Opinion

The Real Reason for Netanyahu's Ferocious Attacks on Israel's Arab Citizens

Netanyahu has always known that anti-Arab incitement pays political dividends. But these elections have witnessed a new level of incitement, triggered by fear of an Arab society that is finding its voice and its identity

Ron Gerlitz
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a meeting of the Likud party in Ramat Gan. February 21, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a meeting of the Likud party in Ramat Gan. February 21, 2019.Credit: AFP
Ron Gerlitz

As Israel prepares for elections on April 9, an ongoing campaign of incitement by the government against the country’s Arabs citizens and their political leaders moves into high gear.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked mightily to get extreme-right Otzma Yehudit into the next Knesset and boost post-election support for his heading the new government. Wooing an ultra-racist party that channels Meir Kahane in its violent, vitriolic platform targeting Arab citizens and threatening their basic rights - this, Netanyahu views as reasonable political horsetrading, while simultaneously leading the vigorous delegitimization of a blocking majority to his continued rule that would include Arab parties.

>> How Netanyahu Revived Jewish Supremacism and Paved Its Way to Power >> After Collapse of Joint List, Israeli Arabs Fear Poor Election Outcome

Recent dire warnings from Netanyahu accused Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of harboring dangerous plans: perhaps forming a government reliant on the support of Arab citizens, or even including their representatives in the governing coalition.

Following improved polling for Blue and White (the combined Gantz-Lapid party), a potent threat, the prime minister ratcheted up his rhetoric into the danger zone with incitement against the political representatives of Arab citizens, claiming that the Arab parties are intent on destroying Israel.

This outrageous lie and its dangerous message poses a real physical danger to leaders of the Arab parties. Some passionate partisan from the ultra-right could decide to take action to prevent those Knesset members from "destroying Israel."

His election day talk of "Arab voters turning out in droves" is old news now, when Netanyahu is leading entire election campaign which is steeped in incitement against Arab citizens and their political representation.

Not to be outdone, Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev began her primary campaign with a venomous video offering no details of her accomplishments in culture or sport. Instead, she vilifies Arab members of the Knesset one after another.

Other right-wing ministers are stoking the flames by accusing Arab MKs of treason and all of them together piloted the Nation-State bill through the Knesset to become the law of the land in July 2018, igniting outrage and protest in Israel among Arab citizens and all who hold democracy dear.

American comedian, Roseanne Barr, holds hands with Israel's Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, during their meeting in Jerusalem's Old City January 27, 2019
U.S. comedian, Roseanne Barr, who was booted off TV for racism, holds hands with Israel's Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, in Jerusalem's Old City January 27, 2019.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

This bill and the ugly rhetoric top a decade of poisonous government political attack against Arab citizens since Netanyahu retook power in 2009.

Its three main components: incitement of unprecedented scope and intensity from the prime minister and other senior ministers, including calls to boycott Arab areas and citizens and accusations levelled against Arab Knesset members of treason and collaboration with the enemy; attempts to erode the legitimate political representation of the Arab constituency; and harsh legislation clearly signaling that Arabs have no part here and do not belong.

This prolonged attack is both morally deplorable and very dangerous: This is how intranational tensions spiral out of control and even sow the seeds of civil conflict.

Simultaneously, government ministries have continued implementing Government Decision 922 from December of 2015 intended to reduce inequality in funding for transportation, infrastructure, education, planning and housing for Arab communities.

Despite there being major areas of discrimination that have still not been addressed, and despite problems with the implementation of 922 itself, there is a real government effort underway to promote implementation of the decision – with most of the designated funding actually flowing to Arab local authorities and already producing perceptible change.

These conflicting trends – political attack versus investment – are not actually at cross-purposes. Rather, the budget investment reflects the Netanyahu government’s realization that the country has a recognized economic interest in integrating Arab citizens into the workforce.

Given the Arab population’s large size and the challenge of integrating Haredi Jews into the workforce, the finance ministry concluded that without greater Arab participation in the workforce, Israel risks economic collapse within decades.

Meanwhile the money for housing and planning in Arab towns also has another, less pleasant rationale – the desire to see fewer Arabs moving to Jewish towns.

A Likud campaign poster in south Tel Aviv: "It's us or them," it reads. "A Hebrew city or the Islamic movement in Jaffa."
A Likud campaign poster in south Tel Aviv. "It's us or them," it reads. "A Hebrew city or the Islamic movement in Jaffa."

What motivates political attacks against Arab citizens is the conviction among right-wing politicians, including the prime minster himself, that incitement and threats buy them more political power with voters and within their own parties. 

The tide of racist campaigns against Arab citizens during local government elections in October 2018, and the anti-Arab campaigns by right-wing ministers as national electioneering got underway in January 2019, suggest that numerous politicians believe that the anti-Arab line is politically worthwhile and they act accordingly. But why specifically now is this anti-Arab line being adopted with such unprecedented ferocity?

