Netanyahu's Half-apology Can't Fix the Real Problem: His Policy

The sincerity of the prime minister's gesture will be tested by his actions in the upcoming term: Will he allow anti-democratic legislation, or try to treat 20 percent of the population as equals?

A screenshot from Netanyahu's Election Day, March 17, 2015 Facebook video warning supporters that Arabs were voting in "droves."
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Since his electoral victory a week ago, Benjamin Netanyahu has been engaged primarily in damage control, trying to assuage the rage generated by remarks and declarations he made in the last days of the campaign, which came in a desperate but effective effort to get right-wing voters to the polls.

If his attempt at repairs initially began by trying to clarify his rejection of the establishment of a Palestinian state, on Monday he tried to fix the serious damage he caused by his racist demonizing of Arab voters on Election Day, when he warned of “huge quantities of Arabs” making their way to the polling stations.

Netanyahu offered his regrets at a closed, carefully scripted and produced event, organized in part by former MK Ayoub Kara, who is No. 26 on the Likud list and will be in the next Knesset – ironically as a result of Netanyahu’s ugly remarks. Kara, a Druze, came to the short photo op with 20 non-Jewish local council heads and activists, most of them Druze, Bedouin, and Circassian. Fureidis Mayor Yunis Marii was probably the only Palestinian Arab there.

Netanyahu read out a type of apology, although the word “apologize” was not used. He didn't apologize for the outrageous statements he made on Election Day, but merely expressed regret for the fact that his words had insulted Israeli Arabs. Immediately afterward he began praising himself for the investments he had made in the minority sector.

The contrast between the unrestrained campaign on Election Day and the forced, weak apology a week later was quite upsetting. It was like publishing a one-column-inch apology on the obituary page for deliberately libeling a person on Page 1. It left a sour impression of wanting to get away with the minimum necessary.

The main reason for it was the tsunami coming from the other side of the Atlantic. The words of U.S. President Barack Obama in an interview with the Huffington Post, in which he accused Netanyahu of undermining Israeli democracy, made clear the extent of the diplomatic damage and harm done to Israel’s image in the West.

But an equally significant wave of protest came from American Jewry, the vast majority of whom are liberals, Obama supporters and Democratic voters. The shock from Netanyahu’s remarks on Election Day was deep, not just among liberal Jewish groups like J Street, but also in organizations at the center of the political map. American Jewish leaders who can seemingly ignore the occupation and the settlements were unable to swallow such racism from the Israeli prime minister.

Although Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday were intended mainly for the ears of the White House and American Jewry, there is no guarantee they will be sufficient to wipe away the stain on him and, by extension, on his new government. It’s fairly certain they were far from enough to mollify Israel’s Arabs, judging by Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh’s emphatic rejection of Netanyahu’s remarks.

Netanyahu’s “apology” didn’t convince anyone, since the major problem is not his insulting remarks but his government’s policies. Only a short time before the well-timed, well-orchestrated event at the Prime Minister’s Residence, Netanyahu met with Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett to discuss the nation-state law, which many of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens regard as nothing less than a declaration of war on their rights and identity.

Netanyahu’s sincerity will be tested by his actions during the coming term. Will he allow anti-democratic legislation, discrimination and incitement against Arabs, or will he try to speak with 20 percent of his citizens and their representatives as equals, with honesty and sensitivity? If Netanyahu wonders how he might go about this he can get some tips from President Reuven Rivlin.

Making budgets available is important, but equality and partnership for Arab citizens isn't measured just in money, but in respect and empathy. Apologies, regrets, it really doesn't matter. It’s sad that Netanyahu said those things in the first place. It’s good that he backtracked. Now we must hope that his actions will atone for his words.