To understand the beleaguered state of Israeli democracy, look no further than this month’s headlines.
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered into an agreement with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to implement a plan for the 37,000 people seeking asylum in Israel, who came fleeing persecution and hardship in Eritrea and Darfur.
For years, Israel has refused to process asylum claims, leaving thousands stuck in a desperate and uncertain situation. For the past several months, the Netanyahu government had said it would deport asylum seekers against their will to Rwanda — a country to which they have no connection and to whose government Netanyahu promised financial and political incentives, reportedly $5,000 per refugee. Israeli media reported that Rwanda had agreed to accept the deal, and it looked like Netanyahu’s mass deportation plan was moving forward.
Israelis and advocates around the world found this plan morally reprehensible, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Tel Aviv to press their government to do the right thing: Come up with a plan that allows people seeking asylum to live their lives and raise their families in peace.
So the announcement that the mass deportation would not happen, and that instead Netanyahu had agreed to a deal in cooperation with the United Nations, was stunning. People seeking asylum and their allies were jubilant. But Netanyahu’s political allies were incensed, and by that afternoon Netanyahu claimed that Rwanda had withdrawn from the mass deportation plan, and said “pressure” on the Rwandan government from the New Israel Fund, an American and Israeli organization I head, was to blame. The next day, Netanyahu officially canceled the U.N. deal and called for a parliamentary investigation of the New Israel Fund.
Netanyahu provided no proof of the New Israel Fund’s “pressure” on the Rwandan government, because there isn’t any. Our organization has had no contact with the Rwandan government. In fact, a Rwandan government official tweeted incredulously that the Rwandan government “has no idea what this New Israel Fund is all about.”
But truth wasn’t the point — distraction from Netanyahu’s failure was. Former U.S. special negotiator Martin Indyk called it a “classic Bibiesque/Trump-style deflection.”
Netanyahu’s cowardly reversal and stubborn refusal to show any humanity toward the 37,000 people seeking asylum in Israel is shameful on its own. But the anger that even his abandoned attempt to resolve this issue elicited among extremists within Netanyahu’s party and base suggests a looming and potentially disastrous trend, which is perhaps the greatest threat to Israeli democracy today. It is a monster of Netanyahu and his allies’ own creation.
For years, Netanyahu and his government have campaigned using outright racism, stoking fear and signaling to Jewish Israelis that their security can be assured only if no other groups can claim equal rights. This applies to people seeking asylum from African countries and to all Arabs and Palestinians, including those who are citizens of Israel. This is, after all, the man who, worried about his poll numbers on the day of the last election, warned his voting base: “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading in droves to the polls.”
Netanyahu and his government only and always referred to people seeking asylum from African nations as “infiltrators” — the Israeli equivalent of “illegals.” Many have noted that his rhetoric toward people seeking asylum is strikingly similar to President Trump’s invective against immigrants. According to a 2012 study by the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the “incendiary rhetoric” coming from the prime minister and members of Knesset “has brought on a major wave of hate crimes against asylum seekers, which were previously a rare phenomenon in Israel.”
As a matter of policy, the Israeli government has refused to even process asylum claims; of approximately 37,000 people seeking asylum from Eritrea and Darfur, Israel has granted refugee status to only 11. While 38,000 people could not possibly change the demographic makeup of Israel, Netanyahu and his government have consistently presented people seeking asylum as an “existential threat” to the Jewish state, echoing racist claims against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
This rhetoric is detrimental to Israeli democracy, and it has been frighteningly effective. A study by Haifa University sociologists found that the number of Jewish Israelis who believe that Arab citizens should have full rights dropped six points since just two years before. And it found that acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state is declining among Arab citizens — at 59 percent, it’s still a majority, but it has dropped seven percentage points since 2015.
Perhaps part of Netanyahu’s vendetta against the New Israel Fund stems from the fact that our approach and that of our grantees are based on exactly the kind of cross-sector alliances he fears. For example, the prime minister attempted to present the needs of the longtime residents of south Tel Aviv as fundamentally incompatible with those of people seeking refuge, whom the Israeli government had intentionally dumped in their neighborhoods. But we found that residents of south Tel Aviv became some of the strongest advocates for a solution that meets everyone’s needs. A young organizing group called Standing Together brought Jews and Arabs to the streets to oppose the government’s plan to bulldoze Bedouin Arab villages in the Negev region. In October, 30,000 Palestinian and Israeli women participated in the Women Wage Peace march, calling on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to move forward on a peace agreement. Knesset member Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint List of political parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, led efforts to raise government payments to Holocaust survivors and worked with Jewish members of Knesset to pass a historic economic plan to benefit Israel’s Arab minority.
This model of bold action based on shared interests and cooperation is the most promising way out of the hegemony of divisiveness and fear Netanyahu and his allies rely on for political power.
Israel will celebrate its 70th birthday this month — the anniversary of its independence and survival against great odds. Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba — their dispossession. The promise of a better future for everyone who calls Israel or Palestine home lies in our courage to stand together in the face of fear. As for me, I will celebrate Israeli democracy, and those who protect its values from a government set on tearing it apart.