I was struck by the following passage from Isabel Kershner’s New York Times dispatch on the recent Israeli election in which she accuses Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of railing against Israel’s Arab citizens:
“Right-wing rule is in danger,” he said. “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.”
He said they were being bused to polling stations in droves by left-wing organizations in an effort that “distorts the true will of the Israelis in favor of the left, and grants excessive power to the radical Arab list,” referring to the new alliance of Arab parties. Opponents accused him of baldfaced racism.
“More than a gevalt campaign it was a ‘Let’s blow up the world’ campaign,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “It was a scorched-earth policy to stay in power.”
Notably, Kershner failed to quote anyone willing to defend Netanyahu against the charge of “baldfaced racism.” Nor did she delve into Netanyahu’s domestic policy record as it pertains to Israel’s Arab citizens. Last fall, Robert Cherry and Robert Lerman, two left-of-center U.S. economists, wrote a short piece for U.S. News on the unheralded success of Israel’s efforts to integrate its Arab citizens into the life of the state:
Certainly, the decades after Israeli statehood were difficult and military rule over Arab communities lasted into the 1960s. But, over time, Israeli Arabs have come to believe that the Israeli government is serving their interests. They are increasingly seeing themselves as Israeli citizens, not as Palestinian outsiders. Affirmative action policies have significantly increased the number of Arabs employed in government agencies. The educational performance of Arab students has improved significantly as well, leading to a substantial increase in enrollment in Israeli universities. More Arab women are employed in professional careers, and Arabs with high-tech training have transformed Nazareth into a hub where numerous national and international companies run production development sites.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has prioritized economic development in Arab towns and allocated funds for joint industrial parks in Arab and Jewish towns. Subsidies help firms hire Arab labor, and transportation infrastructure allows Arabs to reach employment sites. These ventures have been so successful that the government has begun setting up industrial parks and employment offices exclusively in Arab towns. In addition, the Israeli government developed a five-year plan for Arab education and established a special unit in the prime minister’s office to promote economic development in the Arab community.
If Netanyahu did not believe that Israel’s Arab citizens ought to be treated as full members of Israeli society, it seems unlikely that he would have made these efforts to improve their economic standing. Cherry and Lerman report that these efforts have yielded impressive results. None of this is to suggest that there isn’t a great deal of discontent among Israel’s Arab citizens, particularly for those of a nationalist bent. Indeed, that is a big part of why the political force backed by most Israeli Arabs in this election, the Joint List, is so opposed to Netanyahu’s bid to form the next Israeli government. The Joint List is an alliance of far-left political parties and Palestinian nationalists that does not share Netanyahu’s Zionist ideals, to say the very least. Its leader, the charismatic socialist Ayman Odeh, has made it clear that his chief priority is to keep Netanyahu out of government. Moreover, a preliminary report from the Joint List itself finds that Israeli Arab turnout in this election stood at 67-68 percent, far above the 54 percent it reached in 2013. One can criticize Netanyahu for speaking carelessly about the implications of high Arab turnout. Perhaps he ought to have specified that not all Israeli Arabs support the Joint List. But was it wrong of Netanyahu to warn his voters that the Joint List was on track to surpass expectations?