Avigdor Lieberman's and Benjamin Netanyahu's cynical demand to recruit Israeli Arab citizens into the Israeli army is a transparent political ploy. Lieberman's statements were meant to slam the breaks on the Plesner Committee, a government-sanctioned panel, headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, geared at formulating a compromise between the representatives of the various factions, which was dissolved by PM Netanyahu but whose recommendations were still published. Lieberman feared, rightly as it turned out, that the Plesner committee would put forth significant and effective ideas about the recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox, and as a consequence Kadima, the committee chairman's party, would lead the anti-ultra-Orthodox campaign. Such an achievement would bleed Lieberman's party of electoral votes, since the campaign against the ultra-Orthodox is a central element of his party's platform. Electioneering political considerations led Lieberman to sabotage the Plesner Committee.
- Praying for mercy on the Haredi enlistment law
- Draft them into our culture
- Give the Arabs a state to serve
Netanyahu has a different agenda. His main concern is that the Plesner committee's recommendation to impose personal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers would jeopardize his coalition with the political parties in his coalition that represent their interests. Therefore, he decided to nip the committee in the bud: He joined Lieberman's demand to recruit the Arabs, and dissolved the Plesner Committee before it handed in its recommendations. More recently he zigzagged and agreed to negotiate personal sanctions against draft-dodgers, whilst holding on to the flag of Arab civilian if not military service. Such self-contradicting rhetoric is not much more than a manipulation that is meant to keep the coalition intact.
Obviously, Lieberman's and Netanyahu's remarks on recruiting Arabs were made to derail the Plesner committee. Yet, when these two politicians allude to the highly quotable principle of "sharing the burden equally" in terms of military service, and demand that it will be imposed on Israeli Arab citizens, they need to recall that "sharing the burden equally" is part of a larger equation, and must be met with 'accessing equally civil and legal rights', as well as the fair distribution of national resources.
'Equality of rights', however, is the infamous missing component in Israel's democracy. As the Or Commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, wrote after twelve Israeli Arabs were killed by the Israeli police during demonstrations in October 2000: "[Israel's] government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory. The establishment did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab population, and did not take enough action in order to allocate state resources in an equal manner. The state did not do enough or try hard enough to create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discrimination and deprivation."
After the Or Commission characterized Israel's policies towards its Arab minority as characterized by deprivation, discrimination and clearly unequal distribution of resources, Netanyahu and Lieberman should be more sparing in their use of the term 'equality'.
Israel's Arab citizens should contribute to Israeli society. However, whereas recruitment of Arabs to National Service is justified, it is also explosive. If the plan is to integrate Arab-Israelis in a gradual manner, while addressing and remedying the discrimination illustrated by the Or Commission, it is a welcome step that may help diffuse the tensions between Arabs and Jews. By contrast, if it is merely a means to distract public opinion away from the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, by agitating against the Arabs, it will only intensify existing tensions and lead to crises and violence. Unfortunately, Lieberman's and Netanyahu's demands stand too close to the latter – an embarrassing manipulation for the sake of diverting attention away from electoral allies, aimed solely at improving their popularity at the expense of Israeli Arabs.
Inciting against Arabs in the hope of making a political profit has a traumatic precedent. On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon insisted that he be allowed to visit the Temple Mount. Ostensibly his motive was similar to that of Lieberman and Netanyahu – to 'show the Arabs who's boss'. Lieberman and Netanyahu, like Sharon before them, are eyeing their voters.
Three days after Sharon toured the Temple Mount, the violent events of October 2000 erupted, leaving twelve Arab Israeli citizens, one Palestinian and one Jew dead. These deaths led to the establishment of the Or Commission. Israeli society was tearing apart at the seams, as Arabs rioted and Jews lynched Arabs.
While Jewish-Arab relations hit a new low, Sharon, whose actions ignited both the Second Intifada and the post-Temple Mount visit violence, achieved a new political high – he won the elections of 2001 and became Prime Minister.
A decade after the publication of the Or Commission Report, Israel's right-wing leadership continues to toy with Arab-Jewish tensions in the same reckless manner as did Sharon. Now, when tensions are rising due to the diplomatic impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, and regional uncertainty unnerves Muslim and Jewish leaders, such manipulations are akin to playing with matches next to a barrel of gun-powder.
Yet, Lieberman and Netanyahu chose to throw caution to the wind. Apparently they believe that political success trumps all – even if the secular Jews continue to carry an unfair military and economic burden on their shoulders, the ultra-Orthodox continue to wallow in poverty and the Arabs of Israel continue to suffer deprivation and discrimination.