Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Arab Knesset members of incitement against the State of Israel this week. He spoke of “the instigating leadership of the communist Balad party, behind whom are a train of ISIS flags.” Such statements, uttered by the prime minister of Israel in a speech from the Knesset rostrum, could have destructive implications for the relationship between the Arab citizens and the Jewish majority at a time when people on both sides feel threatened and are afraid to walk the streets.
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In addition to their dangerous timing, Netanyahu’s statements revealed his ignorance about Arab politics and society. Balad is a national-Arab party which has no connection to the communist party, even if some of its members were associated with that party in the past. There has been bitter political rivalry between the two parties for many years, and the fact that they are cooperating in the Joint Arab List faction in the Knesset does not mean that the differences between them have melted away.
Moreover, at no march or rally of the Arab public have the black flags of the Islamic state been raised. What were present were green flags with the words, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is Allah’s messenger,” which are the flags of both branches of the Islamic Movement, one of which is represented in the Knesset by three MKs.
Most Israelis view Arabs as one “bloc,” and not as a pluralistic society with a variety of opinions and movements – mainly because of the distorted coverage of events in Arab society. Netanyahu was directing his statements precisely at the inflamed part of the Israeli public when he depicted the Arab Knesset members and the citizens they represent as Islamic State supporters. In the same breath, he demanded that incitement be denounced and coexistence supported. Netanyahu understands full well the implications of his words, especially when he sees the turbulence that is created and the fact that every Arab citizen becomes in the eyes of others a potential attacker who should be killed.
More than 20,000 Arab citizens took part in the rally in Sakhnin on Tuesday, young and old, children and women, expressing legitimate protest against the government’s policy. They dispersed quietly without incident. A group of young men who attempted to clash with police were pushed back by municipal ushers and inspectors. All the speakers at the rally made clear that the Arabs in Israel have at their disposal only democratic tools to deal with discrimination, racism and the desire to end the occupation.
Instead of inciting against Israel’s Arab citizens, the prime minister and his ministers would do well to act to calm things down and adopt a different policy, which regards Arabs as equal citizens, not a fifth column undermining the state.