This is the first outing of our new Israeli contributor, Amir Tibon, who will be covering Israel inside and out—politics, both foreign and domestic, culture, energy, technology, and anything else that defines the country as a state and society. Tibon is a diplomatic correspondent with the Israeli news site Walla.
The beginning of a new school year is always a celebratory event in Israel, and this past Thursday, when over two million kids went back to school after a two months-long summer break, was no different. It’s also an opportunity for the country’s leading politicians to score an easy photo-op with smiling kids in the background, something that no politician with a pulse will ever pass on.
And yet, this year’s first day of school was a bit different than previous ones, because of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s interesting choice to spend the first day of school in Tamra, an Arab village in northern Israel, not far from the city of Nazareth. Accompanied by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu told the local first-graders, “I want you to learn the history of the Jewish people and the Arab people, and I want you to learn the truth—that we were meant to live together.” He also urged them “to become doctors and scientists and writers and anything you want to be. This is your country.”
Netanyahu’s visit to Tamra is part of a broader effort he has undertaken lately, to fix the damage caused by his warning on the morning of Israel’s most recent elections that Arab voters are “moving to the polls in droves.” This past month, Netanyahu uploaded a video to his personal Facebook page that offered an apology to Israel’s 1.8 million Arab citizens and urged them to become more involved in the country’s economic and cultural life. Netanyahu also takes pride in a plan approved by the government earlier this year to invest more than ten billion shekels in strengthening local authorities in the Arab sector. Arab-Israeli leaders point out, however, that so far only a small part of the money has been delivered, mainly due to obstructionist demands by some Likud ministers, and also to bureaucratic issues within Israel’s finance ministry.
On Thursday, after the school event, Netanyahu also met with leading Arab-Israeli journalists for a background briefing that lasted more than three hours. In recent weeks, Netanyahu has held more than ten lengthy briefings with Israeli journalists from different news outlets, in what some have dubbed a “charm offensive” by the Prime Minister. (I personally participated in two such briefings with him, together lasting longer than six hours.) Yet the meeting with the Arab journalists was still significant, because it’s something that he’s never done before, and that is unusual for Israeli Prime Ministers, most of whom have paid little to no attention to Israel’s lively media in Arabic.
This, of course, raises an interesting question—why now? What has happened to make Netanyahu, almost overnight, begin presenting himself to the public as a champion of equality for Israel’s Arab citizens? The Prime Minister’s most cynical critics see this as part of a strategy by Netanyahu to improve his image in the eyes of moderate and even some left-wing Israelis, ahead of a number of impending decisions by Israel’s Attorney General on investigations involving Netanyahu and his family. Netanyahu, according to that logic, is trying to do what Ariel Sharon supposedly did as Prime Minister in 2003–04, when Israel’s legal system was on the verge of ending his premiership over corruption allegations: break away from hard right-wing positions toward the center of the political map, win the support of Israel’s mostly liberal press, and make it harder—at least in the court of public opinion—for investigators, prosecutors, and judges to take decisions that will end his rule.
This kind of conspiracy-theorizing about Netanyahu’s actions is popular among some of his greatest opponents, on both the Right and the Left. Netanyahu, for his part, completely rejects the accusations, which he sees as ridiculous and unfair. In his recent conversations with the press, he has made a habit of mockingly imitating people who make such claims against him (“It’s all about the investigations! He wants to create a smoke screen!”). According to Netanyahu, what truly drives his recent decisions—whether the finalizing of a new security aid package to Israel with the Obama Administration, or the outreach to the Arab sector, is simply “the interests of the State of Israel.” He has wanted Arab Israelis to become more involved in the economy ever since he was Minister of Finance (2003-05), and now he’s simply found the time to deal with this important subject.
Netanyahu’s motives can be analyzed and discussed from now until eternity, but they’re not the important part of the story. His comments on the importance of better integrating the Arab sector correspond with the words and actions of other high-ranking state officials, starting with Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, who has become the target of a frightening hate campaign from extremist elements on the Right for his bold and constant denunciation of anti-Arab racism within some parts of Israeli society. In Rivlin’s case, no second-guessing is required—his intentions are very clear. He wants to defeat racism and make Arab citizens fully at home in their country.
Another interesting case is that of Education Minister Naftali Bennett. On the one hand, he drew a lot of criticism a few months ago, after the education ministry removed a book about a Jewish-Arab love affair from the national high school curriculum. On the other hand, he has strongly disavowed racist comments made by members of his own party, Jewish Home, and has taken an important step toward integrating Arab citizens by instituting Hebrew-language studies in Arab schools starting in kindergarten. (In the past, these studies only started at third grade, further widening the already wide gap between Israeli Jews and Arabs when it comes to mastery of Israel’s most common language.)
These developments represent a rift within Israel’s right-wing political camp, between those who oppose racism and see it as anathema to their world-view, and others who, instead of opposing racist elements, try to appease them. Rivlin, a life-long member of Likud, has become the de facto leader of the anti-racist camp, which also includes the former Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who resigned from the government in May. Ministers such as Avigdor Lieberman, who replaced Ya’alon, and Miri Regev, the fiery Minister of Culture, represent the other camp, which thrives on anti-Arab sentiments. Lieberman and his partners have an unofficial bond with the most extremist politicians in the Arab sector: Every time one of those politicians makes an outrageous statement, which typically won’t represent the opinion of the vast majority of Israel’s Arab citizens, the anti-Arab elements on the Right will immediately make use of that quote to promote their own interests. And, of course, the Arab politicians do the same when given the opportunity—which is often.
If all of this sounds familiar to American readers, it’s because the rift within the Israeli right wing corresponds in some ways with the Republican Party’s current struggles over its presidential nominee. It is no coincidence that one of the most racist and populist politicians in Likud, Member of Knesset Oren Hazen, recently declared that he is “the Israeli Donald Trump.” Hazan promoted a plan to create separate bus lines for Israelis and Palestinians in some areas of the West Bank, which was nixed by Netanyahu this past summer following international outrage. Unfortunately, more and more Likud MKs seem to be following Hazan’s example, as bombast and outrage earn them more media coverage.
Netanyahu, as with so many issues, seems at times to be on both sides of the divide. After a terror attack carried out by an Arab Israeli citizen in January (one of very few such incidents during the current “terror wave” that began almost a year ago), Netanyahu arrived at the scene of the attack and gave an opportunistic speech that seemed to fault the entire Arab population of Israel for the actions of one terrorist. Then again, in the past month and a half, he has consistently sounded more like Rivlin than like Lieberman. One can only hope that this trend will continue. It’s important for the Israeli right wing, for the Arab citizens, and probably also for Netanyahu’s legacy, which was tainted by his remarks on election day, but can still be repaired if he doubles down on his latest statements.