President Reuven Rivlin meets with a delegation from the Joint (Arab) List at his residence March 22.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
As President Reuven Rivlin embarked Sunday on a series of meetings with party representatives to put together a government coalition, he denounced “hateful” remarks made in the heat of electioneering. The president went on to call for the “healing” of rifts in Israeli society.
Rivlin was apparently referring to anti-Arab comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Election Day, even though Netanyahu himself was the target of left-wing incitement.
A low point of the campaign, however, was a video of Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page in which he resorted to fear-mongering: “Right-wing rule is in danger.
Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.”
This was not the first time Netanyahu had appealed to Jewish Israelis’ fears of Arab citizens. In a TV interview, Netanyahu warned that “if we don’t close the gap in the next few days, Herzog and Livni, supported by Arabs and leftist NGOs, will form the next government.”
He also claimed that “left-wing people from outside” providing “tens of millions of dollars” are “mobilizing the Arab vote.”
Netanyahu’s statements are unfortunate and misleading on a number of levels. He gave the impression that a high level of Arab voter participation is a bad thing, when in reality the opposite is true. By participating in Knesset elections, Israel’s Arabs are affirming the legitimacy of the State of Israel. As opposed to more radical elements in the Arab population – such as the northern branch of the Islamic Movement which regularly boycotts national elections – a strong majority of Israel’s Arabs opted this time to take part in the democratic process offered by the Jewish state.
This year voter participation among Arab citizens was 65 percent, compared to just 56 percent in the previous election. The historic union reached among the communist Hadash, the secular-nationalist Balad and the Muslim Ra’am-Ta’al list encouraged those who had previously been indifferent or antagonistic to the idea of exercising their right to get out and vote.
Also, as a leader and role model, Netanyahu has an obligation to maintain a reasonable discourse with regard to Israel’s sizable Arab minority. The Joint List, while clearly opposing Netanyahu in the campaign, brought together many different voices – from the Arab-Jewish Hadash, which supports in principle a two-state solution, to Balad, which supports a binational state. Though Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, is opposed to Arab Israelis serving in the IDF or performing national service, increasing numbers of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, are volunteering.
Netanyahu has tried to trot back his statements, telling NBC that he hadn’t been trying to suppress Arab voting rights but to “counter a foreign-funded effort to get the votes that are intended to topple my party.”
But it is disingenuous of Netanyahu to complain about foreign support for the Left at the same time that he enjoys the generous backing of American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who provides the funding for Israel Hayom, Israel’s most highly circulated daily that is unabashedly pro-Netanyahu in its coverage and is distributed for free.
Netanyahu came closer to apologizing when, asked by NPR if he would engage in fence-mending, he responded: “Well, I certainly will make sure that everybody understands that I’m the prime minister of all of Israel’s citizens and I really believe that. It’s something that my actions have shown. It’s not a question of fence-mending, it’s a question of real belief, and it’s there. I don’t have to fabricate it.”
But Netanyahu should take an additional step and express regret for portraying high Arab voter turnout as a danger to Israel. It might be an unpopular move in our highly charged political climate. But true political leaders sometimes make unpopular moves when they are in the best interest of the state. The successful integration of over one-fifth of the population is in Israel’s interest.
Inflammatory declarations that portray Israel’s Arabs as a fifth column only deepen the rift and alienate.
As Netanyahu goes about putting together his government coalition, he should make it clear that he will strive to represent all Israelis, including those represented by political parties not included in the coalition.