The Netanyahu government is directing its main efforts at repressing the political aspirations of the Arab community in Israel. The energy the government is investing toward that goal is greater than what it invests in the peace process or in thwarting the Iranian nuclear threat. This effort, on multiple fronts, expresses itself in legislative initiatives, changes in the education system, symbolic acts and diplomatic moves whose goal is to shore up Israel's Jewish identity, with the Arab minority required to surrender its demand for a more egalitarian democracy.
The increased internal tension is generally identified with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The leader of Yisrael Beiteinu has enthusiastically headed the struggle to oppress the Arab community, while breathing down his neck are ministers Eli Yishai and Yaakov Neeman. But they are only the flag bearers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hiding behind them. He is the instigator of this policy, although he rarely expresses himself in the same provocative vein.
Netanyahu sees Israel as an inseparable part of the West and its culture. He is not curious about the history, culture and language of the Arabs. He has visited an Arab community only once since returning to power (Shfaram, when school started last year ), and does not hold a dialogue with the leaders of the Arab community or with Arab intellectuals. As far as is known, Netanyahu does not hate Arabs and does not express himself toward them in racist or arrogant ways, as did Ariel Sharon. He merely keeps his distance.
Netanyahu revealed his motives and policies at the Herzliya Conference seven years ago, when he was finance minister in Sharon's cabinet. "We have a demographic problem, but it is focused not on the Arabs of Palestine but on the Arabs of Israel." He explained: "If the Arab residents become wonderfully integrated and their numbers reach 35 percent to 40 percent of the total population, the Jewish state will be canceled out and become a binational state. If their number remains around 20 percent as it is today, or even declines, but relations are harsh and contentious, then, too, the democratic fabric of our argument will be impaired."
Netanyahu was at the time on the political margins and his remarks aroused little interest beyond knee-jerk responses from the left ("racism" ). Now Netanyahu is prime minister, but his attitude has not changed. From his point of view, Israel is first and foremost a Jewish state and only then is it democratic. It is not "some Israeli people" living here, as he says.
The state project to restore heritage sites, which Netanyahu is so proud of, focuses on Jewish and Zionist sites and ignores the heritage of the Arab community. The Education Ministry, headed by his close associate Gideon Sa'ar, is expunging references to the Nakba from curricula. The loyalty laws are advancing confidently toward the law books. And above all is Netanyahu's demand of the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as "the state of the Jewish people," which seems to him a shield against future demands for Arab autonomy in the Negev and Galilee.
And what would the Arabs get if they were to agree to give up their national aspirations in a Jewish state? Netanyahu proposes internal economic peace. He knows that it will be hard for Israel to grow in the future if its Arab citizens are not part of the work force. The government has allocated more than NIS 1 billion to infrastructure development and encouraging higher education in the "non-Jewish sector." It is willing to advance the Arabs as individuals and give them human capital, if they shut their months as a group and forget the idea of a "state of all its citizens."
It is easy to label Netanyahu as discriminatory, racist and exclusivist. But that is polemics that ignores the political motive. Whether the left returns to power depends on garnering Arab votes for Jewish or mixed parties. What to do - it's a question of demographics: Population growth in Israel is coming mainly from the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, which provides major reserves of right-wing voters in the future and erodes the reservoir of left-wing Jewish voters.
The more the Arab community is pushed off the political playing field, refrains from voting or votes only for sectorial parties, the further away the left will get from the possibility of a majority, and right-wing governments will prevail for generations. That is the long-term significance of the internal struggle the Netanyahu government is spearheading.
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