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Arab Israelis are citizens, not punching bags!

Netanyahu cannot escape the fact that if his false depiction of the Arab community in Israel was correct he must bear at least some responsibility

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

It may be naïve to expect a politician to refrain from scoring political points, even the very trivial ones. When it comes to Arab-Israeli/Palestinian citizens, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t miss any opportunity to pander to his constituency by using the Arab minority as a punching bag.

The most recent opportunity was presented to him by a lone gunman, Neshat Melhem, an Arab Israeli. In a callous attack Melhem claimed the lives of three Israelis, two in a bar in Tel Aviv and of a taxi driver as he escaped. With a terrorist still at large, the need of the hour was a message of national unity. Instead Netanyahu chose to deliver one of his most chilling and divisive messages. His speech pointed fingers at one fifth of the Israeli population though their only ‘crime’ was being Arab.

To create maximum impact, Netanyahu chose the site of the Tel Aviv shooting to cast doubt on Arab-Israelis’ loyalty. In his customary hollow demagogue, he said: “whoever wants to be Israeli must be Israeli all the way.” This can be said about any citizen anywhere in the world. However, this was only the beginning. His speech turned more venomous as he suggested that Arabs in Israel are running a state within a state, which is lawless and plagued with Islamist propaganda, weapons and criminal elements.

Not only was this a very unflattering description of nearly 1.8 million people but also viciously incorrect. Isn’t he their prime minister as well? If there are such serious issues, is it not his duty to protect the vast majority that is not involved in criminal and extremist activities among the Arab-Israelis? It is obvious that his populism is aimed at garnering support of his supporters and covering up his failed premiership.

Taking responsibility

Mr. Netanyahu cannot escape the fact that if his false depiction of the Arab community in Israel was correct he must bear at least some responsibility. He has been the prime minister of Israel for a total of 10 years and continuously since 2009. How come he has this revelation only when an Arab-Israeli, for still unclear reasons, commits a crime which most Arab-Israelis condemned? One of its victims was an Arab himself. I cannot recall Netanyahu, or any other member of his government, trying to implicate, and rightly so, all half a million illegal settlers in the West Bank when an individual or a small group among them burnt an entire Palestinian family alive.

Incidentally, this took place in a week in which the Israeli government admitted that many of the issues among Arab communities in Israel, including higher levels of criminality and radicalization, derived from decades of neglect by Israeli governments and society. Only three days before Netanyahu’s attempt to further delegitimize Arab-Israelis, his government approved a proposal to allocate 15 billion shekels ($3.86 billion) in funding to Arab communities in addition to what was already in the state budget.

Mr. Netanyahu cannot escape the fact that if his false depiction of the Arab community in Israel was correct he must bear at least some responsibility.

Yossi Mekelberg

Additional funds invested in the development of housing, transportation, industry, education and healthcare are desperately needed to close gaps between the amount invested in the Jewish communities versus the Arab ones. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel deserve credit for pushing for this long overdue plan and for accepting and internalizing that much of the maligned problems among Arabs in Israel are the result of ongoing neglect. They made this move despite vociferous opposition from within their government.

This is the tale of two Netanyahus exposed to the public within a few days. The first Netanyahu has good insight into what is necessary for the good of the country, derived from years of experience in top political job in the country. Sadly the dark side of Netanyahu, which is exposed way too often, is the populist petty politician. He would jump on to any opportunity, as tragic as it might be, to gain favor with a section of the Israeli-Jewish electorate.

Statistics support claims that there is a higher level of criminal offence among the Arab population in Israel than the Jewish one. However, this racist view distorts the causality of it and blames it on their ethnicity. A more empirical approach would surmise that criminality and political-religious-ideological extremism are closely correlated with years of neglect, discrimination and institutional racism.

Acts such as killing in Tel Aviv bar deserve utter condemnation. Nevertheless, ignoring their root causes and conditions where they emerge would be either naïve or worse criminal negligence. The inequality of the Palestinian citizens of Israel is entrenched and results in the loss of opportunity, higher levels of unemployment, lower standard of living and shorter life expectancy.

Admittedly, some changes and reforms need to take place from within the Arab community. Radical elements do exist and are related to the lack of a peaceful solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, not to mention political, social and ideological developments across the region. Nevertheless, much of the malaise among the Palestinians in Israel can be resolved through a change in approach by the Jewish establishment and the society.

There is need for an approach which recognizes Arab-Israelis as equal citizens and their welfare, concerns and sensitivities taken seriously into account. This would be beneficial for the country as a whole. Netanyahu’s populist opportunism where blood was spilled can only lead to more discord and division and deserves condemnation.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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