Netanyahu and the Israeli Arabs: The Untold Story

Binyamin Netanyahu stands accused of wishing harm to Israel’s Arab citizens. His actual record on the matter says otherwise.

His statements on Arabs are controversial – but what of his actual policy? Binyamin Netanyahu. Photo: Emil Salman, Flash90

If there is one thing liberal pundits in Israel and America seem to agree on, it’s that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu doesn’t like Israeli Arabs and wishes them harm. The outcry over his remarks—ill-judged at the very least and inflammatory at worst—regarding Arab voters being brought in buses to vote against him helped cement this suspicion. But a close look at Netanyahu’s actual record on Israeli Arabs, as opposed to this or that public remark, reveals a very different story.

For a start, affirmative action policies initiated under Ehud Olmert were accelerated during the Netanyahu administration. These prioritized economic development, including allocating funds for joint industrial parks in Arab and Jewish towns. Subsidies helped firms hire Arab labor and expanded transportation infrastructure, which allowed Arabs to reach employment sites. These ventures were so successful that the government began setting up industrial parks and employment offices exclusively in Arab towns. In addition, the Israeli government developed a five-year plan for improving Arab education and established a special unit in the prime minister’s office to promote economic development in the Arab community.

Despite the opposition of Palestinian nationalists, more and more Arab communities began to cooperate with government agencies, particularly those that were aligned with Hadash. At the same time, educational and occupational initiatives began to improve the possibilities for Arab women and their labor participation rates increased substantially: for women 30 to 39 years old, it increased from 24 percent in 2005 to 34 percent in 2010.

These transformations also occurred in East Jerusalem. Mayor Nir Barkat substantially improved government services: investments in infrastructure and transportation, the planning of neighborhoods, building of schools, and a dramatic expansion of medical facilities where today the health quality indices for East Jerusalem are the same as for West Jerusalem. These efforts have led many East Jerusalem Arabs to link themselves to the Israeli state, including a dramatic increase in residents seeking Israeli ID cards. Despite the efforts of nationalist leaders, more and more students enrolled in school programs that prepared them for the Israeli matriculation exam.

As a result of these policies, between 2005 and 2011, inflation-adjusted Arab net family income increased by 7.4 percent.  The leaders of Sikkuy, Ron Gerlitz and Batya Kallus, pointed out that “the number of Arabs employed in government civil service rose from 2,800 workers in 2003 to 5,000 in 2011—an impressive increase of 78 percent, especially in comparison to a 12 percent increase in the number of Jewish workers during the same period. … The expansion of high-tech in Nazareth in the last few years (there are more than 300 Arabs currently working in high tech in Nazareth as compared to 30 in 2008); and the success at the Technion which with the support of philanthropy has reduced  the dropout rate of Arab students from 28 percent to 12 percent.  To Palestinian critics, they cautioned that “the refusal to recognize those changes is dangerous and counter-productive.”

Privately prejudiced, but publicly pro-civil rights. Richard Nixon. Photo: Wikimedia
Privately prejudiced, but publicly pro-civil rights. Richard Nixon. Photo: Wikimedia

Look not to what politicians say, but what they do

So, if things are getting better, why are liberal critics of Israel so vocal about them getting worse?

One important reason for the unwillingness of many critics to acknowledge the remarkable advances made by black Americans in the 1970s and Arab advances in Israel in the last decade is their attitude toward the political leaders responsible for these advances. In the United States, President Nixon took office in 1969.   Liberals will immediately point to his off-the-record bigoted comments concerning blacks and Jews. They will emphasize that his presidential victory was a result of a “southern strategy,” whereby racist whites would be moved to shift from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Thus, Nixon had reprehensible qualities and surrounded himself with bigoted allies.

When you look at the actions of the Nixon Administration, however, his civil rights efforts were substantial.  For example, his civil rights budget increased twenty-fold and there was a remarkable desegregation of Southern schools. By 1971, a larger share of black students in the South attended majority white schools and fewer were in schools that were more than 80 percent black than in the North.  His Philadelphia Plan led to the ending of the most extreme racist practices of construction unions and his small business initiatives led to a dramatic expansion of black-owned firms.

Historian Hugh Davis Graham wrote, “He signed voting rights amendments in 1970 and equal opportunity legislation in 1972 that in most ways reflected the policy preferences of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and feminist advocacy groups.  More strikingly, Nixon encouraged the development of affirmative action regulations that required minority preferences in government contracts for both public and private employment.”

