It’s hard to find any silver lining in a situation where Palestinians are perpetrating multiple stabbing attacks against Jews every day, and most of the “international community” is siding with the perpetrators. Yet this dismal situation may finally have produced something Israel desperately needs: An Israeli Arab political leader who represents his community’s sane majority. The 65 percent who are proud to be Israeli, the 55 percent who identify with the Israeli flag, the ones who genuinely want to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors.
For decades, Israeli Arab leadership at the national level has been an unmitigated disaster. The community’s current Knesset members, elected on a joint ticket called the Joint Arab List, span the gamut from the “moderate” Ayman Odeh to the “firebrand” Hanin Zoabi, to borrow the media’s favorite misnomers. The former merely refuses to condemn Palestinian terror, saying, “I cannot tell the nation how to struggle … I do not put red lines on the Arab Palestinian nation.” The latter may face criminal investigation for actively inciting it, having allegedly told a Hamas publication that the current terror needs more “national support,” because “If individual attacks continue without national support, they will be extinguished within the next several days, and therefore hundreds of thousands are needed to start a real intifada.” In between are MKs who spew a wide variety of anti-Israel libels; my personal favorite was Ahmed Tibi’s 2014 op-ed in The Hill claiming that Israeli Arabs are subject to Jim Crow treatment – signed, without a trace of irony, by his then-title of deputy speaker of the Knesset.
Clearly, this is terrible for Jewish-Arab relations, and the Arab community suffers doubly: Not only do their MKs spend most of their time and effort promoting such libels rather than trying to solve their community’s real problems, the antagonism they generate among the Jewish majority actively hinders solutions. First, it’s hard to lobby the government for, say, better bus service while simultaneously accusing it of apartheid and genocide. Even worse, such rhetoric encourages many Jews to view all Israeli Arabs as enemies to be shunned: After all, Israeli Arabs have overwhelmingly voted to reelect these same MKs for decades, giving this conclusion an obvious logic.
But in recent years, this logic has increasingly been contradicted by other polling data, like the figures I cited in the first paragraph. Particularly telling was a poll published in February regarding Arab attitudes toward their own MKs. It showed that 70 percent wanted their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems instead of the Palestinian cause. Additionally, 61 percent wanted their MKs to join the government, where they would have more influence over such issues, and almost half that figure favored joining regardless of who became prime minister (the Joint Arab List, by contrast, vowed before the election not to join any government). Unsurprisingly, therefore, almost half the respondents weren’t happy with their own MKs.
So why do they keep reelecting them? It’s classic minority identity politics. Whereas the well-integrated Druze vote for, and serve as MKs from, parties across the political spectrum, Israeli Arab integration is still nascent. Consequently, however much they loathe their own MKs, most Arabs don’t feel comfortable voting for a non-Arab party; they’re skeptical that Jews could understand or really care about their community’s special problems.
What’s desperately needed, therefore, is home-grown Arab leadership that not only wants to represent the sane Arab majority and advance its integration, but also has the guts and the political power to take on the existing Arab parties. And despite a growing cadre of local leaders who indeed favor coexistence over confrontation, none had been willing to publicly challenge the national leadership – until Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem erupted on the stage this week.
Last March, Salem ousted Nazareth’s long-time mayor in a landslide, winning 61.5 percent of the vote in an election with record turnout of 83.8 percent. The former mayor, a Christian, belonged to the abovementioned Ayman Odeh’s party and toed its anti-Israel line. Salem, a Muslim, also began his political career in that party, but later quit in disgust and ran for mayor as an independent. The fact that he was both willing and able to challenge the Arab political establishment proved a harbinger of things to come.
This week, when Odeh visited Nazareth, Salem confronted his inflammatory behavior head-on – and on live TV. “Get out of here! Go back to Haifa, and stop destroying our city,” Salem yelled. “Jews don’t come here anymore because of you! … You’re burning the world down. … Shut up and get out!”
When Odeh, embarrassed, demanded that the television crew stop filming, Salem promptly demanded the opposite; he wanted his remarks to be widely heard. And lest there be any doubt, he gave several follow-up interviews reiterating his views.
“I blame the [Israeli Arab] leaders,” he told Army Radio. “They are destroying our future, they are destroying coexistence. We need to find a way to live together. We cannot fight like this. We are damaging ourselves.”
And in a conversation with reporters, he explained, “It infuriates me that Arab politicians come here, incite violence, and leave us to clean up their mess … We invest a great deal in coexistence and tourism. We want to develop our city. I want peace and quiet. … We used to have thousands of Jews and tourists visit Nazareth over the weekends. They don’t visit anymore. This seriously hurts our image and our livelihood, and we won’t allow it.”
Other prominent Arab Israelis are also speaking out. Television presenter Lucy Aharish, for instance, gave a must-see interview with Channel 2 television in which she demolished the idea that the terror had any conceivable justification and accused Israeli Arab political and religious leaders of fanning the flames: “You are inciting thousands of young people to go the streets. You are destroying their future with your own hands!” She and other Israeli Arab notables have also signed a petition denouncing terror and promoting coexistence.
But a real turnabout in Jewish-Arab relations will require a different Israeli Arab political leadership. And Salem offers hope that such a leadership might finally be emerging.
Originally published in Commentary on October 16, 2015