The shattered glass windows had not yet been replaced. The scars of the bullet holes were still visible. Just a day earlier, on Friday afternoon, at that very spot, at the Simta Bar in central Tel Aviv, an Arab citizen of Israel had sprayed his automatic rifle into a crowded pub, killing two innocent young men and wounding 10 more.
The bodies of the dead weren’t even buried; the wounded were still hospitalized. The shooter hadn’t yet been captured (and, as of this writing, still hasn’t been). The security forces did not (and still do not) know the motive for the killing spree.
But Benjamin Netanyahu knew exactly what to do. On Saturday night, barely a day later, the prime minister appeared on the scene. Leaning on a portable podium, dressed in a dark jacket, his expression appropriately stern, Bibi looked out over the sad, makeshift memorial of flickering candles set up by passersby, and stoked his right-wing constituency.
He’s done this before. As opposition leader, he was always ready at the scene of a terror attack, blaming the reigning prime minister for not taking the measures needed to keep us safe. But Bibi has been prime minister for a total of 10 years, and now he has to find someone else to blame.
So he blamed the entire community of Arab citizens of Israel.
“We all know that there is wild incitement of radical Islam against the State of Israel within the Muslim sector,” he declared.
We are frightened and we need leaders who will help us maintain unity. Instead, Bibi chose to divide.
“Anyone who wants to be an Israeli has to be an Israeli to the end — in rights and responsibilities,” he said.
The Arab community is often Bibi’s preferred target of choice, and fomenting animosity is his preferred modus operandi. In last year’s elections, when polls predicted (wrongly) that he would lose the elections, Bibi warned that the Arab voters were “heading to the polling stations in droves,” as if exercising their rights as citizens was somehow a crime against Jewish Israeli society. On Saturday, unable to explain why he and his cabinet have failed to provide us with security, he incited against one-fifth of Israel’s population.
It’s his strategic default. Bibi knows that to continue to run the country, despite his failures, he has to delegitimize anyone who won’t be joining his camp. Leftists and left-of-centrists, Arabs, the non-Orthodox: to Bibi, anyone who isn’t with him is against him.
We are reeling from this attack and all the others we’ve experienced over the past 100 days, and Israelis need assurances that our leaders will lead. Instead, Bibi offered us fear-mongering.
We are wounded and bleeding, and we need leaders who will help to unite us. Instead, Bibi chose to portray the entire Arab community as potential terrorists.
We need our leaders to help us to keep calm, despite the terror. Bibi could have chosen to note that the suspect’s own father, who has volunteered with the Israeli Police for more than 30 years, notified the authorities when he recognized his son in security tapes shown on TV and that all of the leaders of the Arab community have condemned the attack and distanced themselves from the suspect. Had he chosen to be a leader, instead of a populist politician, Bibi would have noted that, despite the rampant discrimination, only a very few Arab citizens have ever engaged in terror or violence against the state, and have consistently expressed their grievances through legitimate democratic means.
He could have denounced the photograph that was making the rounds on Facebook, purporting to show Arabs in the north handing out candy after the attack.(The picture is from Lebanon two years ago.)
Instead, he used racist stereotypes and loaded words to boost his larger right-wing agenda.
“I am not prepared to accept two states of Israel,” he said. “A state of law for most of its citizens and a state within a state for some of them, in enclaves in which there is no law enforcement and in which there is Islamist incitement, rampant crime and an abundance of illegal weapons.”
In a time when we all need to search for new solutions, Bibi offered nothing more than the usual dread. He knows as well as we all do that without a viable peace plan, the terror will continue, within Israel and without. It’s true that the Palestinian leadership is a failure — but that doesn’t absolve Bibi and his cabinet from the responsibility and the obligation to seek new and just solutions. But Bibi has nothing to offer except recycled fear.
Often close to despair, Israelis need to at least be able to dream of a better society. Bibi could have spoken of a program that his own government recently passed to allocate 15 billion shekels ($3.8 billion) to the Arab minority, in order to reduce the social gaps. But he knows that that won’t get him any new votes.
I have given up on hoping that the current political leadership will ever truly lead. But I do believe that, through our civil society institutions, we are capable of leading ourselves to a more just, peaceful society — and, with the help of like-minded supporters, we will.
The Palestinians, Israelis love to repeat, quoting Abba Eban, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Bibi, it seems, never misses an opportunity for opportunism.
Eetta Prince-Gibson, the former editor in chief of The Jerusalem Report, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Jerusalem.