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Netanyahu’s Lie in Nazareth Shows the Power of Palestinian Citizens of Israel

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A demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Nazareth, January 13, 2021.
A demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Nazareth, January 13, 2021.Credit: Rami Shllush

He can deny it as much as he wants: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s self-serving electioneering in Nazareth on Wednesday – and in the towns of Umm al-Fahm and Tira before that – was so obvious and unsophisticated that it was embarrassing.

On the other hand, his intent and skill at inciting “the good Arabs,” in the form of Mayor Ali Salam, against “the bad Arabs” of the Joint List party and its leaders, have their share of sophistication. This is sophistication in the style of Arab-affairs experts whose knowledge of Palestinian society on both sides of the Green Line – its problems and internal crises under the burden of the Israeli regime – has been enlisted to upgrade the tools of control and subservience.

Salam played his role in the Orientalist scenario well and answered Netanyahu with embarrassing obsequiousness. “There’s an election soon – what the prime minister has done what nobody else has done,” he told his high-level visitor, according to a report on the Walla news website. “Never have we had it as good as we do now. If you hadn’t been involved in the coronavirus [efforts], I don’t know what we would have done. You take care of all the people, you don’t care whether they’re Arab or Jewish, and despite this whole mess you even make peace.”

Of his own free will, Salam set upon the common enemy: “The Joint List has done nothing. The entire Arab society is disappointed over what they’ve given, and about their work and attitude toward their electorate.”

There’s also sophistication in the semi-open message that the prime minister delivered to the residents of Nazareth and other Palestinian citizens of Israel: Elect me, elect Likud, don’t elect the Joint List – and you’ll have it better.” Putting aside the corruption indictments against him, he did what candidates for prime minister usually do: He proposed election bribery to a large group, of which so far only a few thousand have ever voted for his party.

A woman at the demonstration. Credit: Rami Shllush

Here too, Salam proved that he got the message loud and clear and told the prime minister: “Consider all the mayors of Arab towns the same way you consider Eli Barda, the mayor of [nearby Jewish town] Migdal Haemek. My request is that you relate to us this way and give to us. I promise you that we’ll support you.” Salam can then tell the people of Nazareth: I’ll bring you government funding like no mayor who supported the Joint List ever did.

Netanyahu’s promise that a “new era is dawning” in relations between Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel contradicts Salam’s fawning words and the wonderful reality described in them (“we’ve never had it so good”). Why do we need a new era if the present is so wonderful? But in election campaigns, nobody bothers with such details. The value of the promise of a “new era” could be seen in the way the police pounced on members of the Joint List who were demonstrating against Netanyahu’s visit.

Netanyahu again apologized for his words in 2015, when he said that “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves.” The first apology came a few days after that election, apparently related to a rebuke by the Obama administration and after this incitement had achieved its goal. On Wednesday in Nazareth, Netanyahu said he had meant to warn against voting for the Joint List.

His reasoning is clear: when Palestinian citizens of Israel are united, it’s bad for the State of Israel. When they make a direct connection between their situation as second-class citizens and their history of expulsion in 1948 and the fate of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, it’s terrible. When they’re divided and bury all political and historical contexts, as Salam is doing, it’s good for Israel and may be good for a few of them.

“Israel’s Arab citizens must be a full and equal part of Israeli society,” Netanyahu said as if it wasn’t during his term that the nation-state law was passed, aggravating the structural discrimination that has prevailed for decades.

You can’t believe that Netanyahu is sincere, but his lie is a reminder that Palestinians in Israel do have political and social clout because they have voting rights, because the GDP needs them, because they’re counted in the calculations of the Central Bureau of Statistics, unlike their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza, and because the key political forces in the Joint List fought and are still fighting for their Palestinian existence, identity and presence, to the dismay of many Israeli Jews.

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