Israel’s Irresponsible Arabs – Shmuel Rosner/The New York Times
TEL AVIV — The northern Israeli city of Nazareth witnessed an incredible confrontation on Oct. 11. Two Muslim men, both leaders in the Arab Israeli community, had a verbal duel in the public square. And the stakes for their community could not be higher.
Knesset member Ayman Odeh, the head of the third-largest party in Israel’s Parliament, the United Arab Party, was there for a TV interview. He was standing on the sidewalk, adjusting his earphone, when a white car suddenly stopped beside him. From that car, to Mr. Odeh’s visible astonishment, the mayor of Nazareth, Ali Salam, began raging at him: “Go away … get out of here … you’ve ruined this city … what are you doing to us … you’ve burned the whole world.”
Mr. Odeh’s usual manner is relatively mild. He does not use much provocative language. But as the head of the United Arab Party he bears responsibility for its policies. And its policy of confrontation with the Jewish majority agitated Mr. Salam. It “ruins our future, and ruins coexistence,” the mayor said the next day.
These are volatile days. Stabbing and shooting attacks on Jews continue, and some of them have been carried out by Arab citizens of Israel. This puts Arab Israelis in an especially stressful position. They are Israeli and also Palestinian. Their state is engaged in a battle against their people, and they are a minority within a Jewish majority. This majority is on edge; its members see suspects everywhere and fear the next attack.
Israeli Jews have little patience for blunt dissent or provocation, and little patience for nuance. This is an ugly truth. Too many Israeli Jews, upon encountering an Arab — be he a pharmacist or a supermarket cashier or a cab driver — are thinking: Will he pull a knife? Does he intend to kill me?
In an opinion poll published earlier this month, 92 percent of Jewish Israelis said they would feel “unsafe” walking in a predominantly Arab city like Nazareth. Eighty percent said they would feel unsafe even in a mixed city — like Haifa, Acre or Lod, where both Jews and Arabs live.
No wonder Nazareth is empty of Jews, as Mayor Salam complained. A third of Israeli Jews, according to the poll, believe that most Israeli Arabs “support the current wave of terrorism.” Another third believe that “some of them” do.
Why wouldn’t they think so when most Arab Israeli political leaders are busy arousing the anger of their constituents against the Jewish majority rather than trying to calm the situation? Arab Knesset members use harsh language against the authorities. (One shouted at Israeli policemen, “You have no place here.”) They engage in verbal provocation (such as referring to suicide bombers as heroes), and in provocative acts (such as trying to reach Jerusalem’s Temple Mount when they know it is closed to all).
An Islamic leader, Sheikh Raed Salah — whose movement is one of the main culprits in a campaign of lies about Israel’s supposed intentions to change the status quo on Temple Mount — called upon his people to “defend Al Aqsa,” the mosque atop the mount, with their lives, and declared: “We will win or die.”
This is part of “a deliberate attempt to make the Temple Mount a point of religious conflict,” Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said recently.
These Arab leaders’ words and actions have an impact on their constituents. Last Tuesday, Arab students demonstrating near Tel Aviv University called upon their people to “raise the flag of revolution over all of the occupied land, from Rafah to Metula” — which is to say not just in the occupied West Bank but also within Israel itself.
The Jewish majority isn’t blameless in making Arab citizens feel ambivalent about their country. There is discrimination against Arabs. There are Jews who speak and think ill about Arabs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied his supporters on election day by warning that Arabs “are coming out in droves to the polls.”
But none of this matters much when knives flash and bullets fly. Upon witnessing Arab Israeli leaders pit their supporters against the majority, an Israeli Jew cannot help but wonder: What do they want to achieve? What are they aiming for?
Their actions are unlikely to bring about a Palestinian state, but they are very likely to ruin Jewish-Arab relations within Israel and lead to a violent backlash that is costly both economically and in human life. If Jews will no longer shop in Arab markets or employ Arab workers, the Arab Israeli community will suffer.
Arab-Israeli leaders are careful to say they oppose violence. But to many Jews their words feel hollow. On Wednesday, in a Knesset shouting match, Zeev Elkin, a minister from the Likud party, denounced an Arab member, Ahmad Tibi, telling him: “You and your comrades are responsible for the blood spilled both of Jews and Arabs.” These were unfortunate words but an honest expression of the way many Jews in Israel feel today.
A responsible Arab leadership would consider these feelings and remember that the Arab community has a stake in coexistence, in Israel’s success, and in partnership with the Jewish majority. They may also be wise to remember that provoking a tense majority could have grave consequences, first and foremost, for the minority population.