Benjamin Netanyahu's Arab problem

The prime minister held an “emergency” meeting of advisers and strategists where he warned that the Joint List would receive 15 seats.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for people in Jerusalem to go and vote. (photo credit: LIKUD)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for people in Jerusalem to go and vote.
(photo credit: LIKUD)
In the early hours of Monday evening as the bustling day was winding down, shopkeepers in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City were beginning to shutter their stalls. There were a few half-hearted shouts to passersby – “Are you looking for a present?” – but most merchants probably just wanted to get home and have dinner.
Unbeknown to them, police were blocking off the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza a few hundred meters away to create a secure area for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi had come to the Wall to put a last-minute note in the cracks, and to get photographed at Judaism’s holiest site. He had done everything earthly possible to secure a victory in Tuesday’s election, but was backing that up with some heavenly appeal.
By Tuesday, Netanyahu had returned to Earth, and in a seeming desperate attempt to cling to power, resumed the tactics that have characterized his prime ministerial campaigns: attacking and marginalizing the Arab citizens of Israel.
The voting percentage is high among the Israeli Arab population, he told a crowd at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, probably the first time the prime minister has been there in years.
“It’s not surprising,” he warned the cheering crowd. “The Palestinian Authority is coming out with an official statement and I quote, ‘go out to vote and bring down Netanyahu.’”
Netanyahu also held an “emergency” meeting of advisers and strategists, where he warned that the Joint List would receive 15 seats if the current turnout rate continued through Election Day.
The scare tactics are nothing new – Netanyahu patented the gevalt appeal. In 2015 he released a mid-Election Day video warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves.”
Earlier this week he claimed that Arab voters “stole the election” in April, saying that alleged forgeries at the polls may have cost the Likud two Knesset seats that resulted in another election being held.
And let’s not forget the post that was published on Netanyahu’s official Facebook page, saying “The Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.” There were attempts to fob off the post as a volunteer’s unsolicited gaffe, but that wasn’t genuine considering that the public knows what the prime minister really thinks about Israel’s Arab citizens.
The common theme in his strategy is portraying the two million or so Arab citizens of Israel as enemies of the state.
He’s not the only one who has mainstreamed racism against Arabs in Israel.
Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked tweeted a video on Tuesday morning calling on supporters to vote, warning that the Joint List was bound to get double the votes of her party unless the developing trend changed.
And some polls leading up to Election Day predicted that the blatantly racist party Otzma Yehudit would get into the Knesset and to the government as Netanyahu’s insurance for forming a narrow coalition.
How did we get here – to this place where delegitimizing 20% of a country’s population is seen as normal, and as standard behavior for major parties and for the person who, theoretically, is the prime minister of all its citizens?
Imagine a European country holding its election, and the incumbent prime minister goes on national TV or Facebook Live and warns his or her constituents to go vote because “the Jews are swarming to the polling stations.”
The world would be outraged, Israel would condemn it, the Simon Wiesenthal Center would issue a press release and the leader of that country would bear a dark stain on his character.
But when it’s Arabs being black marked in Israel there is only silence, and in many cases silent nods of agreement. As the Jewish state, Israel has an obligation to prevent this mainstream racism against Arab citizens to continue.
There is certainly much to be desired among some MKs of the Joint List who do little to advocate for the good of their sector, instead focusing solely on Israel-Palestinian issues at the detriment to their constituency.
But Joint List leader Ayman Odeh has made it clear that his mandate is to improve the quality of life of Israeli-Arabs, and with progressive leaders like him, there is hope that the Arab citizens of Israel can achieve equality and continue to become integrated into all facets of society.
Candidates need to learn how to get elected to the Knesset without fear and hate-mongering. If they can’t, they don’t deserve to be there. Instead of division, Israel needs unity.
The race baiting and marginalization needs to stop. And first and most critically, it needs to start at the top.