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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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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