Merav Michaeli is a member of the Israeli Knesset, representing the Labor Party, and a former journalist.
JERUSALEM — In the lead-up to Israel’s elections on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has crossed every red line in a fear-mongering campaign against Israel’s Arab citizens. This is his main tool to hold on to power, and with it, he is threatening Israel as a Jewish state and as a democracy.
Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric against his leading opponent, the chair of the Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz, has homed in on one racist, polarizing message: Gantz and the left stand with the Arabs, while Netanyahu stands with the Jews. For more than 20 years, Netanyahu has misleadingly campaigned as the candidate who’s “good for the Jews,” while delegitimizing the Arabs and the left. He has outright accused us leftists in the past of having “forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
One of his party’s main campaign slogans right now is “Bibi or Tibi” — a reference to Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli Arab legislator, even though he is not in line to be prime minister. The message is clear: It’s either Bibi or the Arabs. In our fracturing democracy, little else is said, and little else needs to be said.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because in the last hours of Israel’s previous election, as Netanyahu was down in the polls, he came out with a panicked online video warning that “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are bringing them in buses.”
The racist tropes and falsehoods went on after he won. Last year, Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page that fans of an Arab-Israeli soccer team booed during a moment of silence commemorating victims of a flood disaster. Only they didn’t. But even after it was proved to be a lie, he kept the dishonest post up for five days and never apologized for it. Netanyahu’s ministers have falsely accused Arabs of arson in connection with a catastrophic wildfire and called on Jews to boycott Arab-owned businesses in a city where Palestinians were protesting President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. A close political ally said he would rather Arabs not show up to vote in the upcoming election at all. Netanyahu did not condemn any of this. Nor did he condemn the beating of three Arab men on a beach, gravely assaulted only for being Arab.
Let’s make the distinction Netanyahu is deliberately not making: Yes, there are Arab countries and Islamist terrorists that are hostile toward Israel. Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups threaten our country. But the “Arabs” Netanyahu is talking about are actually rightful citizens of Israel. They are not the enemy. They are not “the other.” But you wouldn’t know that listening to our prime minister.
This election cycle actually started several months earlier when the Knesset passed one of Netanyahu’s party’s major legislative priorities, the nation-state law, which in essence downgraded Israel’s Arab citizens. It deliberately excluded a commitment to equality and removed Arabic as one of the country’s official languages. “Israel is the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu told a TV host last month.
Partially as a result of the law, one recent poll suggests that many Israeli Arabs may sit out the election altogether, unwilling to take part in a system that doesn’t recognize their rights. In fact, some Israeli Arabs are calling for an official boycott of the vote. If 20 percent of our citizens feel unable to vote, we no longer have a democracy.
Netanyahu knew the nation-state law would weaken Israel’s democracy. He knew that Arab citizens would not take it sitting down and that their representatives in the Knesset would protest it loudly and passionately. He knew that we on the left in the opposition would vehemently oppose it.
Netanyahu’s goal was to establish the fallacy that one’s attitude toward Arabs is a marker for one’s loyalty to Israel’s Jews. We knew our objection to his law would play right into his hands, but we had to stand up for Israel as a state that protects the rights of minorities, including the prospect of a two-state solution. These are not only our democratic values but also our Jewish morals. After all, Israel was established on the collective memory of being a persecuted minority.
After two years of Trump’s presidency, Americans know Netanyahu’s technique well: A leader says something racist and unutterably outrageous. Many speak out against it, but the red line has been crossed. And what was once inexcusable becomes permissible and then acceptable. In Israel, we have been living in this state of democratic decay long before Trump. Netanyahu started it 25 years ago, pigeonholing Israelis into solipsistic racism, making the world think this is Israel. It is not. If we are to save our Jewish and democratic Israel, Bibi must go. That is what we are voting on this Tuesday.