One reason: It’s a backlash among the (Jewish) extreme right against the growing strength of Arab society. If anti-Arab statement and legislation are on the rise, it is in part because those on the extreme right feel threatened by growing strength of the Arab community.

In the last decade, Arab citizens in Israel have managed to significantly improve their socioeconomic situation, expand their political representation and begin integrating into centers of power in the economy and the wider society. The numbers are unequivocal.

The dynamic of integration today is neither submissive nor humble. Leading Arabs in the Knesset and local government, in civil society and academia, like ordinary Arab citizens, are actively emphasizing their Palestinian identity and openly claiming their indigenous rights, individually and as a national group, and pressing for the annulment of special rights for Jews. 

Supporters of segregation and Jewish supremacy are girding for a counter-struggle to ensure that Arab citizens remain economically inferior, to restrict their Palestinian national presence in Israel and to preserve segregation even as it shows signs of fracturing. 

An Arab-Israeli protester carries the Palestinian flag as he sits atop a horse during a demonstration against the demolition of houses by Israeli authorities, on February 8, 2019 in the Arab-Israeli city of Qalansuwa
An Arab-Israeli protester carries the Palestinian flag as he sits atop a horse during a demonstration against the demolition of houses by Israeli authorities, on February 8, 2019 in tQalansuwa.Credit: AFP

Until a decade ago, many Jews could live their entire lives with no regular contact with Arabs, but no longer. Jewish university students study alongside Arab students; Jews and Arabs work shoulder to shoulder in high tech, in service professions, in industry, in public service and government agencies, in hospitals, in leisure facilities and in shops and malls – as colleagues and consumers. Carmiel, Nazareth Illit, and Beersheba have become new mixed cities, and there will be more of those, too.

What touches some people’s deepest feelings and invokes their most primal fears is that this proximity in academic, public, residential and vocational spacesmight blur the differences between people and lead to friendship, or even romance.

The fierce resistance among Jewish Israelis to having Arabs move into Jewish areas, as in Kfar Vradim and Afula, and the severe public and political reactions to the marriage of television news presenter Lucy Aharish (Arab) and film star Tzachi Halevy (Jew) are excellent illustrations.

This political attack on the Arab leadership is also designed to delegitimize participation by the Arab constituency in forming a national government. Political partnership between the Zionist left and Arabs in the second Rabin administration led to a sequence of developments perceived as disastrous by the right wing – prompting their leadership to realize that delegitimizing such partnerships is effective in perpetuating right-wing control of government, and they behave accordingly.

Thus the government seeks to strengthen Arab society socioeconomically and weaken it politically, attempting to promote a kind of package deal with the Arabs: work, budgetary funding and jobs in exchange for de-politicization and de-Palestinization.

Will it succeed? In some individual cases, certainly it will: Among people doing better financially, some will hesitate to seem "too Palestinian" or participate openly in the struggle for equality.

On the other hand, however, reasonable economic circumstances also facilitate increased social and national strength. A more resilient society can better struggle for its rights. This is good news for Arab citizens and all who believe in equality and shared society.

In this highly charged, complex situation, it is important to continue advancing and accelerating what the government has been doing to promote economic development and the reduction of funding disparities. Whatever is motivating government policy, this is a real opportunity that must not be missed.

Thousands of Israelis hold an Arabic lesson in Tel Aviv to protest the nation-state law, July 30, 2018.
Thousands of Israelis hold an Arabic lesson in Tel Aviv to protest the nation-state law, July 30, 2018.Credit: Meged Gozani

No less important is the continued struggle for more shared public space and an equal presence for the Palestinian-Arab language, narrative, and culture. The promotion of greater presence for the Arabic language in public spaces, which is proceeding despite the passage of the Nation-State Law, is proving that despite the current political situation, forging ahead with positive processes is still possible.

However, the bad news for everyone working to create an egalitarian shared society is that the successes – strengthening Arab society, the beginning of integration in centers of power and the creation of shared spaces, all processes that should be continued – will intensify the backlash.

The prospects are not great for somehow manipulating the current regime into abandoning its political line; it is shackled to the same hatred of Arabs that it has managed to provoke so abundantly among its electorate.

The most effective way, possibly the only way, to counter this backlash is to forge a political partnership of the left, the center, and the Arabs. Doubtless this political partnership would be loose and narrow, but it could become the basis for establishing a bloc that might precipitate a regime change. After a decade of incitement against Arab citizens and their leaders, building such a political partnership will be very arduous.

Yet this is the only step that might end the government’s political attacks against Arab citizens, start a process of societal rehabilitation, and perhaps even allow for renewed attempts to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anyone aspiring to better future for this country should feel compelled to enlist in this mission.

Ron Gerlitz is co-director of Sikkuy, The Association for Civic Equality in Israel. Twitter: @RonGerlitz1

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