Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu election upset was arguably due to an 11th hour gambit: Netanyahu renounced his past support for a two-state solution and on polling day issued a call to arms (invoking Order 8, the Israel Defense Forces’ emergency code for reserve duty) by warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
Israel’s Arab citizens constitute roughly 20% of the population and electoral excitement was in the air after several Arab parties united in the Joint List after the Knesset passed a new threshold law that threatened to boot out the Arab parties if they fell short. A united Arab parliamentary list did, in fact, boost turnout among Arab voters.
For Netanyahu, such a prospect offered an irresistible opportunity to rally anti-Arab, far-right voters. After the votes were counted, Likud’s far-right rivals did worse than the polls predicted making it clear that Netanyahu made up ground by stealing votes not from the center (which held its ground in line with polling) but the unequivocally anti-Palestinian rightists.
Netanyahu’s fear-mongering about Arab citizens challenged a bedrock of pro-Israeli advocacy in the United States; that both nations are bound by the “shared values” of democracy, which invariably means minority rights.
The following selections illustrate the widespread reaction to “Bibi’s” playing of the “Arab card.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, a former prisoner guard in the IDF and one of the most prominent writers on Israel, characterized Netanyahu’s campaign “the Southern Strategy.”
It is often said (by me, among others) that Netanyahu would do very well as a Republican candidate for governor or senator in America. . . . What I didn’t fully understand was just how much of Lee Atwater he had in him. Atwater, you’ll remember, was the South Carolina Republican operative who was one of the prime innovators of racial dog-whistling, an approach used by a good number of Republicans to instill fear in white voters.
Netanyahu, of course, wasn’t dog-whistling here: He didn’t refer, say, to “people in Israel’s north who don’t have Jewish interests at heart,” or some other such variation (Paul Ryan’s “urban” voter formulation from 2012 comes to mind). Instead, he screamed, ‘The Arabs are coming!”
Ali Abunimah of the pro-Palestinian Electronic Intifada and Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, expressed a common view among pro-Palestinians rights activists: a center-left victory would have only presented the illusion of a peace-seeking Israel while maintaining the status quo of occupation and settlements:
Netanyahu’s ugly election-day incitement that the “Arabs are advancing on the ballot boxes” revealed once again his true feelings that Palestinian citizens of Israel are not legitimate citizens deserving full rights. But [Zionist Union candidate] Tzipi Livni has frequently expressed the same view.
Replacing Mr. Netanyahu with his challenger, [head of the Zionist Union] Isaac Herzog, would have slowed down the B.D.S. movement and halted pressure on Israel by creating the perception of change. A new prime minister would have kick-started a new “peace process” based on previous failed models that would inevitably fail again because of a lack of real pressure on Israel to change its deplorable behavior.
On the far-right spectrum of American supporters of Israel, Netanyahu’s fear-mongering about Arabs was placed in a different context: It is immaterial to U.S.-Israel relations, because, if nothing else, Israel’s Arab citizens still get to vote. So argued the Washington Post’s online columnist Jennifer Rubin, Commentary editor John Podhoretz, and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Elliott Abrams:
“Understand that, unlike most of its neighbors, Israel has a parliament that matters, allows Arab citizens to vote and even allows parties that call for the dismemberment of Israel.”
How the prime minister of Israel talks about Israeli citizens who possess equal rights under the law [sic] and have their own means of redress under the law if they are mistreated should have no basis whatever in the “assessment” of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel.
…no reporter asked [White House press secretary Josh] Earnest about [Netanyahu’s words on Arabs citizens]. So at the end of the questioning he simply went out of his way to criticize a statement Netanyahu had made about getting out Likud voters, to counteract what he said were massive left-wing efforts to get out the left-wing Jewish and Arab vote. The issue isn’t whether that Netanyahu statement was awful or admirable, but the conduct of the White House.
American-Jewish organizations, who have recently made anti-Semitism against the Jewish minority in Europe a priority, had little, if anything, to say about the head of government of the Jewish state expressing disparagement for its Arab minority.
World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder congratulated Netanyahu and referenced “anti-Semitic attacks throughout the world” in expressing his desire to work with the prime minister “to make the world a safer place for all people.” No word on Bibi’s remarks, which, incidentally, may make Israeli Arabs feel less safe in Israel.
The American Jewish Committee’s sole statement on the elections came from Lawrence Grossman, the director of publications. Grossman called the election “a great victory for Israeli democracy” and similarly failed to mention Netanyahu’s remarks, but did highlight the participation of the Joint List as evidence “disproving the outrageous charge that Israel discriminates against its Arab population.” In its report on the Joint List, the New York Times’ noted that the party was running on a platform of achieving equality for Arab citizens who “have long lagged Israeli Jews in education, employment in Civil Service jobs, access to transportation and land allocations.”
