Bibi: Master of incitement

In exchange for shutting down parts, or even all of the pro-Netanyahu freebie newspaper, Israel Hayom, media tycoon Arnon Mozes, owner of the competing Yedioth Ahronoth, promised that Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu will remain prime minister for as long as he desires. The deal never materialized. Netanyahu fought against the ‘Israel Hayom’ law; because it passed a first reading, he dissolved the government, went to elections, and won. Mozes tried hard then, and is still trying, to bring down the Netanyahu government, but Bibi has a winning formula to ensure his rule – inciting vicious hatred against the Arabs.

This formula was cooked up before him by Avigdor Lieberman, who boasted that only he “understands Arabic.” But it sounds a lot more genuine coming from Netanyahu’s mouth, and the results do not disappoint. On Election Day, when reports from the field foretold a defeat, Netanyahu posted on YouTube a desperate cry to his followers: “The Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves.” This strengthened the Netanyahu camp and still keeps the opposition out of power.

However, in order to survive, the government cannot made do with incitement alone – it must run the country and deal with issues of economic, social, and political complexity. The Arab population, making up a fifth of Israel’s 8.6 million people, is an important part of the country’s political and economic fabric. Since joining the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Israel is under an obligation to consider the needs of the Arab population in its macroeconomic planning, as well as making long-term plans in the areas of employment, housing, transport, education, and municipal services.

One basic premise of the macroeconomic planning is that the gap between the Arab and Jewish population harms not only Arab citizens but the Israeli economy and society as a whole. Therefore, the government invests in many programs aimed at strengthening local Arab authorities to increase employment among Arab women, develop transportation, and encourage entrepreneurship. This is intended not only to reduce the enormous poverty gap but also to encourage economic growth that would bring more money into the state treasury. One of these programs, initiated by Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel, calls for investing three billion shekels (roughly $790.000) in the Bedouin community and building 25,000 housing units. There is a catch, however. The various programs are conditioned on local Arab authorities taking steps against illegal construction. For example, the 15 billion shekel five-year plan for the Arab sector will be implemented only after the government has ascertained that building laws are being enforced.

In other words, although common sense dictates advancing and integrating the Arab population, Netanyahu’s heart is not in it. The Israeli Right understands well enough that strengthening Arab society will contribute to Israel’s welfare and even improve the shaky relationship between Jews and Arabs. But since there is little chance that the Arabs will vote en masse for the Likud and identify with the messianic aspirations of the extreme Right, every penny invested in the Arab population seems wasted—unless, of course, Bibi can make political profits by inciting against them.

In June 2016, Netanyahu was forced to apologize to the Arab public for incitement on Election Day. He asked them to “take part in Israeli society.” However, as expected, the apology proved to be an exercise in public relations, not a real change in policy. How does he expect the ‘Arab citizens of Israel,’ as he calls them, to become an integral part of the society when he inveighs against them day and night? Four months after the apology, following a drought, a wave of fires swept the country, giving Bibi a golden opportunity to blame the Arabs for “arson terrorism.” While the flames rose in Haifa and Jerusalem, Netanyahu, accompanied by Police Minister Gilad Erdan, and Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, ran from camera to camera emitting sympathy borne on the wheels of hate and incitement. He promised harsh punishment, and it was not long in coming in the form of unprecedented house demolitions (although as of this writing, two months later, no one has been charged).

In demolishing houses, the Israeli government stands on a legal ground of its own making. The vast majority of Arabs cannot build legally, because no master plans for expansion have been passed by the government for their localities. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has established hundreds of Jewish localities—and none for Arabs. Yet Arabs are no exception where natural increase is concerned.

After destroying houses in the Israeli Arab town of Kalansua on the claim that they had been built illegally, Netanyahu decided to escalate the campaign of hatred. He posted on Facebook: “Our forces demolished 12 Arab homes in Kalansua”, as if they were Hezbollah outposts in southern Lebanon, and not a poor community on the outskirts of Kfar Saba.

On January 18, 2017, during house demolitions in the unrecognized Negev village of Umm al-Hiran, one of the Bedouin citizens was driving when he was shot in the right knee by police. The car speeded up, went into a group of policemen, and one of them was killed. The police claim it was a terror attack, saying the driver had ties to the Islamic State. The neighbors deny the ISIS connection and say he lost control of the car after being shot. The driver cannot be asked: he was shot in the chest as well and left to bleed half an hour until dead. (Immediately the incident was compared to a recent one in Jerusalem, when a Palestinian from an occupied neighborhood deliberately drove his truck into a group of soldiers, killing four.) Netanyahu responded to Umm al-Hiran, “Such incidents will not deter us, they will strengthen us.” However, forensic evidence casts doubt on the police allegations, as well as on any ISIS connection. How then can the Israeli government expect to integrate 20% of its population while demonizing them as a fifth column—and when every tragic event is at once transformed into arson or a car-ramming!

With the major aim of strengthening Netanyahu’s position within the right-wing camp, the campaign to de-legitimize the Arabs has two main sub-goals. First, in order that the Likud may keep its support, the people must be fed frequent doses of fear and hatred. The second sub-goal is to prevent Arab parties from joining forces with the Jewish opposition factions. There is no question but that this is a winning strategy. Yair Lapid, in attempting to position himself as an alternative candidate for prime minister, joined the chorus of nationalist incitement. Another example of this is the Labor Zionist camp, which lined up behind Lapid and is trying to stop its deterioration in the polls. Billboards displaying crowds of people waving Palestinian flags and the words “قريبا سنكون الأغلبية” (“Soon we will be the majority”) were launched by 250 retired security officials, including former heads of the Shin Bet and Mossad. The Left uses fear of the Arabs to promote separation from them. This just reinforces hatred and sends voters straight into Netanyahu’s arms. Thus, Netanyahu will continue his campaign of hatred as long as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Israel Hayom allow him to.

Not only is the Zionist opposition playing this game, but also the Arab parties. These have an electoral base to play to, so why not take part in this political game. Like Bibi, Arab MKs too know how to make headlines: They boycott Shimon Peres’ funeral; smuggle cellphones into a security prison; brandish the well-known slogan “Al-Aqsa in danger”; and propose complete disengagement from a “hostile” Israeli society. The call by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee for a general strike prevents Arab students from going to school and keeps garbage from being collected in Arab towns. This seems more self-punishment than protest. Demonstrations taking place in Arab communities are not felt by Israeli citizens, while Arab citizens feel that the nationalistic verbiage is disconnected from their everyday reality.

Thus, Netanyahu wages his war against the Arab population and the Arab parties conduct their separate struggles against him. The Zionist Left is dragged into the fray but has no alternative strategy. In between, Jewish and Arab citizens seek to cope with the harsh reality. Netanyahu is bad for the Jews and worse for the Arabs. The plain truth is, persecution of Arabs does not improve the plight of the Jews. The destruction in Kalansua and Umm al-Hiran will not lower housing prices in the Jewish sector and will not lift Jewish families out of poverty.

I wonder how Netanyahu would respond if Arab citizens were to exercise their civic rights. If instead of building illegal houses in their communities, they were to buy homes in Jewish cities – as they have already done in Carmiel, Nazareth, and Afula. No doubt that such rising demand would propel housing prices even higher. It turns out that illegal construction in Arab villages exempts the government from fulfilling its role, i.e., supplying housing for all citizens, including Arabs. Netanyahu can continue to pat himself on the back. He may have ensured himself continuing rule, but his one-sided war against the Arab population has been lost in advance. They are here to stay.

Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat