A group of teenage girls, in which half are American Jews and half are Israeli- Arabs from the Galilee, gather for a picture in Caesarea two weeks ago. .
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a surprise video-taped message to the country’s 20 percent Arab minority.
“My vision is that young Arab boys and girls will grow up knowing they can achieve anything in Israel,” the prime minister said. “I am proud of the role that Arabs play in Israel’s success. I want you to play an even greater role....
Respecting minorities isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s critical to our progress.”
The on-camera message was also an apology.
In the closing hours of the March 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu rallied his supporters with a video warning that “droves” of Arab citizens were being bused to the polls to unseat his right-wing government.
Now Netanyahu used the same word – “droves” – to express a very different message.
“Today, I’m asking Arabs to take part in our society in droves,” he said in Hebrew and English with Arabic subtitles.
The prime minister’s apology was long overdue. His comments on Election Day were unfortunate. Engaging in cheap fear mongering against a diverse and very large minority only adds to the tension that exists between the country’s Jewish and Arab populations.
And the video comes after incidents that emphasize the gulf that separates Jewish and Arab Israelis. Just last week, for instance, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman compared the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish – a celebrated poet in Arab-Israeli and Palestinian society – to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Words alone will not be enough to remedy the tensions that exist between Arab and Jewish Israelis. Admittedly, Arab citizens are not a part of Netanyahu’s constituency.
In a Statnet poll taken before the March 2015 election, just 3 percent said they wanted the Joint List to be a part of a government headed by Netanyahu.
Integration of Israel’s Arabs is, however, a cardinal national interest for any government, whether right-wing or left-wing. Feelings of alienation and real or perceived discrimination foster destructive phenomena such as crime and high levels of high school dropouts. In contrast, providing the Arab minority with cause for hope and belief that integration is a real option can help unleash human potential that otherwise would remain untapped.
Opinion polls seem to point to a readiness on the part of many Arab Israelis to integrate into society.
The Statnet poll also found that the majority of Arab voters (58%) said that they wanted their party to recommend Isaac Herzog to form a coalition – a telling finding, given that in past elections Arab parties abstained from recommending a Jewish candidate.
In addition, 64% of respondents wanted the Joint List to be part of the coalition – an unprecedented finding given the declaration by the leaders of the Joint List that they would not join any coalition (but might support it from the outside). And a full 28% said they supported being a part of any coalition.
Another indicator of the pragmatism of Israel’s Arabs is that in the poll 48% said they felt that Arab MKs worked little or very little to promote the interests of the Arab community. A full 70% said that improving the economic status of Arab Israelis should be the foremost concern of Arab MKs, not involving themselves in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even Arab Israelis’ self-defined identity does not rule out Israeliness. Only a minority of Israel’s Arabs identifies as Palestinian.
The Arab community is not one cohesive, homogeneous entity, but highly diverse and multifaceted. The government needs a more nuanced and productive approach that encourages integration for those interested.
A five-year plan the cabinet approved at the end of 2015 to invest NIS 15 billion over five years in the development of Arab municipalities in the fields of education, transportation, employment and housing should be advanced without delay.
Implementation of this plan and other concrete measures are more important than video-taped messages from the prime minister. Many Arab citizens want to be a part of Israel’s thriving economy and dynamic society. Netanyahu’s government can help or hinder the process of integration. The video is not enough. It is time for action.