The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Netanyahu’s malicious fear-mongering could backfire on him

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference on Monday in Jerusalem. (Ronen Zvulun/AP)

This piece has been updated.

The young men, a half dozen or so, showed up one night on Tel Aviv’s streets. They wore white headscarves and kanduras, the ankle-length cotton cloaks that are standard male garb in the United Arab Emirates, and joked with each other in Arabic. Photos of Emiratis have wallpapered Israeli media since the summer, when the UAE and Israel announced their agreement to normalize ties, so their attire was instantly recognizable.

Passersby gushed greetings and lined up to take selfies with tourists from the country that has become Israel’s new national BFF. A video clip of the joyous reception went viral on Twitter.

Here’s the twist: The men had come to Tel Aviv from Kafr Qasim, a nearby Israeli Arab town. The Emirati outfits were costumes. The welcome they received was “laughable,” since Jews meet Arabs — a fifth of Israel’s population — every day, Arab journalist Yaser Wakid tweeted.

But a chronic concern of Israel’s Arab citizens is that acting explicitly Arab in majority-Jewish spaces can quickly turn uncomfortable. Hold a conversation with a friend in Arabic, and people nearby might turn around in fear. The anxiety of the Arab population rises during election campaigns or other tense political moments — in no small measure because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paints Arab politicians as supporters of terrorism and Arab voters as illegitimate.

As Wakid wrote in Hebrew, how you’re received comes down to whether you’re an Arab “tayyar” (tourist) or “dayyar” (resident).

The incident highlighted the sheer absurdity of endemic anti-Arab prejudice in Israeli society. It also points to a serendipitous irony: There’s a chance that, without any intent on Netanyahu’s part, his latest moves might begin to dispel the distrust on which he has built his career.

Netanyahu has exploited multiple divisions in Israeli society, but his portrayal of Arab citizens as a faceless mass of fifth columnists has been particularly blatant. On election day in 2015, he triggered a surge in right-wing turnout with a video warning that Arab voters were “advancing on the polling places in droves.” His Likud Party’s election campaign kicked off in early 2019 with the slogan “Bibi or Tibi” — meaning that a vote for anyone but Netanyahu was a vote for a coalition supported by Arab parties, personified by Arab politician Ahmad Tibi.

Besides staying in power, one of Netanyahu’s perpetual goals has been to prevent a “land for peace” deal — giving up West Bank territory to create a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. Recent normalization accords with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — welcome in themselves — instrumentally serve both goals for Netanyahu.

Photogenic diplomatic successes are aimed at distracting attention from the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis and from Netanyahu’s approaching corruption trial. In Netanyahu’s spin, the normalization accords are “peace for peace” — proof that Israel can “reap the fruits” of peace without conceding land, as if direct flights to Abu Dhabi will somehow obviate the need for direct talks with Palestinian leaders on ending the occupation.

And yet, the agreements inject an awkward distinction into the universe of fear that Netanyahu has cultivated: Faraway Arabs are now considered friends, even as local Arabs continue to be painted a threat.

Since Israeli tourists began flocking to the UAE, the dissonance has been difficult to maintain. The Israeli airline Arkia, which is now offering flights to the UAE, has begun recruiting Israeli Arab flight attendants. Heretofore, a policy of accepting only candidates who had served in the Israeli military was seen as a thinly veiled means of discriminating against Arabs.

One Emirati investment is a greater symbolic challenge to Likud-nurtured fear: Abu Dhabi businessman Hamad bin Khalifa al-Nahyan just bought a 50 percent share of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, historically tied to the Israeli right. The team’s fans are infamous for racist chants and for opposing Arab or Muslim players on its roster. Perhaps some will now abandon the club. But maybe, just maybe, some will remain loyal to the team and edge toward questioning their prejudice.

Netanyahu has undercut his own political strategy even more with his public flirtation with Knesset member Mansour Abbas. Abbas leads the Islamist faction within the Arab-backed Joint List. In October, Abbas cooperated in a parliamentary move to block a new investigation of possible corruption by Netanyahu. He has hinted he might vote for a law giving Netanyahu criminal immunity, ending the prime minister’s trial before it begins. Netanyahu has since given Abbas special access to top officials.

Abbas argues that by horse-trading with the prime minister, he can achieve budgets and other material gains for the Arab minority. Netanyahu’s motive is obvious: staying in power and out of jail.

But Israel will again go to the polls in late March. Likud warnings against a government supported by Arabs in the Knesset might ring hollow. If, once again, the opposition wins a narrow majority, centrist parties might be less afraid of working with the Joint List.

I might be too optimistic. But the only rule consistently followed in Israeli politics is the Law of Unintended Consequences. Netanyahu doesn’t intend to reduce distrust or racism. Maybe, in his desperation, he’s doing so anyway.

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