Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have done a U-turn recently in his attitude toward Israel’s Arab citizens. He began 2021 by visiting health maintenance organization clinics in Tira and Umm al-Fahm, where he was photographed with Jabarin Mohammed, the millionth Israeli to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. He spoke about his desire to win Arab votes and his intent to have the cabinet approve a plan to end violent crime in the Arab community. By late 2020, he had already begun growing closer to MK Mansour Abbas – the chairman of the United Arab List, a component of the Joint List electoral alliance of predominantly Arab parties.
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Netanyahu is the national inciter, who never missed an opportunity to label Arab Israelis a fifth column, an existential threat and a “state within a state.” He had the nerve to try to motivate his supporters in the 2015 election with a video in which he warned of the danger of Israel’s Arab exercising their right to vote. He’s a racist whose campaign slogan, referring to Arab MK Ahmad Tibi, was “Bibi or Tibi.” He accused the opposition of cooperating with Arab parties that seek Israel’s. He deemed the Joint List’s Knesset seats illegitimate. Under his leadership, the legislature passed the nation-state law, which enshrines Jewish superiority and Arab inferiority. Yet now this man is wooing Arab voters and is even willing to cooperate with Arab parties.
This is a calculated tactical move. In June 2019, Nathan Eshel, one of Netanyahu’s political go-betweens, published an op-ed in Haaretz, headed, “Israel’s right must stop splintering – and reach out to the Arab community.” In it, he urged the right to “build a bridge to the majority of the Arab community.” “We must tie our fate to that of Israel’s Arabs ... we must build a shared life,” he wrote, adding that the right must offer the Arabs a political partnership similar to its partnership with the Haredim. A similar op-ed was published in the paper Makor Rishon.
But even if Netanyahu’s behavior is utterly cynical, these steps should be welcomed, since they may well shatter the wall of separation and political exclusion between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Granted, Netanyahu’s hypocrisy cries out to heaven. His goal is to dismantle the Joint List. But instead of being outraged that the right is allowed to do what the left is not, the center-left would do well to adapt to the changing reality and stop fearing cooperation with the Arab parties.
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The time has come to extend a hand and offer a genuine political partnership between Jews and Arabs. A glance at the Meretz party’s new candidate slate, which includes two Arabs in the first five slots (Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Esawi Freige), proves that change is already visible on the ground. After the last election, fear of cooperating with the Joint List cost the center-left its ability to form a government, which was within its reach. But now, Netanyahu has broken the legitimacy barrier. The center-left must seize the moment.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.