Analysis from Israel

The standard narrative about Israel these days goes like this: The current government is the most right-wing ever, the public is increasingly racist and anti-democratic, and the prime minister is either a right-wing zealot or a coward afraid to challenge his right-wing base. But the most remarkable part of this narrative is how durable it has proven despite all evidence to the contrary.

The latest such evidence comes from today’s Jerusalem Post report about a massive drop in construction in the settlements. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, housing starts in the settlements plummeted by 53 percent in the first quarter, compared to an 8.1 percent decline in housing starts nationwide. Needless to say, one would expect settlement construction to soar under Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” and a prime minister captive to his right-wing base. Yet in fact, as I’ve written before, the “right-wing” Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently built less in the settlements than any of his left-wing predecessors–a fact that never seems to disturb proponents of the “far-right extremist” narrative.

Even more noteworthy was a pair of reports in the left-wing daily Haaretz earlier this month about two unprecedented moves to boost equality for Israeli Arabs. The first report noted that the Council for Higher Education, chaired by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-of-center Jewish Home party, is advancing plans for Israel’s first ever BA-granting college in an Arab town. Until now, the only institutes of higher education in Arab towns have been teacher’s colleges. But a tender to set up a BA-granting college closed on May 31, and the CHE is now reviewing the five bids it received. The winner is expected to be announced in another few months, and the new institution is slated to open next year. To help it succeed, the government has promised millions of shekels in start-up funds plus an annual budget of 20 to 40 million shekels (depending on enrollment).

The new institution is expected to significantly increase the number of Arabs, and especially Arab women, obtaining BAs, because many will now be able to live at home and commute to college. Not only will this eliminate the expense of renting apartments near campus, but it also solves the access problem for women from conservative Arab families who are barred by social norms from living away from home.

The second report described two moves to ease the housing shortage in Arab communities. First, a government planning committee decided to build a new neighborhood in the Arab city of Taibeh, which “will be one of the largest building plans in the Arab sector to have been approved for many years,” the report noted. Second, the Interior Ministry approved a decision to take land from the Jewish jurisdiction of Misgav and give it to the Arab town of Sakhnin. The report also noted that these decisions are merely the latest in “an increasing number” over the past year and a half intended “to accelerate development in the Arab sector, after many decades of neglect and inaction.”

Like the drop in settlement construction, these efforts on behalf of Israeli Arabs don’t exactly fit the narrative of a government and public mired in right-wing extremism. Indeed, they contradict it so blatantly that even Haaretz reporter Nimrod Bousso couldn’t ignore it. “One cannot help but wonder why this change is finally taking place under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who never seems to miss a chance to demonstrate hostility toward the group that makes up a fifth of Israel’s population … and whose government has a significant number of members with nationalist views,” he wrote in his news story on the Taibeh and Sakhnin decisions.

The answer, of course, is that the narrative is simply wrong on every count. Diplomatically speaking, as I’ve noted before, this government is actually one of the more left-wing in Israel’s history: Though Netanyahu doesn’t consider a two-state solution achievable right now, he does accept the idea in principle; in contrast, during Israel’s first 45 years of existence, all governments from both left and right considered a Palestinian state anathema. And Netanyahu’s policy of restraining settlement construction – which, contrary to his “cowardly” image, he has maintained despite considerable opposition from parts of his base – is consistent with his stated commitment to a two-state solution.

Moreover, as the examples above show, his past three governments have actually been among the most progressive in Israel’s history in terms of their practical efforts to improve Arab integration. And unlike his settlement policy, his efforts to advance Arab equality have sparked no significant opposition from either his cabinet or his electorate, even though Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote for his political opponents. The reason is simple: Any government which considers Israeli-Palestinian peace unachievable in the foreseeable future has no choice but to invest in Israel’s internal development, in order to ensure that the country is strong enough to survive without peace. And improving Arab integration is crucial to the country’s internal development because Israeli Arabs, currently underrepresented in both higher education and the work force, represent one of the main potential sources of future economic growth.

But proponents of the “far-right-extremism” narrative seem utterly impervious to the facts. So they can only scratch their heads in puzzlement over why Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” is precisely the one that’s taking far-reaching steps to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs.

Originally published in Commentary on June 20, 2016

2 Responses to The Israel Narrative Is Wrong

  • Scott says:

    The one objection I have to this post is the line “even though Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote for his political opponents.” The organized Arab community is certainly behind his political opponents, but obscures the fact that the town that voted most heavily for Likud in the last election is an Arab town.

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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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