Commentary Magazine


Arab-Israeli Leaders Stoke the Flames

One of the most troublesome issues related to the war in Gaza, is the reemergence of tension between Arab-Israelis and the country they live in. Arab-Israelis – or Israeli-Palestinians – find themselves in an unenviable position, and their leadership, as usual, does everything in its power to fail them. Instead of looking to calm things down, instead of trying to delicately maneuver, Arab Israeli leaders are looking for ways to capitalize on the crisis – and maybe get some extra votes in the coming election. Yes, elections are still scheduled for Feb. 10th.

Thus, Israeli-Arabs took to the streets, not in great numbers but with some violent incidents severe enough to make Israeli-Jews concerned about a possible reenactment of the 2000 so-called “October Riots,” in which Arab citizens disrupted the country’s life by blocking roads, throwing stones, clashing with police forces and ripping apart the delicate fabric that is Israel’s society (Israeli-Arabs have a different version of these events – involving discrimination and police brutality – and that’s one of the problems).

The fact that Israeli-Arabs find it hard to fully identify with Israel’s war in Gaza is unfortunate, but not surprising. However, when an Arab Minister in the Israeli government has decided to boycott a meeting of that same government, by way of protesting the war – he gets himself in trouble. When Arab Knesset members constantly take to the airwaves complaining about Israel’s forceful actions and hardly take time to condemn Hamas’s aggressive tactics, charges of Arab-Israelis constituting a “fifth column” find purchase.

Who’s going to benefit from this resumed tension? Definitely not most Arab citizens who’d like to live their lives peacefully. Not Arab merchants and restaurant owners who have taken pains (and years) to make Jewish-Israelis comfortable buying from them after the 2000 clashes. Not Jewish-Israelis who support coexistence. And I don’t see any benefit for the Palestinians in Gaza – nor for those in the West Bank, who’d like to see Hamas’s rule collapse. In fact, the position taken by Arab-Israeli leaders today against the war is much more extreme than the one taken by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. So afraid to be seen as “collaborators” – so keen on getting a political boost by raising tensions – the Arab-Israeli leaders play the “holier than thou” card. A loosing card for all involved – except, maybe, politicians.

But will Arab politicians benefiting the most from these tensions? They might, or might not. The right-wing Israeli Beiteinu Party, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, can hardly believe its good fortune. In the polls preceding the war this party was already getting more votes than Labor and Shas, and on its way to becoming the third largest party in Israel’s political landscape. Assuming that a successful war can benefit Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his party, Labor – also the party most identified with the cause of taming Arab-Israeli nationalism – Lieberman is the only one thus far who has a chance of getting some extra votes when the war is over.