Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s direct appeal to Israel’s Arabs in a recent video clip was greeted with surprise and a certain amount of skepticism.
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The Israeli government and its leader miss no opportunity to incite against the Arab community and its representatives in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s disparaging election day comment that “the Arabs are heading for the polls in droves” – for which he partially and rather evasively apologized in the current video – his statements about Arabs at the scene of a terror attack in Tel Aviv last January and his campaign of delegitimization against Arab MKs, accompanied by legislation like the law allowing the Knesset to oust a sitting lawmaker – all raise suspicions about the sincerity of his intentions.
Does Netanyahu, who says he “wants to take a step forward” in relations between the state and its Arab citizens and calls on them to “take part in Israeli society,” indeed mean what he says when he paints a vision of Arab boys and girls “growing up in the certain knowledge that there is nothing they cannot achieve in Israel, as citizens with equal rights in our democracy”? Or is it a masquerade for the purpose of image-building or some other unknown interest?
Netanyahu and his government, like all Israeli governments over the years, know that most of Israel’s Arab citizens will not give up their citizenship and that they seek full involvement in Israeli society. To achieve this, the government has many tasks ahead, including involvement of Arabs in the work force, advancing educational institutions, planning of Arab cities, regulating the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev through consensus, investment in infrastructure and fighting crime in Arab communities.
But alongside these important tasks, the prime minister and the country’s political leaders must acknowledge the narrative of Israel’s Arab citizens and stop working to erase their identity. Becoming more fully invested in Israeli society is essential but it cannot be a condition for suppressing Palestinian identity and narrative. This includes, for example, the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose works were compared only last week to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” by the defense minister.
Netanyahu, as usual, chose to speak in a lengthy video, rather than at an event at which representatives of the Arab community or Arab journalists could test him with questions. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that his statements are not empty slogans. As the prime minister himself said: “Words about equal opportunity are not enough, actions are what count.”
Netanyahu would do well to implement a policy of true equality, on both the practical and symbolic levels, while seeking a true peace agreement with the Palestinians, which will reduce tension and allow true coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Otherwise the speech, with its positive messages, will not go into the annals of Israel’s history, but will end up gathering dust.