Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to demonize Arab Israelis: Israel’s prime minister will say anything to stay in power.

When Netanyahu Is in Trouble, He Turns to Hate and Suspicion

When Netanyahu Is in Trouble, He Turns to Hate and Suspicion

Events beyond our borders.
March 17 2015 12:08 PM

Netanyahu’s Hate Speech

Israel’s prime minister is trying to stay in power by turning a million Arab Israelis into the enemy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently running for re-election, delivers a speech to his supporters in Netanya, Israel, on March 11, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently running for re-election, delivers a speech to his supporters in Netanya, Israel, on March 11, 2015.

Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday in a final bid to save his job, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised right-wing Israelis that if they re-elected him, he wouldn’t allow the creation of a Palestinian state. In making this pledge, Netanyahu reversed previous commitments to the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. He ruled out a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

But that’s only half the story. Netanyahu hasn’t just rejected autonomy for Arabs in the Palestinian territories. He has been running against the empowerment of Arabs within Israel, too. He has made Israel’s Arab citizens the boogeymen of the 2015 election. Netanyahu hasn’t just ruled out a two-state solution. Even within Israel’s present borders, he has turned his campaign into an assault on the alternative: a single state, with Arabs living alongside Jews.

To understand the magnitude of Netanyahu’s reversal, you have to go back to May 2011, when he came to Washington to address a joint session of Congress. In his speech, he made two commitments. First, he would accept a Palestinian state. “Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples,” he said. “I am willing to make painful compromises. … I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland.”

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Second, he held up Israel as a model of fairness to minorities:

We’re proud that over one million Arab citizens of Israel have been enjoying these rights for decades. Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of one-percent are truly free, and they’re all citizens of Israel!

Netanyahu shredded the first of these promises on the eve of Tuesday’s election. “Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel,” he declared. When he was asked whether this statement meant that no Palestinian state would be established if he were re-elected, he replied: “Indeed.”

What’s less well-known is Netanyahu’s betrayal of his second commitment. In the past week, he has focused his campaign on defeating Israel’s domestic Arab population. On Wednesday in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, he alleged, “There is a massive effort, with tens of millions of dollars according to some estimates to mobilize the Arab vote.” He warned Jews that his principal opponents, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, might win the election and rule the country “with the backing of the Arab parties. … The only way to prevent a government of the Left with Tzipi and [Herzog] as prime ministers, backed by the Arabs, is to vote for the Likud.”

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On Thursday, Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 that “European states and left-wing people from outside” Israel were financing organizations that encouraged Arabs to vote in the election. In a letter to religious Zionists, he cautioned: “If Likud is not the biggest party, the Left will win control and form a coalition with the support of the Arab party.” Meanwhile, Likud issued a statement dismissing Israel’s previous president, Shimon Peres, as “an architect of the Oslo Accords” and an advocate of “withdrawal from the West Bank.” The statement accused Herzog and Livni of planning to cede the West Bank “with the support of the Arab party.”

On Friday, Netanyahu went on Facebook to repeat that his opponents were “backed by the Arabs” and by organizations that “are encouraging higher voter turnout among the Arab population.” In an interview with the Times of Israel, he protested that “there’s an enormous campaign here from abroad … trying to get out the Arab vote in vast numbers.” He told Israelis that this would lead the country in a dangerous direction “with the full support of the Arab party that’s coming out in droves.”

On Saturday, Netanyahu sounded the alarm in another TV interview: “If we don’t close the gap in the next few days, Herzog and Livni, supported by Arabs and leftist NGOs, will form the next government.” On Sunday, Netanyahu repeated to Arutz Sheva that Herzog and Livni would be “backed by the Arabs.” The Jerusalem Post reported that one of its staffers had received a campaign call urging a vote for Likud in order to stand up to “Hussein Obama.”

On Monday, Netanyahu declared at a campaign stop that Herzog and Livni, supported by a “massive effort from abroad to increase the Arab turnout,” would “build a government with the Arab list.” He called on Israelis to vote for Likud or endure a leftist government “with the support of the Arabs.” Even as votes were being cast on Tuesday morning, Netanyahu pleaded on his Facebook page that “Arab voters are going out in droves to the polls.”

There’s no subtlety or principle in these pitches. Netanyahu has aimed his rhetoric squarely at “the Arabs” and “the Arab population.” That’s 20 percent of Israel. He has vilified his country’s Arab citizens; no decent American would tolerate it if a white politician were to speak this way of blacks, or if a Christian were to speak this way of Jews. Netanyahu has become Israel’s George Wallace.

The nightmare for Israel, if Netanyahu were to remain prime minister, isn’t just that he would represent the country to Western governments he has proudly defied in this election. It’s that Israel’s 1 million Arabs would face the prospect of four years under a Jewish prime minister who openly demonizes their participation in the political process. If that scenario comes to pass, unrest in Gaza and the West Bank will be the least of Israel’s worries.