>> MONDAY UPDATE (4pm Israel time): With 67 Members of Knesset recommending him to be Prime Minister, Netanyahu to be formally tasked with assembling new government.
UPDATED: (Central Israel) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under blistering criticism for comments he made on Election Day when he urged his supporters to turn out to the polls and vote for him because foreign organizations were mobilizing a larger number of Arab voters than usual to vote for his Left-wing opponents.
Here is specifically what the PM said in an Election Day You Tube video: “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses….We only have you. Go to the polls, bring your friends and family, vote Mahal [Likud] to close the gap between us and Labor [Zionist Union]….With your help and God’s help, we will form a nationalist government that will protect the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu has been excoriated by those on the Israeli Left and in the international media. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, whose party experienced a crushing an unexpected defeat on Tuesday, bitterly sniped that the PM “resorted to lies, incitement and racism” to win the election. HBO’s Bill Maher called Netanyahu a “racist.” Other left-wing commentators in the U.S. also accused him of “racism.”
The Prime Minister, however, explained that “what’s wrong is not that Arab citizens are voting, but that massive funds from abroad from left-wing NGOs and foreign governments are bringing them en masse to the polls in an organized way, thus twisting the true will of all Israeli citizens who are voting, for the good of the Left.”
Amidst all the hyperbolic rhetoric, let’s be clear on these facts:
- Netanyahu is not a racist, he doesn’t hate Arabs, and his record shows his respect for Israel’s Arab community, which makes up about 20% of Israel’s 8.2 million citizens.
- Netanyahu has invested billions in the economic development of the Israeli Arab community over the years. (See here, here, here, here and here)
- Netanyahu has carefully and properly protected the rights of Israeli Arab citizens to register to vote, to vote, to have their own political parties, and to serve in government positions, including as justices in the Israeli Supreme Court.
- The PM did nothing to prevent Israeli Arabs from voting, nor has he ever.
- Indeed, this election had the highest percentage of Israelis voting — both Jews and Arabs — of any election since 1999.
- What’s more, there will be a record 15 Arab Members of Knesset in the next parliament, “the highest number to date” — 13 will be members of Joint Arab List, one will be from the Zionist Union, and one from a member of the Meretz party.
- Israel has proven to be the safest, freest, most robust democracy for Arabs and Jews in the entire Middle East under all prime ministers of Israel, including Netanyahu.
- According to a recent poll, during the Netanyahu years as Prime Minister, “65% of Israeli Arabs described themselves as either very or quite proud to be Israeli.”
- UPDATE: Read about the Arab town in Israel that voted 76% for Netanyahu and the Likud.
That said, it also must be noted that:
- The Joint (Arab) List — a combination of Arab parties running together in the recent election — is made up of a Communist party, an Islamist party, and an anti-Zionist Arab nationalist party that seek to divide Jerusalem and roll Israel back to her pre-1967 borders.
- Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint (Arab) List, made it clear in pre-election interviews that “the most important thing is to prevent Netanyahu forming another government.”
- Odeh suggested his Joint List might join the Herzog government and told Al Jazeera, “According to the latest surveys, about 65-70 percent of the Arab citizens want the Joint List to be part of the government. This is evidence that our supporters do want to exert influence on the largest scales, and do support our goal to defeat the right wing.”
- Even the day before the election, Odeh intimated he would support Herzog to be the next Prime Minister, perhaps given that Herzog supports dividing Jerusalem and rolling Israel back nearly to the pre-1967 borders to create a sovereign Palestinian state.
In this context, Netanyahu had every right — indeed a responsibility even — to warn his supporters that Communist, Islamist and anti-Zionist voters were mobilizing to defeat him, and that foreign NGOs were helping get these voters to the polls in large numbers. He had every right — and again, the responsibility — to educate and mobilize voters who want Jerusalem to remain unified and don’t believe in rolling Israel back to indefensible borders to get to the polls to defend their values.
This wasn’t racist, and Netanyahu’s critics know it.
All that said, Netanyahu should have been more careful in how he communicated. He should have taken extra care to be precise about his concerns, knowing how his enemies constantly try to use his words against him. He was not the only candidate to use passionate rhetoric in the heat of a campaign, but he should hold himself to a higher standard.
Israeli Arabs are a vital part of our national culture and society. They are full-fledged citizens of the State of Israel and they should be honored and protected by our leaders, whatever their religious or political views.
So now, the Prime Minister should pro-actively reach out to all Israelis — Arabs and Jews, those who voted for him and those who did not — and bring the nation together. We face grave and common threats and we need each other. What’s more, the world is watching how we treat one another.