Perhaps the omission was most notable among those American-Jewish organizations who have enjoyed support for the state of Israel alongside reputations as advocates for civil rights and tolerance.
The Anti-Defamation League, whose mission statements reads “ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all,” issued a press release the morning after the election congratulating Netanyahu and then hastened to add,
Regretfully, this campaign was too often marked by extreme and divisive statements by candidates. We urge leaders of all parties to work to reach out to all segments of Israel’s society and heal these wounds.
Neither the offending candidates nor the “extreme and divisive statements” were identified, nor which “segments of Israel’s society” were scorned.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, self-described as a “global human rights organization … [that] promotes human rights and dignity,” issued a statement through its Associate Dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, that avoided even oblique mention of Netanyahu’s electoral ploy and instead lavished praise on the premier as “a true world leader in action” and the only criticism was reserved for unnamed people in Washington who allegedly acted as “forces outside of Israel” seeking to “manipulat[e]” Israeli voters against Netanyahu.
The last word goes to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who likened Netanyahu’s strategy to American domestic politics:
“How dare you gin up racist fears of minority for short term political gain? That’s our thing. You know what, now you got a copyright infringement suit on your hands, pal.”
But Stewart noted a difference: When 2008 Republican president candidate Mitt Romney expressed class derision toward “47%” of Americans for being “entitled” to government services, he did so in private, walked back his words, and then lost the election. Netanyahu, in contrast, expressed his views publicly, unabashedly, and won.
“That’s the real message that last night sent for all politicians: You know, that stuff you say in private, your core beliefs, prejudices that you try to hide from people because you fear society would shun you. Well, it appears all you have to do is turn into that skid.”
Steward went on to play a fictional skit of Romney expressing his derision in blunter words and openly eyeing the mic that surreptitiously recorded his “47%” comments. Thereafter, Stewart signed off, “Congratulations, President Romney!”
On Monday, March 23, Netanyahu issued an apology organized by his political team. Standing in the presence of several Arab citizens, the premier stated: “I know that my comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli Arab community. This was never my intent. I apologize for this.”
The Anti-Defamation League, in a statement from its national director Abraham H. Foxman, welcomed his response and clarified that they did not see his original remarks as prejudicial. “While I do not believe the prime minister’s Election Day remarks were intended to be anti-Arab or racist, his words left questions in people’s minds about how the Arab community is viewed by Israel’s leadership and their place in Israeli society.”
The Joint List of Palestinian parties, which now holds 13 Knesset seats, made clear that they did not see the apology as sincere or mitigating Israeli state discrimination toward Arab citizens: “To our regret, the racism of Netanyahu and his governments did not begin and will not end with this inciting statement. Racist and separatist legislation and discriminating policies are Netanyahu’s working plan for the new Parliament, and so we are left with no option but to reject his apology and to continue our struggle for equality for the Arab population.”
One of the List’s most prominent representatives, long-time Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, characterized Netanyahu’s public words as “an expression of regret and not a sincere apology” and dismissed the Arabs who gathered around Netanyahu in his Jerusalem residence as long-time Likud supporters; many of them Druze leaders, a community conscripted into the IDF.
“The test needs to be in the actual steps” the state of Israel undertakes toward its Arab minority, Tibi stated.
“Discrimination is the policy and equality is a way of life that the prime minister and his government are as far away from as the skies are from the ground,” Tibi added as he called on Netanyahu to oppose the nationality bill favored by the prime minister and his right-wing and far-right allies, which stipulates:
“1 (a) The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people…”
“1 (b) The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is uniquely that of the Jewish people.”
By emphasizing its Jewish character, the bill does away with the old mantra of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The democratic character of the state is identified in section 2 of the bill:
“The State of Israel has a democratic regime.”
Israel already has numerous laws that discriminate against Arab citizens and privilege Jewish citizens on matters from land ownership (Arabs are barred from owning most land, which is reserved solely for Jewish ownership), to marriage (Arab citizens married to a West Bank or Gazan Palestinian cannot secure residency permits for their partner), to a widespread gap in state aid to Arab and Jewish towns. Furthermore, many Arab citizens have long criticized Israel as a state that in any conflict between its Jewish character and pronounced commitment to democratic equality breaks in favor of the former. What makes the nationality bill unique is that, if passed, it will have the status of a Basic Law – Israel’s equivalent of a constitutional amendment. Such legislation that places, in sentiment and ranking, democracy as a secondary concern to Jewish-majority rule has fueled criticism that the bill would officially transform a marginalized minority into second-class citizens as defined by the highest law of the land.
The bill would also strip Arabic of its current status as an official language alongside Hebrew and, instead, designate Arabic to a “special status.”
Beyond renouncing the nationality bill, Tibi also called on Netanyahu to renounce his remarks this past summer whereby the prime minister invited Arab citizens who opposed the war against Gaza to leave Israel.