This is exactly the paradox with Netanyahu.  On the one hand, he has ostensibly regressive personal attitudes toward Arabs (certainly by left-wing lights) and many of his Knesset allies also express opinions which express hostility towards and even question the loyalty of Israeli Arabs to the state. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s employment and educational policies are just as commendable as those enacted during the Nixon Administration.  Recent efforts have been even more proactive and effective.  Unfortunately, advocates for Israeli Arabs have been much too focused on his personal shortcomings than on his policies and results. Like President Obama and many liberal Americans, they are far too focused on what Netanyahu says and far too little on what he actually does in regards to Israel’s minorities.

Undermining their own constituents' desire to integrate. MK Basel Ghattas of the Balad Party. Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90
Undermining their own constituents’ desire to integrate. MK Basel Ghattas of the Balad Party. Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90

The left undermines its own goals—just to spite the right

Critics have tried to ignore or undermine these beneficial government policies. For instance, Palestinian nationalists have discouraged cooperation with Israel ministries. As government initiatives were developed, Arab towns had to decide whether or not to cooperate with planning agencies. The towns in which the nationalists had the most influence were the towns most unlikely to cooperate.  When the government opened up national service to Israeli Arabs, nationalists, led by Balad activists, engaged in intimidation to discourage participation.  Despite these efforts, enrollment grew dramatically and sociologist Sammy Smooha reported that 90 percent of participants take pride and satisfaction in their service.

Another method of tunnel vision is the liberal media, which gives prominence to allegations or proven cases of anti-Arab sentiment among Israeli Jews.  For example, David Remnick claimed that Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin “has emerged as the most prominent critic of racist, rhetoric, jingoism, fundamentalism, and sectarian violence.” While applauding Rivlin’s sincerity, Remnick believes he is an isolated member of Likud where the new guard has little interest in reducing “the unequal status of Israeli Palestinians and the utter lack of civil rights for Palestinians in the West Bank.”  Dov Waxman noted, “[F]rom 2003 to 2011, between 40-50% of the Israeli-Jewish public was opposed to equal rights for Arab citizens.”

But contra the liberal doomsayers, there is significant evidence of softening attitudes among Israeli Jews towards Israeli Arabs, despite the reverse not being the case. According to the 2012 Index of Arab-Jewish Relations conducted by Sammy Smooha, 45.7% of Jews agreed in 2012 to have Arab neighbors in Jewish neighborhoods as opposed to 34.5% in 2003. Among Arabs, by contrast, the number willing to move into Jewish neighborhoods dropped from 66.4% in 2003 to 55.3% in 2012.

In addition, the percentage of Jews who “Recognize the right of Arabs to live in the state as a minority with full civil rights” has remained steady at around 75% from 2003 to 2012, despite much of this period seeing openly right-wing governments in power. While there are undoubtedly still significant challenges in this regard, liberal critics would do well to consider the entire picture rather than focus solely on the negative.

The Bedouin town of Hura boasts economic opportunity, thank to the efforts of the Netanyahu government. Photo: Wikimedia


This is especially true when it comes to the situation of Negev Bedouin, which for critics of Israel demonstrates the harshness of government anti-Arab policies.  A recent example was a New York Times Sunday review feature, “The Two Israels,” in which Nicholas Kristof not only presented a one-sided assessment of the situation of the Negev Bedouin community but unintentionally used apartheid imagery. Not only does its title suggest an apartheid situation, the article characterized the recognized Bedouin towns as “Indian reservations,” the US equivalent of South African black townships.

This image would be rejected by Hura mayor Mohammed Alnabari. Under his administration, Hura gained call center jobs, initiated the Women’s Catering Enterprise that produces meals for Bedouin schools, developed a joint project with a nearby kibbutz to produce high value-added produce, and begun a project with the Jewish National Fund to raise mixed heads of sheep and goats for organic meat and dairy products. The government has also provided substantial subsidies to firms that hire Bedouin workers in the new industrial park in Rahat and through other employment initiatives.

Kristof could also have consulted the OECD. It approved Israeli membership on the basis of substantial improvements in employment initiatives, infrastructure—roads, transportation networks, sewage facilities—and a dramatic improvement in Bedouin schooling that increased substantially student test scores. Specifically, in 2000, the share of Jewish and Arab children in preschool programs was 85% and 49%, respectively. Dan Ben-David reported that while the share of Jewish children was virtually the same in 2010, the share of Arab children increased to 71%. In 2007/8 35% of Arab but only 19% of Jewish classrooms had more than 35 students.

As a result of additional funding, by 2010/11 only 15% of Arab classrooms compared to 11% of Jewish classrooms suffered overcrowding; and it was 10% for Bedouin schools. Together with other initiatives during this time period, the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute reported that the scores on the GEMS standardized exams for Arab fifth graders increased by more than 40% for Bedouin Negev students.

Though his major human rights focus has been on the abuse young women face, Kristof neglected to mention the severe patriarchal constraints that limit Bedouin women. While their situation has improved substantially in the last decade: more Bedouin women have access to education and lives outside their tribal communities, patriarchal constraints are still substantial. Too many Bedouin women continue to be unable to leave their home village—and sometimes their own homes—without being accompanied by a male relative.

