(Bloomberg) -- Akram Agbaria is a 25-year-old engineering student at an Israeli university in a Jewish settlement. Yhea Hassoun is proud of his son’s service in the Israeli army.
Both these Arabs call Israel home. But with a closely fought election looming, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear to the country’s large Arab minority that being Israeli means being a Jew.
“Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” Netanyahu said on Facebook after a local celebrity criticized his assertion that Arab parties don’t belong in any government formed after the April 9 vote. “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people—and it alone.”
Netanyahu then appeared to equivocate, adding that Arabs have equal rights. Yet while he’s repeatedly attacked Arab parties and exploited fears over the Arab vote to drive right-wing turnout, Netanyahu had never before explicitly suggested that one can’t be Israeli and Arab at the same time. About a fifth of Israel’s 9 million people are both.
The comments have refocused attention on the debate over Israel’s character. Torn between its Jewish identity and its status as a democratic nation-state, Netanyahu has prioritized the former to the detriment of the latter, critics say.
“What’s taken for granted in democratic countries around the world, a state based on the principle of equality for all citizens, is considered anathema in Israel under Netanyahu’s racist regime,” said Hassan Jabareen, general director of Adalah—the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
President Reuven Rivlin also weighed in, saying “there are no first-class citizens, there are no second-class voters.”
In his village on the Carmel mountain range, where blue-and-white Israeli flags fly outside shops and roadside stalls, Hassoun saw Netanyahu’s incendiary remarks as a ploy. His Druze community, a secretive offshoot of Shi’ite Islam whose members serve in the Israeli army, has already been antagonized by recent legislation they say discriminates against them and ignores their loyalty.
“He’s doing all this to win Jewish votes,” he said. “What nerve he’s got.”
Inside the tent where Hassoun and his wife Maha sell homemade delicacies hangs a photo of their son Youssuf, then a soldier, evacuating a Jewish settler from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Israel was founded as a Jewish homeland in 1948 on land that the resident Arab population wanted for its own state. About 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled in fighting surrounding its creation. Today, refugees and millions of their descendants live stateless in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere in the region. Arabs who stayed inside the borders of the new Israeli state were incorporated, some unwillingly, creating mutual suspicions that persist.
If Arab outrage over Netanyahu’s comments seems muted, it’s because the watershed moment came in July when parliament anchored Israel’s Jewish character in law, omitting the commitment to full equality for all citizens codified elsewhere. Its passage sparked rare mass protests by Druze.
Agbaria, the student at the Israeli university in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, said he can’t identify any politicians who speak for him. “People think in terms of Arab and Jew, not human beings.”
Arab parties have never been part of a governing coalition, though they have supported minority governments, and the few Arabs who’ve served in cabinet belonged to Zionist factions. Arab party leaders object to the idea of joining an Israeli administration.
“We can’t be part of any government or coalition that’s right-wing and hates Palestinians,” said Heba Yazbak, an Arab Knesset candidate from the Balad party.
Arab turnout tends to lag national participation by about 10 percentage points, and it’s highest when voters think a center-left government could win, Arab analysts and leaders said. This year, there weren’t many election posters in some big Arab towns, and voters said few politicians bothered to campaign there.
Historically, up to 17 percent of Arabs have boycotted elections because they don’t want to legitimize Israel or engage in its politics, according to campaign adviser Mohammad Darawshe. Others stay home because they feel their votes don’t count.
Even so, Israeli Arabs don’t necessarily think their representatives should sit on the sidelines. A recent poll shows 64 percent would like to see Arab parties in the cabinet and have a bigger say in how the country is run.
“They can make some changes in the Arabic areas” if they join the government, said Hazem Awis, a 43-year-old construction worker in the northern Arab town of Baka al-Garbiye.
Arab citizens face bias in employment and housing, and their communities have received far less funding for public services such as schools, health care, transportation and infrastructure. In 2015, Netanyahu’s government promised to raise their standard of living with cash infusions. Nevertheless, 38 percent of Israel’s poor come from Arab families.
Some blame their situation in part on Arab legislators, who command 13 of parliament’s 120 seats, saying they focus too much on the Palestinian cause rather than on day-to-day struggles. According to Darawshe, up to 80 percent of Arab voters say they care most about socioeconomic issues, though most also want the Palestinian issue on party agendas.
That’s why some say they’re considering switching from Arab parties to Meretz, a social democratic party dominated by Zionist lawmakers and committed to Palestinian statehood.
Riling up voters against Arabs helped Netanyahu win in 2015. Hours before polls closed, he boosted turnout for his Likud party by warning that Arab citizens were “going to the polls in droves” to topple his right-wing government. This time his campaign strategy is to paint the rival Blue & White party dominated by former military chief Benny Ganz as a weak, leftist party that can’t govern without Arab support.
Michel Abu Nassar, a 78-year-old Christian Arab from Nazareth, is weary of the divisions. “This man must leave and give us the peace we need,” he said. “We are citizens of Israel.”
--With assistance from Patricia Suzara and Karl Maier.
To contact the authors of this story: Caroline Alexander in London at email@example.comAmy Teibel in Jerusalem at firstname.lastname@example.org
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