By Mazal Mualem
November 22, 2017
When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the prime minister's office in 2009, he met with his old political patron, former Defence Minister Moshe Arens. As a senior Likud member, Arens advised him to make equal rights for Israel's Arab citizens the major item on his agenda and to correct the long years of discrimination that they had faced. Arens later recalled that meeting in an interview with Al-Monitor. "Go to Nazareth," he told Netanyahu. "Talk with the Arabs. They are your citizens." Arens then bemoaned that his entreaty had had no effect on Netanyahu. "But that doesn’t fit with him, it doesn’t speak to him, and that’s a shame.''
Arens believed that fostering and helping the Israeli Arab community would provide an unequivocal response to their growing sense of alienation, which can be traced to long-standing inequality in budgets and infrastructures, along with other issues. Arens assumed that focusing on Israeli Arabs, instead of the Palestinian issue, would be ideal for Netanyahu in every possible way: It would not lead to conflict with the right in his tenuous coalition, and it would be an important legacy encompassing all of Israel. The rest is history. Netanyahu focused on the Iranian nuclear program and other issues instead, while Israel's Arab population got pushed to the bottom of his list.
It is safe to assume that Arens was not overly impressed by reports on Nov. 21 that Netanyahu had participated in the festive dedications of two new police stations in the Arab sector: one in Jisr az-Zarqa and the other in Kafr Kanna. The prime minister attended with Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. After all, almost a decade had passed since Arens had had that talk with Netanyahu.
The disparities between the Jewish and Arab populations have grown since then, and Netanyahu is no different from prime ministers on the left who hid their heads in the sand when it came to the Arab population. What sets him apart is that this tendency to ignore the Arabs is complemented by his use of rhetoric to incite against them whenever it serves his political needs. This only adds to the feelings of prejudice, discrimination and alienation that the Arabs feel. One example of this is Netanyahu's famous remark on election day in 2015 to rally Jewish turnout: "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls." A few days later, he apologized for this remark.
In a speech he delivered at the site of an attack on a Tel Aviv pub in January 2016, Netanyahu proved that his apology was little more than lip service. He has no problem using incitement as a weapon against the entire Arab population whenever it serves his interests.
At the time, Israelis were reeling from the midday news that an Israeli Arab had just killed several Jews in the heart of Tel Aviv. Netanyahu wanted to appeal to public sentiment, particularly among his right-wing electorate. He declared that he would not accept a state within a state, and declared, "Whoever wants to be Israeli must be Israeli all the way." It was a harsh verbal attack with racist undertones. The prime minister had just painted all Israeli Arabs, some 20% of the population, with a single stroke, insinuating that they were all responsible for the horrific incident. Instead of uniting the country, he divided it. He threw his support behind right-wing incitement against Israeli Arabs.
It was a very different Netanyahu at this week's ceremony at Jisr az-Zarqa. He made the pompous statement that this was a day of celebration for the rule of law in Israel, noting, "Arab society is a part of the State of Israel. There are no two states here. … We act on behalf of all the residents and citizens of this country, Jews and non-Jews alike."
After that, he proceeded with Alsheikh and Erdan to Kafr Kanna, where they dedicated the new police station as part of a program to open 17 stations in the Arab sector. A few hours later, Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page, in which he congratulated himself for investing in the Arab sector. The unanswered question is why did he wait almost a decade?
A reminder of the current, volatile state of the Arab sector came in the form of several dozen Israeli Arab demonstrators at the event, including Knesset member Jamal Zahalka of the Joint List. Some of them even raised a Palestinian flag. Zahalka told Al-Monitor that the Netanyahu government treats the organized crime among the Arab sector lightly. There is widespread belief among Israeli Arabs that the police find it more convenient to ignore crime in Arab localities and might even quietly encourage it.
While there is no basis to this conspiracy theory, it does give voice to a very real and painful reality. Crime levels in Israel are highest in Arab settlements. For example, Jisr az-Zarqa is a small town, with just 14,000 residents, but it has experienced four murders this year as well as countless other instances of violence. There is good reason the town is called "Israel's Wild West."
There are plenty of police reports and professional studies about the high levels of crime in the Arab sector. Unemployment rates are higher there than among the Jewish sector. Discrimination and other expressions of racism against Arabs are common. All of that finds its way onto the agendas of the Knesset's Arab members, including the most moderate among them, such as Zouheir Bahloul of the Zionist Camp.
It has already been noted that Netanyahu is no different from his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, or for that matter, their predecessors, too. They all participated in the years of institutional neglect of the Arab sector. The events of October 2000 that led to the second intifada saw 12 Israeli Arabs and one non-Israeli Palestinian killed by Israeli police. This should have been a warning and was a missed opportunity for change.
One finding of the state-appointed Or Commission, which investigated the October 2000 events, was that the main reason for violence among Arabs stemmed from their feeling that they faced discrimination. "The Arab citizens of Israel live in a reality in which they face discrimination because they are Arabs," the findings stated. "This inequality has been described in surveys and professional studies. … In the opinion of many, including official sources assessing the situation, it constitutes a major factor behind the unrest, both within the Arab sector and beyond it."
Almost two decades have since passed. Netanyahu has been prime minister for about half that time. This means that he could have taken Arens' advice and sealed his place in posterity without paying a political price by putting an end to the sense of alienation and unrest among Israel's Arab population. While the new police stations in the Arab sector are a positive step forward, they are still little more than a drop in the bucket, especially since it will take no more than a second for Netanyahu to kick the bucket over and start inciting against the Arabs again.
Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel.