Analysis from Israel

Two months later, that Election Day warning refuses to go away. Just last week, US President Barack Obama condemned it yet again; even actress Natalie Portman has joined the party. Yet Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous remark has been widely and deliberately misconstrued by the simple expedient of omitting its second half.

Granted, the first half – “Arab voters are coming to the polls in droves” – was indefensible. Especially now, when Israeli Arabs are more interested in integrating than ever before, politicians should be encouraging this trend, not alienating them by painting them as enemies. But politicians nearing the end of an exhausting campaign often slip up and say stupid things they don’t really mean. Netanyahu retracted this part of the statement immediately. And in practice, his last two governments have invested heavily in Arab integration.

In contrast, he never retracted the statement’s second half; instead, he doubled down on it. Because that part wasn’t a slip of the tongue, but something he really meant – and which resonated deeply with his voters.

So what did he actually say? Here’s the initial statement: “Arab voters are coming to the polls in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

And here’s his subsequent clarification: “There’s nothing illegitimate about citizens voting, Jewish or Arab, as they see fit. What’s not legitimate is the funding, the fact that money comes from abroad from NGOs and foreign governments, brings them en masse to the polls in an organized fashion, in favor of the left, gives undue power to the extremist Joint Arab List, and weakens the rightist bloc such that we’ll be unable to form a government.”

In other words, he was concerned about bolstering JAL, and legitimately so: Many of its MKs are indeed extremist (think Hanin Zoabi). But primarily, he was outraged that foreign governments and NGOs, via the Israeli NGOs they fund, were blatantly trying to influence the outcome of Israel’s election. And his voters shared that outrage, for three reasons.

First, it’s an affront to any citizen of a democracy to have foreigners trying to sway his country’s election, because it eviscerates democracy’s most fundamental right: the right to choose the government that rules you, rather than having it imposed from outside. Nor is this sentiment unique to Netanyahu voters: Israeli Druse were similarly outraged when Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt urged them to vote for JAL. The community’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, demanded that Jumblatt “respect the right of Druse in Israel to vote as they please,” because they’re “an inseparable part of Israeli society” who “enjoy freedom of expression and freedom to do as they please.” Similar comments came from Druse supporters of both Labor and Likud.

But this sentiment resonates doubly with Netanyahu’s base, because it contravenes not only basic democratic rights, but also Israel’s raison d’etre. The Jewish state was created precisely so that Jews could finally control their own fate instead of having it controlled by others.

Second, foreign intervention stirs age-old Jewish fears, because the non-Jewish world’s track record on protecting Jews is lousy: See the Holocaust, Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms and expulsions from country after country. Even many Jewish holidays commemorate failed attempts to annihilate the Jews (including Passover, Hanukkah and Purim).

Consequently, this fear is ingrained in the psyches of all but the most secular Jews, and certainly in Netanyahu’s voters, who tend to be more traditional. So when he talked about “money from abroad” and “foreign governments,” his voters instinctively heard this as “people who don’t have our best interests at heart.”

Third and most important, however, was the track record of these foreign-funded NGOs themselves. Many Israelis would instinctively oppose anything these NGOs support, because they demonstrably don’t have Israel’s best interests at heart.

Take, for instance, B’Tselem, the Israeli NGO most frequently cited by the infamous Goldstone Report on the 2009 Gaza war. The Goldstone Commission was unabashedly created to be a lynch mob. First, it was set up by the viciously anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council, whose only country-specific permanent agenda item is condemning Israel. The HRC has condemned Israel 61 times since being established in 2006, compared to five for Iran, one each for ISIS and Boko Haram, and zero for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Hamas. Second, the commission’s explicit mandate was to investigate Israel alone, not Hamas. Finally, the very resolution that established the commission had already declared Israel guilty of war crimes, including deliberately targeting civilians. The commission’s job was merely to provide “evidence” for that predetermined conclusion, and it duly produced a report so biased that its own lead author later repudiated it.

Thus no NGO with Israel’s best interests at heart should have cooperated with Goldstone. But B’Tselem didn’t just cooperate; it eagerly plied the commission with anti-Israel libels liked inflated civilian casualty figures (compare its figures to this). Indeed, as B’Tselem unblushingly admitted in January, whenever it’s uncertain whether casualties were civilian or combatant, it labels them civilian – then accuses Israel of excessive civilian casualties.

Or take Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Its stated goals include eliminating Israel’s Jewish majority by relocating millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees to it. That’s an explicit provision of Adalah’s proposed “Democratic Constitution,” which even terms this a necessary condition for an “equal and democratic” society. In other words, Adalah deems Israel an undemocratic, apartheid state unless it agrees to voluntarily self-destruct.

Nor are B’Tselem and Adalah unique; they are merely two of dozens of similar organizations – all virulently anti-Israel, and all funded mainly by foreign governments, either directly or via foreign NGOs. As NGO Monitor reported in 2011, European governments spend more money “promoting civil society” in the Mideast’s only democracy than they do in all other Middle Eastern countries combined – $75 million to $100 million a year.

This is what truly concerns Netanyahu’s base. It’s why his last two coalitions tried to pass legislation limiting foreign funding for NGOs, and why his current coalition is expected to try again. And all the talk about Netanyahu’s “racism” has merely served as a smokescreen to obscure this very real problem.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on May 28, 2015

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The U.S. Must Show Iranians That They Can’t Have It All

The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.

To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”

The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.

And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.

That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.

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