Israel’s Arab citizens won’t soon forget Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 Election Day warning about Arabs heading to the polls “in droves” as a way to shore up his right wing base.
Now, 18 months later the prime minister is riffing on his own statement to try and make nice with Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population.
In a video recording that was published in English and Hebrew with Arabic subtitles, Netanyahu began by saying that he understood how people were “offended” by his “misunderstood” Election Day comment, which he said was directed at a “political party,” presumably the Joint Arab List.
“But today I want to go further,” he said. “Today I am asking Arab citizens in Israel to take part in our society—in droves. Work in droves, study in droves, thrive in droves.”
Netanyahu lauded the success of Israeli Arabs who have become “Supreme Court justices, members of parliament, renowned authors, entrepreneurs, high tech business-owners, doctors, pharmacists.” He said he wants Israeli Arabs to play an “even greater role” in Israel’s success.
“But talking about equality of opportunity - that’s not enough. Action is what matters.”
Netanyahu brought up two measures recently passed by his government. One was the government’s allocation earlier this year of up to $4 billion in infrastructure in Arab towns. The other was new legislation to boost public safety in Arab towns with high crime rates.
In conclusion, Netanyahu exhorted Jews and Arabs to build bridges. “Our land is too small, it’s too precious to fill it with discord and hate.”
Arab leaders aren’t buying Netanyahu’s message. Knesset member Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint Arab List, called it a “hypocritical charade” in a statement, saying that Netanyahu “tried with all his might to block the economic plan for Arab municipalities.”
Odeh indicated that he saw the message as a publicity stunt meant for international ears: “When I saw that he chose to appeal to us in English, I understood the true purpose of his message and to whom it was really directed,” he said.
Jafar Farah, the head of Mossawa, a center for Arab rights in Israel, pointed out in a statement that Netanyahu’s speech came at a time when the Israeli government was stepping up home demolitions in Arab towns, such as the Negev village of Al-Araqib, which Israel claims as state land but Bedouin locals say belongs to them. The village has been destroyed by the state and rebuilt by locals 100 times.
“Our experience with this government makes us cautious and afraid that Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman will continue to target our community,” Farah said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.