Analysis from Israel

Note: Because this piece was posted belatedly, events referred to as “last week” actually happened two weeks ago, and those referred to as “this week” happened last week

It’s unclear why, 16 months after the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly decided last week to apologize for his Election Day warning that Arabs were “going to the polls in droves,” especially since his explanation – that he was referring to “a specific political party” rather than Arabs as a whole – may seem like a distinction without a difference: The vast majority of Arabs vote for that specific party, and the vast majority of that party’s voters are Arabs. Nevertheless, in one sense, his remarks proved very timely: The previous few weeks had provided ample evidence of just how right he was to warn against that party, the Joint List, and this week, even more evidence arrived.

This week’s news was that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had actively worked to turn out the vote for the Joint List. That isn’t actually surprising, since the party’s own voters have long complained that its primary concern is the Palestinian cause rather than the welfare of Israel’s Arab citizens. But given Abbas’s energetic campaign against Israel in international forums, Israelis are understandably unhappy that he effectively also has representatives in Israel’s parliament.

Even more outrageous, however, is what happened during the two weeks preceding Netanyahu’s apology. Twice during those weeks, one of three parties that ran together as the Joint List took the unprecedented step of publicly condemning a leading Arab state for forging warmer relations with its own country, the one in whose parliament it serves. Then, not content with trying to undermine Israel’s foreign relations, it even voiced support for anti-Israel terrorist groups. And these statements were made not by the Joint List’s radical fringe, but by Hadash, the party generally considered the most moderate of the three – the one whose chairman, who also heads the Joint List as a whole, likes to compare himself to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first condemnation came after Egypt’s foreign minister visited Israel last month for the first time since 2007. In a press statement, Hadash not only bewailed the fact that the country to whom its parliamentary representatives swear allegiance seems to be paying “no diplomatic or economic price” for following policies Hadash opposes, but even accused the burgeoning Egyptian-Israeli alliance of being “an alliance that undermines a just peace and real stability in the region.”

Think about that for a minute: A party sitting in Israel’s parliament has just declared that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors – something one would think every Israeli would welcome, and its Arab citizens above all – actually undermines regional stability. Does Hadash think Israeli-Egyptian hostility, which led to no fewer than five wars in the 30 years before the countries signed their peace treaty, would somehow be better for regional stability? Or is it simply so hostile to the country it ostensibly represents that it views anything beneficial to Israel, like peace, as evil by definition?

That question was effectively answered the following week, when Hadash issued its second condemnation – this time, of the first-ever visit to Israel by a Saudi delegation. Israel has no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, so the fact that a group of Saudi academics and businessmen, headed by a retired general who formerly held senior posts in the Saudi government, obtained Riyadh’s permission for this visit was groundbreaking.

Once again, Hadash condemned the visit on the grounds that it would “legitimize” Israel’s policies. But this time, it went even further: The visit deserved condemnation, its press statement said, because it “is part of the normalization of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran, Syria and resistance movements in the region.”

In other words, Riyadh’s great sin in Hadash’s eyes is cooperating with Israel against groups openly sworn to Israel’s destruction – Iran, which constantly reiterates its desire to wipe Israel off the map and backs anti-Israel terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and the “resistance movements,” an Arab euphemism for those same anti-Israel terrorist groups, which also endlessly declare their desire for Israel’s eradication and have repeatedly attacked it. Evidently, Hadash would prefer to let these groups pursue their goal of destroying Israel unmolested. It’s the exact equivalent of a U.S. congressman condemning other countries for aiding America against Al-Qaeda after 9/11.

This isn’t the first time Hadash and its leader, Ayman Odeh, have revealed their true colors. Odeh also notoriously refuses to condemn Palestinian terror: “I cannot tell the nation how to struggle … I do not put red lines on the Arab Palestinian nation,” he said last year. Yet this never seems to stop either Israeli or foreign journalists from fawningly parroting his own comparison of himself to Martin Luther King while scrupulously ignoring all evidence to the contrary. The obvious facts that King had no trouble condemning violence and would never have supported terrorist organizations against his own country seem to elude them.

It’s hardly surprising that Netanyahu, like most other Israelis, isn’t thrilled by having a party so openly hostile to Israel sitting in the Knesset and getting funding from the Israeli taxpayer. But one might ask why it really matters, given the Arab parties’ seeming impotence: After all, Hadash’s press statements clearly didn’t discourage either the Egyptian or the Saudi overtures.

The answer is that while Arab Knesset members have very little power to harm Israel’s foreign relations, they have enormous power to harm relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. When Israeli Jews hear statements like those above from parliamentarians who have repeatedly received the vast majority of the Arab vote, they naturally assume ordinary Arab voters must share their MKs’ views – that they, too, support anti-Israel terror and seek Israel’s diplomatic and economic isolation. As I’ve noted before, this assumption isn’t necessarily correct, but it’s perfectly rational. And it’s a huge barrier to Arab integration, because normal human beings will always be reluctant to welcome a minority into their workplaces, neighborhoods and governing institutions if they have good reason to suspect that minority of wanting to destroy their country. That isn’t prejudice; it’s common sense.

Netanyahu, as I’ve written before, has actually tried hard to further Arab integration, and he understands that Arab politicians, with their endless flow of anti-Israel vitriol, are poisoning this effort. That’s why he was entirely justified in warning against that “specific party,” and why American Jews eager to promote coexistence should do the same. Far from being the solution, existing Arab parties are a huge part of the problem, and endlessly calling them “moderates” won’t make them so.

What Israel desperately needs is a truly moderate Arab political leadership. But it will never have one as long as people who favor coexistence insist on embracing radicals rather than shunning them.

Originally published in The Jewish Press on August 7, 2016

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Why the right lost Israel’s do-over election

It’s still unclear whether Israel’s next election will be in four years or four months. But either way, if the center-right wants a better outcome, it needs to learn the lessons of September’s election. So here are two: First, while center-right voters realize that many things leftists deem “anti-democratic” actually aren’t, they dislike behavior that’s genuinely anti-democratic. Second, though the Arab parties are shunned deservedly, treating all Israeli Arabs as anti-Israel is both wrong and counterproductive.

In April’s election, the nonreligious center-right parties (Likud and Kulanu) won a combined 39 seats running separately. But in September, running together, they won just 32 seats. Moreover, most of those lost votes didn’t stay in the center-right/religious bloc: Though the bloc as a whole lost only five seats, that was mainly because fewer religious Zionist votes were wasted on parties that didn’t make it into the Knesset.

Some voters migrated to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, now rebranded as an anti-haredi and anti-Netanyahu party. But an estimated three seats’ worth simply stayed home in an election where overall turnout rose.

So why did center-right voters desert? Primarily, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crossed lines in the latest campaign that he never crossed before.

I’ve defended Netanyahu for years against false charges of anti-democratic conduct. For instance, there’s nothing undemocratic about the nation-state law, proposals to rein in Israel’s hyper-politicized Supreme Court or requiring NGOs funded mainly by foreign governments to say so openly. But during the latest campaign, he unquestionably adopted undemocratic tactics.

Take, for instance, his claim that Arab voter fraud “stole” April’s election from the right. Undermining faith in the validity of an election is extremely dangerous because no democracy can survive if people don’t trust elections to be free and fair. Thus election results should be called into question only in extreme cases, like the 2013 Beit Shemesh mayoral election, which a court invalidated because massive and well-documented fraud coupled with a very close result made the outcome genuinely dubious.

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