Analysis from Israel

The presence of an Arab Knesset member aboard last week’s flotilla to Gaza made media headlines. But much less attention was paid to the fact that Basel Ghattas’s decision was controversial even within his own Balad party – the most extreme of the three parties comprising the Joint Arab List.

Indeed, a “key activist in Balad” told Haaretz last month that he opposed Ghattas’s decision on several grounds. First, the flotilla had enough high-profile international activists, so Ghattas’s presence contributed nothing. Second, it would merely provide an excuse for right-wing incitement against Israeli Arabs. And third, “Arab society in Israel has quite a few challenges that require the presence of the MKs in Israel and not on the flotilla.”

This dichotomy between the Arab leadership and those they ostensibly represent was also evident in another recent incident: Bentzi Sao’s appointment as acting police commissioner. Due to Sao’s role in violently suppressing large-scale Arab riots in October 2000, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, the Adalah NGO and two JAL MKs threatened a community-wide boycott of him if the appointment weren’t rescinded. Yet Arab activists told Haaretz that in his previous role as head of the police’s Central District, Sao “received full cooperation from the heads of Arab municipalities and there had never been any decision to boycott him.”

None of this ought to surprise anyone. As I’ve written before, an overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs have told pollsters for years that they want their leadership to focus more on improving Arab lives here in Israel and less on serving the Palestinian cause; hence the Balad activist’s discomfort with Ghattas’s preference for a pointless bit of pro-Palestinian propaganda over the hard work of finding solutions to Israeli Arabs’ real problems. And since the high crime rate in Arab communities consistently ranks as one of the Arab public’s top concerns, many Arab mayors have come to realize that cooperating with the police is essential.

What is both surprising and worrying, however, is that so many Jewish politicians seem blind to the emerging rift between the Arab public and its leadership. Israel clearly has no interest in helping the radical Arab leadership, but it has an enormous interest in encouraging the development of a more moderate Arab public that seeks a modus vivendi with the Jewish majority. It also has an interest in encouraging the emerging cadre of more moderate local leaders who could someday become moderate national leaders. Yet many Jewish politicians are doing the exact opposite.

A prime example is the Knesset debate last month in which Deputy Interior Minister Yaron Mazuz told Arab MKs, “You are lucky we let you be here” and said they ought to “turn in their citizenship cards.” Given the context, the statement actually seems to have been aimed only at the Arab MKs. But that’s not how the broader Arab community interpreted it, and understandably so: When a high-ranking official of any country tells individuals from an ethnic minority that they’re lucky to be allowed to live there, it’s inevitably understood by all members of that minority as meaning they are there merely on sufferance, which might someday be revoked.

The same was true of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous Election Day warning that Arabs were going to the polls “in droves.” As I’ve explained before, Netanyahu never meant to imply that Arabs exercising their right to vote was somehow illegitimate, but that is how many Arabs interpreted it. And at a time when signs of moderation are finally emerging among the broader Arab public, Jewish officials must be doubly careful to avoid rhetoric that makes moderate Arabs feel unwelcome.

Moreover, such rhetoric actually bolsters the radical leadership’s grip on the Arab public. An eye-opening pre-election poll found that about half of Israeli Arab voters were unhappy with their own MKs, begging the question of why they nevertheless keep reelecting them. And at least part of the answer is the same as why many Sephardim keep voting Shas and Ashkenazi haredim keep voting United Torah Judaism: An ethnic group that feels threatened or discriminated against will usually vote for its own, because it feels that outsiders can neither understand its problems nor be trusted to protect it. Only minorities that feel confident of their acceptance feel confident voting outside their ethnic group.

That Arab Israelis feel threatened and discriminated against is in no small part their own fault. For years, they have openly sided with the Palestinians against Israel, and to this day, most refuse even to do civilian national service in their own communities, much less military service, out of reluctance to identify too closely with the Jewish state.

Nevertheless, this attitude has clearly begun changing in recent years: A poll last May found that 65% of Arab Israelis were proud to be Israeli; another in February found that 55% now identify with the Israeli flag. And encouraging this trend is a vital Israeli interest.

Unfortunately, the argument from national self-interest has often gotten lost in the vitriolic debate over whether such “anti-Arab” statements are anti-democratic. The left routinely charges that they are; the right counters that they aren’t; and then, having refuted the left’s claim to their own satisfaction, rightist MKs see no need to change their behavior.

For the record, the left’s claim is often wrong. For instance, it’s hardly undemocratic for a politician to tell his supporters that an opponent’s supporters are voting “in droves,” so they’d better do the same; and Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote JAL, which vehemently opposes Netanyahu. Nor is it necessarily undemocratic to argue that some behavior is so egregious that its perpetrators shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the legislature; personally, I’d say joining a flotilla aimed at breaking your own country’s naval blockade of a vicious enemy qualifies.

But regardless of whether such remarks are undemocratic or not, they are counterproductive to the goal of encouraging the budding Arab interest in greater integration. Because even Arabs who truly want to integrate won’t view this as a viable option as long as Jewish politicians keep saying things that make them feel unwelcome.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on July 6, 2015

One Response to Distancing Israeli Arab moderates instead of drawing them closer

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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