In recent months, the news has been filled with stories alleging that Israeli democracy is in decline. The coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of subverting the rights of political opponents and dissenters as well as those of the country’s Arab minority. While these charges are untrue, they do point to the unfortunate and unique position that Israel is placed in as a thriving and lively democracy that simultaneously seeks to defend itself while also guaranteeing equality before the law to a minority group that has, at best, equivocal feelings about the Jewish state’s survival.
Last month, Netanyahu was accused of incitement because, in the aftermath of a terror attack in Tel Aviv by an Israeli Arab, he challenged that community to oppose terrorism and to be loyal to the laws of the state. The prime minister was damned for a speech that was interpreted as blaming an entire community for the crimes of one man, but he was right to worry that the identification of most Israeli Arabs with Palestinian terrorists posed a threat to both the country’s security and any hope for coexistence.
But the context for that controversy went all the way back to last March when, on the eve of his re-election in the closing hours of a hard-fought campaign, Netanyahu spoke about the Arab vote. He was roundly bashed last year for telling Israeli voters that they needed to worry about the Joint List — the coalition of Arab political parties — winning so many seats that they might get a seat in a government led by the opposition or have the power to block the formation of a coalition. This was also considered incitement and has been repeatedly thrown in his face and considered proof of his ill will if not racism.
Of course, most Israelis understood what Netanyahu was saying. He was not trying to deny Israeli Arabs their right to vote or to representation in the Knesset. But he was pointing out that the empowerment of a coalition of communists, radical Islamists, and secular Arab nationalists dedicated to eradicating Zionism was not a healthy thing for Israel or its democracy.
But the latest controversy involving Israeli Arabs has unfortunately proved him right. This concerns the vote of the Knesset to suspend three Israeli Arab members — all part of the Joint List caucus — for four months. In addition, the parliament is considering yet another law that would provide for the expulsion of members from the Knesset for “unseemly behavior” if a vote of 90 of the 120-strong body agrees. But those who are declaring that either measure makes a mockery of democracy should consider why there is so much support for such measures. More to the point, rather than focus on the Netanyahu government and their move against the MKs, the real issue is to ask whether elected officials in any country could get away with openly supporting with those committing acts of terrorism against their fellow citizens?
The answer to that question is obvious. No democracy would tolerate its elected officials doing what the three Israeli Arab MKs did recently when they met with the families of slain terrorists and observed a moment of silence in their honor. Doing so was not merely in bad taste. It was an open act of solidarity with those that had either slaughtered other Israelis or tried to.
That is, of course, not how the Arab MKs see it. While they demand, as is their right, to be treated as equals before the law with their Jewish compatriots, they see their identity as being Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. As such they reserve the right to not merely criticize the government and to advocate for the interests of their Arab constituents but to place themselves on the side of those engaged in making war on the state. Assuming they consider themselves, like the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, as being part of a century-long struggle against Zionism, such views are understandable. But those who are condemning supporters of the suspension of the Arab MKs — a measure that was backed by virtually all Zionist parties from right to left — must ask themselves how such sentiments are compatible with the goals of greater integration of the Arab sector into Israeli life, genuine equality and coexistence.
The plain answer to that query is that they are not. If Israeli Arabs want to join the war on Israel by supporting or engaging in terror, then it is they who are rupturing the compact with civil society, not Netanyahu.
The dilemma of Israeli Arabs may be difficult one in as much as they are part of a regional Arab majority but a minority inside of tiny Israel. The fact that they do enjoy more democratic rights than other Arabs is apparently of small consolation to them, because it comes with the necessity to make their peace with being part of a nation whose character is Zionist and Jewish in which they must be content with their status as a national minority. They need not be happy about that, but they cannot wage war against it while also calling upon the world to help them advance the interests of their community in Israeli society. They cannot, as one member of the suspended trio has done, call Israeli Arab members of the police traitors, and criticize Jewish Israelis for viewing them with suspicion.
But, as Netanyahu said in January at the site of the Tel Aviv shooting, they must choose. If they continue to elect groups to the Knesset that seek to aid the war on their Jewish neighbors they cannot be surprised when they find themselves further marginalized and effectively robbed of effective representation. Those who sit and grieve for terrorists rather than their victims are a fifth column, not a loyal opposition.
Instead of condemning Netanyahu and his government, those who truly support Israeli democracy should be scolding the Arab MKs for confirming the worst fears of their Jewish fellow citizens. Peace with the Palestinians will never happen until they put aside their dreams of Israel’s destruction and end the conflict for all time by recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. If the members of the Joint List can’t do that either then peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs is just as much of a futile dream. If that is so, then it is the Arab MKs that have trespassed on the good will of other Israelis that deserve the blame for this lamentable situation.