If there was a silver lining to the deal brokered by Prime Minister Netanyahu between Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit to run as a joint electoral list and the immediate furor that ensued, it is that it focused a spotlight on the most abhorrent prejudice and racism that is exhibited toward Israel’s Arab citizens. What made Meir Kahane, his Kach party, and his Kahanist followers so repugnant and led to Israel outlawing Kach was its advocacy for discrimination and glorification of violence toward Israeli Arabs. Kahane’s heirs in Otzma have continued in his footsteps, calling Arabs a fifth column with whom there can be no coexistence, proclaiming that less than one percent of Israeli Arabs are loyal to the state, advocating that Arabs who “speak out” against Jews be executed, working to prohibit Arabs from public life, and attempting to criminalize relationships between Jews and Arabs. It is evident – or should be – to anyone with an ounce of moral fiber that this type of incitement should not be welcome anywhere in Israeli society. But the new focus on Otzma has a downside in that it threatens to obscure a much bigger problem, which is the routine delegitimization of Israeli Arabs that takes place as a matter of course.
The most familiar example of this constant message that shunts one fifth of Israeli citizens into a rhetorical leper colony is Netanyahu’s infamous 2015 election day warning that Arabs were being bused to the polls in droves. The clear implication was twofold; first, that there was something untoward or dangerous about Arabs having a say in the composition of Israel’s next government, and second, that true Israeli patriots should come vote in order to counter Arab influence. It not only portrayed actual full citizens of Israel as being ominous but did it on the basis of their ethnicity alone. After all, Netanyahu did not say that his political opponents were going to the polls in droves, nor did he call out any individual parties. His message was straightforward: Arabs are voting, and no good result can possibly come out of that because they are Arabs.
In the current campaign, this same message is alive and well. But it is not just Netanyahu who is utilizing it. Across the political spectrum, there is a rush to assure Jewish Israeli voters that nobody is looking to form a government that includes Arabs; not Likud under Netanyahu, and not Kachol Lavan under Benny Gantz. Netanyahu, naturally, has made this pledge a centerpiece of his campaign. In the Likud party campaign kickoff on Monday, Netanyahu repeatedly trotted out the catchphrase “Tibi or Bibi,” referring to Ta’al chief Ahmad Tibi, who has been an MK for two decades. Netanyahu argued that the only way for Gantz to form a coalition is by including Arab parties, making the choice for voters one between Bibi – the current prime minister running for reelection – or Tibi – who is not running for prime minister and is not even the top person on the Hadash-Ta’al list but is Israel’s most recognizable Arab politician. It’s an effective rhyming catchphrase, and despite the fact that its logic is absurd, it works precisely because it plays on this notion that Arab parties, which overwhelmingly garner Israeli Arabs’ votes, are inherently non-kosher.
There are now two Arab party lists with very different politics, and the one that includes Tibi is the one that is more moderate, endorses a two-state solution (inherently accepting Israel’s legitimacy), and is a willing participant in Israeli institutions. But in singling out Tibi rather than the actual Arab extremists in the Balad party – whose representatives have called for Israel’s dissolution, have supplied intelligence to Hizballah, and have been convicted for smuggling cell phones to imprisoned terrorists – Netanyahu is purposely casting a wider circle of aspersions on Israeli Arabs as a group.
Sadly, Netanyahu is not alone, though he stands out in his bluntness and willingness to embrace the most extreme position. Gantz on Monday ruled out forming any coalition with Tibi as well, and lumped him in with Kahane, which is an unfair comparison by any measure. Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz and Yair Lapid have not explicitly ruled out using Arab parties to form a blocking coalition, as Yitzhak Rabin did, and it is to their credit – factoring in the soft bigotry of low expectations – that they have not definitively closed that door. But they are also obviously trying to walk a tightrope in their avoidance of directness on a host of issues so as not to be cast as leftists, and making any overtures that legitimize Arab participation in Israeli political life is a quick route to the dreaded leftwing moniker.
Politicians have not come up with this strategy out of nowhere. It is an unfortunate reality that Jewish Israeli society prioritizes the Jewish aspect over the Israeli aspect in this regard, and politicians understandably believe that their voters will respond to using Arabs as an electoral foil. It is certainly the case that there are Arab parties, such as Balad, that are anti-Zionist in a genocidal way, and there have been Arab MKs who are not only anti-Zionist but have actively committed treason against their country. Much as Kahane violated Israel’s Basic Law on racist incitement and was banned from serving in the Knesset and his party outlawed, I have no problem with that standard being used on Balad – which yesterday was banned from running by Israel’s Central Elections Committee – or on MKs like Hanin Zuabi (who is not running for the next Knesset but has been the subject of disqualification petitions in the past). But portraying Israeli Arab participation in governing Israel as something that shocks the conscience in its extremity should itself shock the conscience in its extremity. That it does not is a poor statement about Israel’s commitment to its Arab citizens, who should not be delegitimized as a category of people.
One of the most familiar pro-Israel talking points is that Israel is the country in the Middle East where it is best to be an Arab, since they are full citizens who not only vote but serve in the Knesset and on Israel’s High Court. There is a popular formulation of this idea that the strength of Israel’s democracy can be demonstrated by an Arab justice (Salim Joubran) sending a Jewish president of Israel (Moshe Katsav) to prison. But it is hollowly cynical to use Israeli Arabs’ participation in political life to tout Israel’s greatness, and in the next instance portray Israeli Arabs’ participation in political life as something that must be negated and combated. The entire spectacle of using Israeli Arabs as props, raising them up for geopolitical benefit and keeping them low for domestic political benefit, is ugly and should stop. The best thing that Israel’s current election campaign could accomplish would be to demonstrate that this tactic does not work.