The leading Bedouin feminist group Ma’an admitted that “due to its tribal, traditional culture, Bedouin society doesn’t acknowledge the existence of sexual harassment and abuse.  Most sexual assaults involve incest, and if they are found out in any way, the girl/woman is treated as if she’s to blame.” Indeed, after the continued killings of women from the Abu Ghanim clan, feminist activist Samah Salaime Egbariya lamented, “We didn’t save the young woman from the unrecognized Bedouin village south, or the girl from the crime-ridden city.” Even Haneen Zoabi has been forced to speak out against the extreme patriarchy that victimizes many Israeli Arab women.

Arabs are just as concerned about making a living as national issues. Photo: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90
Israeli Arabs are just as concerned about making a living as national issues. Photo: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90

Economics helps sooth the nationalist pain

Most importantly, occupational and educational advances have led the Israeli Arab public to have more hopeful attitudes.  Surveys indicate that they believed that their economic well being had increased substantially. In particular, the share of Israeli Arabs who were “very satisfied” with their economic conditions rose from 40 percent during the two-year period 2004-5 to 60 percent during 2010-11.  Just as importantly, for the first time, Sammy Smooha’s survey results indicate that a plurality of Arab citizens of Israel rejects being called Palestinians.  While Palestinian nationalists continue to reject the term Israeli Arab, this survey signaled that the Arab public no longer wants their own demands and aspirations to take a back seat to the national struggle for an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.

All of these changes suggest that nationalist objectives are finding less support among an increasingly upward mobile Israeli Arab populace. As more enter the middle class and have hopeful aspirations for their children, they seek constructive engagement rather than a confrontational, separatist stance. If these economic and educational trends continue, Balad will represent only those Israeli Arabs who have fallen behind.

At the time of the 2015 election, polls consistently showed that the Arab citizens wanted the Arab Joint List to emphasize the constructive policies that have improved their economic well-being. They wanted the Joint List to follow the constructive efforts of Sikkuy. When individuals were unfairly fired for statements made during the Gaza War, every one of the individuals who allowed Sikkuy to bring their cases to the courts won their jobs back. While nationalists railed against the unfair tax formulas that constrain Arab towns, it was Sikkuy, with Injaz, that documented these inequities, forcing Eran Nitzan, the deputy budget director in the Finance Ministry to publicly admit that the current funding formula was unfair and should be changed.

For a number of years, Hadash mayors worked constructively with government ministries to improve the economic wellbeing of its residents. The shining example was Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy who helped transform Nazareth into a high-tech hub for Arab workers and entrepreneurs. The leader of the Joint List, Hadash MP Ayman Odeh supports constructive engagement.  When Hatikvah was sung at the installation of the new Knesset, unlike other members of the Joint List, Odeh remained in the room, standing silently.  He explained that this was a signal that he wanted to work through the system just as the Israeli Arab populace increasingly desires.

Economics - part of the coexistence of every day life. An Arab and a Jew negotiating a sale. Photo by Serge Attal/Flash90
Economics – part of the coexistence of every day life. An Arab and a Jew negotiating a sale. Photo by Serge Attal/Flash90

So, what more can Bibi do?

It is now up to the Netanyahu coalition whether or not it will accommodate the necessary reforms:

First, the government must implement changes in the tax formula so that Arab towns get a fairer share of the revenues.

Second, in 2013 the education ministry began an historic initiative: the goal of hiring 500 Arab teachers in Jewish schools to teach subjects other than Arab language.  Unfortunately, after eighteen months less than 100 had been hired.  The government must invigorate its efforts to reach its goal.

Third, government efforts has raised Israeli Arab enrollment at Technion to 21 percent, their exact same proportion they comprise of the Israeli population.  While Arab hi-tech employment has grown substantially, it is still concentrated in Arab companies and satellites of international companies.  Thus, this growing number of Arab Technion graduates will only find hi-tech employment if the government make there is increased penetration of the mainstream Israeli hi-tech companies.

Some, such as Israeli President Rubi Rivlin, believe Israel should also work to change or modify its identity to include non-Jewish symbols. This is certainly a subject worthy of debate. Either way, the efforts of Prime Minister Netanyahu have proven that the right can do a great deal to help minorities no less than the political left. Economic integration and freedom, while certainly no panacea, makes the co-existence of everyday life immeasurably easier.

Robert Cherry is the Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.  His work on racial inequality includes Moving Working Families Forward (NYU Press, 2013) and “Helping Black Men Thrive,” (National Affairs, 2015).

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2 comments on the article

    1. And yet he saved Israel in 1973. History is complicated.