A Bad Idea Brings Out the Best in Israel
Israelis were treated once again this week to the terrible optics of Benjamin Netanyahu's government making a controversial statement about Arabs, then backpedaling quickly in the face of domestic and international outrage, and then having to try to clean up the mess.
A couple of months ago, the storm was over Netanyahu's election-day Facebook post in which he said “droves of Arabs” were heading to the polls and that his supporters had thus better hurry to vote to close the gap. Many Israelis were horrified by the crass language. U.S. President Barack Obama rebuked the prime minister, and Netanyahu was compelled to apologize to Israel’s Arabs for the hurt his comments had caused. However unpopular, though, the Times of Israel suggested afterward that his posting may have had a “decisive” impact on the election.
That circus was resurrected Tuesday when Israeli news reported that the government was instituting a policy that would require Palestinians returning to the West Bank to pass through the same checkpoint by which they had entered Israel, in some cases adding hours to their commute. Far more controversially, as the news reported it, “Palestinian workers … will not be allowed to ride Israeli bus lines.” Accusations of apartheid flew from every direction, including from some Jewish settlers who argued that there had to be a better way to protect Jews riding on buses with mostly Palestinian workers, and that “the fact that Jews are targets of injustice and racism is no excuse for doing the same to Arabs.”
So vociferous were the outcries, both domestic and international, that Netanyahu had no choice but to suspend the program the very next morning. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon -- who does not have the reputation of being a racist, but is known as a no-nonsense security guy -- insisted that the policy was entirely about protecting Jews, and that he would find a way to reinstitute it.
What the coverage of the brouhaha and the international scorn missed almost entirely is the genuine nervousness that Israelis have about traveling with Palestinians on buses. The memory of a 1978 attack -- in which Palestinian terrorists commandeered a bus in a complex sequence that left 38 Israelis dead and more than 70 injured -- still horrifies Israelis. During the Second Intifada, dozens of Israelis died in attacks on buses and bus stops. And just this January, a Palestinian stabbed about a dozen commuters in Tel Aviv.
Around the globe, the word “buses” sounds innocuous, but in Israelis’ consciousness, it has come to represent places of great vulnerability. Couple that with a British newspaper’s claim this week that Jerusalem is the most dangerous tourist site in the world, and one can begin to understand why the government feels pressure to take safety measures -- even if those it chose backfired.
It is also worth noting, amid the international accusations of apartheid, that it was Israelis who shouted the plan down. Apartheid South Africa hardly had a robust free press. Yet Israel does. Haaretz, the paper of record, warned that Israel would not be able to bury the damage the proposal had done.
Predictably, the political opposition seized the opportunity to assail the government. Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog (who lost to Netanyahu in Israel’s recent elections) called the plan “an unnecessary humiliation and a stain on the faces of the state and its citizens, unneeded fuel on the fire of hatred toward Israel worldwide.”
So, too, did the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, who said it might not survive legal tests. Even Gideon Saar, the right-leaning former interior minister who hails from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, tweeted his strong objection to the plan.
President Reuven Rivlin, also a product of the Likud Party, was equally unambiguous. “As one who loves the Land of Israel, I have nothing but regret for the discordant voices that we heard this morning, supporting the separation between Jews and Arabs on the basis of ideas that have no place being heard or said,” he said. “Such statements go against the very foundations of the State of Israel, and impact upon our very ability to establish here a Jewish and democratic state. … It is important we remember that our sovereignty obligates us to prove our ability to live side by side.”
For those worried about the Netanyahu government’s instincts, this week confirmed that there is great cause for concern. Yet for those who claim that Israel’s democracy is stumbling, there was good news in all the ugliness. There are Israelis, across the political spectrum, who know offensive ideas when they see them. And they live in a country that protects their right to voice that opinion -- a place where moral clarity can still force a government to back down.
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