The argument that raged in the Knesset yesterday between MKs from the right and their colleagues from the Arab parties (joined by Arab representatives from the Labor Party) did not gain the speakers any prestige. Even worse, it added another unnecessary layer of suspicion, score-settling and hostility between the state and its Arab citizens.

A war between Israel and her neighbors places Israel's Arab citizens time and again under wrenching, burdensome scrutiny. Even those who believe that the attack on Hamas' centers of operation in Gaza is justified cannot harden their hearts to the heavy price in blood this military action exacts. They must take into account that anyone who views these images does so with a torn heart.

The distress of Israel's Arab citizens has worsened in recent years because the establishment's promises about closing the socioeconomic gap between the Arab and Jewish populations have all been broken. The bitter memory of the events of October 2000 and the recommendations by the Or Commission (established after the riots) that have yet to be enacted exacerbate the sense among this 20 percent of the population that it is viewed as a second-class community.

Government after government neglected this constituency and its villages, town and cities, abandoning their educational, welfare and even municipal councils to the hands of private organizations, among them religious or nationalist extremists. The price of this dereliction is steep, and it attests to the growing alienation of many youths from the State of Israel and its institutions.

What was yesterday's barrel of explosives that fostered a sense of persecution is likely to erupt now in a flame of disappointment, insult and anger.

A burning torch was thrown into this danger zone yesterday by Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman, though no less by the heads of the Arab parties. Acting with total irresponsibility, Netanyahu promises to handle "Hamas' supporters from within - with an iron fist," as if he does not understand that this is not support of Hamas but rather empathy for the tragic fate of Gaza's residents. Lieberman and all the Arab lawmakers, for their part, exchanged verbal low blows.

There is no doubt that the hardening of stances is encouraged by the coming elections, and it is clear that Netanyahu, Lieberman, Mohammed Barakeh, Ahmed Tibi and others do not express the feelings and desires of most of Israel's citizens, Jews and Arabs.

This is not the first time the Arab leadership in Israel is guilty of adopting more extreme positions to the detriment of the constituency it claims to represent, yet a strong democracy is not supposed to be frightened of an ostracized portion of the population, even in times of crisis. Rather, it must work to dissolve the forces of ostracism.

As long as Israel does not lift a finger to rebuild the trust between it and its Arab citizens, it must not blame them for failing any faux loyalty tests it sometimes subjects them to. On the contrary, it must show restraint despite the difficulty in doing so, and it must view their pain and protests with understanding.