This Is How Israel’s Jewish Opposition Can Save Arab Lives
This Is How Israel’s Jewish Opposition Can Save Arab Lives
The murder wave in the Arab sector presents center-left politicians in Israel a choice: do they keep picking and choosing which Arab parties to align with or become allies to stop the carnage?
August 28th, 18PM August 28th, 22PM
Israel’s center-left politicians face a choice: do they intend to keep shunning Israel’s Arab society and all their political leaders even, now, as blood washes the streets of almost every Arab city and town?
Arab citizens are fighting for their lives. On Tuesday, after the director-general of his municipality was gunned down in front of police station, Mamoun Abed El-Hai, the mayor of the Arab city Tira, said, “nobody is acknowledging our anguish and willing to lend us their ear.” That same day, four more Arabs were murdered in the town of Abu Snan.
On Saturday, speaking before tens of thousands at the pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv the mayor spoke of his community’s pain and rage.
“This government wants us to remain submerged in blood. They want us to leave the country, but I have news for them. We have no other country. This is the land of our ancestors too. We will stay here,” he declared.
Eight months ago, the first week of January marked a significant milestone, as Israel renewed its tally of murdered Arabs for the new year. It was also the week Netanyahu’s far-right government took office.
The statistics say it all: 158 people were murdered in Israel’s Arab communities so far this year, compared to 106 in all of 2022.
Comparing the same period in the previous year under the past government, from January to August 2022, there was an 18% decrease in homicides within the Arab community. Now, during the same timeframe in 2023, there has been a staggering 130% increase in murders among Arab Israelis, according to the Sixty-one Project” of the Israeli Molad think tank.
Last March, as the judicial coup was well underway, the heads of Israel’s opposition parties gathered for a press conference, Israeli flags draped behind them. Two opposition lawmakers were conspicuously absent: Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, heads of Hadash-Ta’al, one of the largest Arab parties.
Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am, the Islamist party, was there. He was a member of the previous government and his party’s inclusion marked an historic first of an Arab party in a ruling Israeli coalition.
Abbas’ presence aside, the absence of Odeh and Tibi broadcast a clear message: we can fight the judicial overhaul alone. If the Arabs we deem “acceptable” are ready to help, they can, but their presence is not essential. It’s a Jewish Zionist struggle, not theirs.
For some Arab citizens, the scene may have reminded them of a painful snub when Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid leader and head of the opposition and Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, coldly dismissed the unified and courageous recommendation of the Arab parties that those parties should be the ones to form a government in 2020.
Perhaps those centrist leaders believed in March that their struggle for Jewish democracy doesn’t necessarily include the right to life for Arab citizens to live, and not be gunned down in their own neighborhoods.
Dozens of murders a month later – sometimes several in one day, the issues cannot be separated.
Gantz and Lapid must now do what is morally right, and even politically expedient: demonstrate to Arab society the dignity and respect they rightfully deserve and legitimize all of their elected leaders. To displace this current government and save future Arab – and Jewish lives, Israeli opposition leaders must step into unfamiliar territory: ignore the racist attacks from Netanyahu and his far-right poison machine that will surely follow and plough ahead to include them and become one unified opposition block to this government.
When they did lead the country for the one brief, but symbolically important year they were in office Lapid, and his partner Naftali Bennet, got to work on a plan to tackle the surging violence in the Arab sector.
The policies of Tomer Lotan, who was the director-general of the public security ministry under left-leaning Labor Minister Omer Bar-Lev, is a reminder of the abysmal gap between the two governments.
The ministry is now run by apartheid-mongering Itamar Ben-Gvir and his hilltop sheriff, Chanamel Dorfman. They scrapped Lotan’s blueprints to fight Arab sector crime, just as they were able to curb the murder rates by 15% compared to the year before. Instead, Ben-Gvir’s plans to stop the violence are to simply to treat Arab citizens as the successive Israeli governments have treated West Bank Palestinians: deploying the Shin-Bet, Israel’s internal security service, and imprisoning the accused without trials.
Lotan, who orchestrated much of the government’s policy on the matter, is still optimistic. He says “everything the current government is doing can be fixed,” owing to the know-how they developed in the last government, and the goodwill he experienced from policymakers across the system, including between representatives of the police and the Arab communities.
But the Lapid-Bennett government, boycotted Hadash-Ta’al, even as they sat with Ra’am. They opted for the Arab party that pursued a domestic agenda over Palestinian advocacy.
“Ra’am indeed had an impact,” helping advocate for a government policy and legislation to combat crime and violence when the previous government was in office, Lotan recalls. “They brought the issue to the table, and their political leverage assisted in passing government decisions 549 and 550,” he said, that were comprehensive plans and a budget to go with them to fight crime and reduce income and other gaps between Arab and Jewish communities inside the country.
Bennet and Lapid saw fighting the homicide scourge in the Arab sector a top priority.
From a bureaucratic standpoint, its seemingly convincing that now all that is needed is to change the government and implement the already approved plans, and that political symbolism is good to have, but is insufficient for public policy.
It also misses a historic opportunity to rectify past pains.
“We can’t look at Arab society as if it’s wounded and only needs a bandage,” says Yaser Abu-Areesha, a journalist from the Arab town of Fureidis. “Now is the time to address now the deep-rooted problems in Arab society, not just through financial aid, but a whole transformation in the discourse.”
This much-needed transformation can and should begin at this time of a national emergency for Arab citizens. “The Arab public, alongside Tibi and Odeh, is willing to work together,” Abu-Areesha says. Arab leaders are willing to take Gantz and Laid out of the loop they are stuck in. Only after “They must explicitly state they want to work with Arab society, with all of its leadership, their public will follow. If not, they’ll stay in that trap.”
For Abu-Areesha, it comes down to “Showing us respect, dignity, and understanding our emotions is very significant. We aren’t Scandinavians,” he quips.
When Lapid and Gantz boycott Arab Israeli lawmakers, they essentially silence and disrespect the very public that voted for them, and the voters that could help vote in an alternative to the current government, the most extreme and religiously conservative in Israeli history.
While they need not align with all of Tibi and Odeh’s political positions, the current tidal wave of violence calls for a stark shift in this shameful policy of avoidance. Symbolic gestures of solidarity could significantly bolster Lapid and Gantz’s standing among Israeli Arabs.
Abu-Areesha says he dreams of Lapid learning Arabic. Realistically, he says, he can actively engage with Arab society through various Arab media outlets and establish official dialogues with key figures like Tibi and Odeh, as well as with the leaders of Israel’s Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, the community’s leadership group, particularly considering the government’s attempts to outlaw it.
By extending a courageous and humble hand for partnership, Lapid and Gantz also have the potential to reshape Israel’s political landscape for a generation. In Israel, coalitions are formed before elections, not afterward.
Together, with Hadash-Taal, the opposition would win 68 seats according to a recent Channel 13 poll, which could constitute a comfortable majority.
The majority of Arab citizens are open to reconciliation with Israel’s political center and participation in a governing coalition. In a Makan poll conducted just before the elections last September, it was revealed that 65% of all Arab voters, majorities from all parties, expressed a desire to join a coalition.
The question remains whether Israel’s center will extend their hand.
Abu-Areesha put it this way: “When you’ve wronged someone and seek their forgiveness, you must put aside your own ego. People appreciate this.” Especially now, when Arab parents routinely move their children’s beds away from windows and whisk them away from playgrounds, hoping to keep them safe from the next stray bullet.
David Issacharoff is a news editor at Haaretz English edition. Previously, he directed social media and campaign content on progressive causes and NGO’s in Israel and overseas.