am asking Arab citizens in Israel to take part in our society — in droves. Work in droves, study in droves, thrive in droves.”

He added, “Israel is strong because of our diversity and pluralism — not in spite of it. Over 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs. And you have achieved incredible heights. Supreme Court justices, members of parliament, renowned authors, entrepreneurs, high-tech business owners, doctors, pharmacists. I am proud of the role Arabs play in Israel’s success. I want you to play an even greater role in it.”

Fine words, these. But one can imagine how disappointed Israeli Arabs must have been after listening to Netanyahu’s latest observations on their place in Israeli society. Consequently, it’s incumbent on him to clarify his position on the status of Muslim and Christian Arabs in Israel. He should do so before the election next month.

Israeli Arabs — and Jews — should not labor under any doubts with respect to that vitally important issue.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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