Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is schizophrenic. In many policy fields, its actions are rife with contradictions and almost never in line with its rhetoric. One critical example is the sensitive area of relations between Jews and Arabs.
Recently, the government ordered the demolition of 11 illegally built homes in the Israeli-Arab town of Kalansuwa.
Instead of downplaying this as a local issue, the government chose to trumpet it as a patriotic move against Arab lawbreaking, pouring additional fuel onto the fire. In response, the High Follow-up Committee of the Arab Citizens in Israel declared a general strike, a move that can easily escalate to mass demonstrations and intercommunal violence.
This is weird, because in other respects, the current government has done more for Jewish-Arab equality than any other in Israeli history.
Recently, it approved an ambitious five-year plan designed to close the gaps between Arabs and Jews in education, infrastructure and daily life. Contrary to some accusations, the plan was not merely a public-relations ploy, for its execution is already under way.
Under the Netanyahu government, plans to encourage the Israeli-Arab economy, entrepreneurship and affirmative action in the public sector were also implemented. But at the same time, the government spewed many liters of intercommunal hatred. Before the last election, Netanyahu warned his voters that the “Arabs are flocking to the ballot to overthrow the government,” casting doubts on the mere legitimacy of their political participation. And vicious anti- Arab comments by cabinet ministers and coalition lawmakers have been too numerous to count.
Even the home demolitions in Kalansuwa were presented by Netanyahu and his public security minister, Gilad Erdan, in the most provocative way possible. Forced by the Supreme Court to demolish homes in the illegal settlement of Amona, the two implied that the demolitions in Kalansuwa were “compensation” for the religious Right.
Leaving aside the fact that Amona’s homes were built on private land, while Arabs build on their own property, this quid pro quo approach infuriated the country’s Arab citizens. The government adopted the “price tag” logic of radical settlers in the West Bank: If settlers suffer, Arabs will suffer as well.
Thus, Israeli Arabs are treated not as equal citizens, but political hostages, ready to be whipped every time Netanyahu’s constituency has to be mollified. Beyond the 11 homes demolished, it is this feeling of being the whipping boy of Israeli society that infuriates the Arab public and disturbs the ethnic balance in the country. No affirmative action program and no five-year plan can compensate for such constant humiliation.
HOW TO explain the schizophrenia of Netanyahu and his cabinet concerning the Jewish-Arab question? How come a government that invests so much in civic equality in practice is so warmongering on the public, rhetorical and communal levels? Some in the Arab community and on the Israeli Left explain this contradiction as a conspiracy. The government’s five-year plan and affirmative-action programs are merely a smokescreen, designed to cover its true, hostile intentions.
This approach, however, reflects a basic misunderstanding of the peculiar way this government works. In fact, the basic dynamic of Netanyahu’s government is the glaring discrepancy between policy and rhetoric.
Its economic policy is designed not merely or mainly by politicians, but by a vast governmental bureaucracy. Specifically, the plans to close economic gaps between Jews are Arabs are influenced not only by the tireless advocacy of well-connected activists, but also by economists in the Finance Ministry. Such officials, well familiar with the economic situation and relatively uninfluenced by political pressure, understood a long time ago that Israel’s hi-tech economy could not thrive if the Arab sector lagged behind. When policy is designed behind closed doors, such officials have immense power, even over a strong-willed prime minister such as Netanyahu.
However, these bureaucrats have no influence on the rhetoric of the government – and here the politicians reign supreme.
Netanyahu, more than any prime minister in the past, is worried about popularity, especially among his electoral base – the secular and religious Right. He and many of his political allies believe (or behave as if they believe) that these voters could and should be mollified by radical anti-Palestinian and anti- Arab rhetoric, especially when actual policy is relatively circumspect.
Thus, Netanyahu’s defense minister, the hawkish Avigdor Liberman, speaks volumes on assassinating Hamas leaders, destroying the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and implementing a strict, coercive policy in the West Bank.
And yet, his actual policy in both Gaza and the West Bank is way more moderate than the bluster of his speeches.
In other cases, the gap between rhetoric and practice borders on the ridiculous.
Recently, soldier Elor Azaria was convicted by a court martial for manslaughter of a wounded Palestinian terrorist. In complete disregard of the judiciary, Netanyahu called for an immediate amnesty, knowing full well that he had no power to give one. In addition, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said the soldier had been convicted in a “show trial.”
A deputy minister whose job is to improve Israel’s image abroad accusing her own country’s courts of conducting a show trial? This is possible only in a nation where the government survives on the fumes of radical but impotent rhetoric.
GOVERNMENT MINISTERS castigate their own state apparatus without doing anything about it, as if they were disgruntled citizens with no power. Indeed, it is both sad and amusing in an ironical way to see the most powerful men and women in the country speak like angry readers who leave rude comments in the margins of online articles.
Afraid of the consequences of a truly radical policy and reluctant to use their executive power, they speak, complain and grumble. This is the logic of their attitude to Israeli Arabs as well: moderate policy behind the scenes, and hateful rhetoric in public.
But in a sensitive region like the Middle East, rhetoric has its own power. In their quest to mollify voters, Netanyahu and his ministers poison the national atmosphere to such an extent that even a local decision to demolish illegally built homes can start a fire.
Bringing policy in line with the government’s radical rhetoric will obviously be disastrous. One needs to accompany current policy with rhetoric that is less hateful.
With the latest corruption scandals, the days of Netanyahu’s current government seem numbered. One can only hope that the next cabinet, whatever it might be, will be dependent on voters for whom radical, irresponsible rhetoric is less attractive. The sensitive relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel are largely dependent on this. The writer is a military historian from the Asian Studies and history departments at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book is The Plots against Hitler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).