The most important political struggle in Israel over the past decade centers on the Jewish majority’s relations with the Arab community. With the support of his alternating coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put most of his effort into suppressing the aspirations of Israel’s Arab citizens’ to social equality and political freedom of speech. That is the motivation behind a series of laws that have tainted Israeli democracy with racism and exclusion, starting with the so-called Nakba Law and reaching a peak with the so-called nation-state law.
It also drives the concerted effort of right-wing politicians and media outlets, supported by “centrists” like Yair Lapid, who portray the Arab community’s leaders as enemies. All these were preceded by the abortive attempt to reduce the Arabs’ political representation by raising the electoral threshold.
Netanyahu and his partners rely on the racism that is prevalent among Israeli Jews, but instead of tempering it and encouraging civil equality and a shared Israeli identity, they foster racism and exclusion in order to perpetuate their rule. This is because the Israeli “left” — that is, the camp that supports dividing the land — will have difficulty retaking power and carrying out its goals unless they collaborate with the Arabs’ elected representatives. That was the political foundation for the Oslo Accords, and the Arab voice in the Knesset has only grown since then.
Netanyahu understands this well, and is acting to thwart any attempt of rapprochement between Arab and Jewish politicians in Israel. That is the background for the right’s battle against Raja Zaatry, the head of the Hadash party in the Haifa city council, becoming deputy mayor of the city, on the pretext of remarks he has made against the state.
Haifa's mayor, Einat Kalisch Rotem, gave in somewhat to the pressure, asking Zaatry to retract his comments (he chose to turn down the position), yet insisted on upholding the agreement with Hadash. The mayor’s move inspired Labor Party and Zionist Union Chairman Avi Gabbay to voice support for her. We can only hope that this marks a turning point in Zionist Union, which refused to take part in a demonstration against the nation-state law for fear of being accused of anti-Zionism.
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The positions of Arab politicians such as Zaatry are strident to Zionist ears, even in the left. The opposition’s challenge will be to present a vision of equality and openness in the face of the right’s racism and exclusion, as a foundation for Jewish-Arab cooperation that will lead to a change of government.
One may assume that if Arab community leaders were to be invited to a partnership through the front door, their remarks will become less oppositional.