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Here’s why Netanyahu is apologizing to Israel’s Arab citizens

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(Ronen Zvulun)

In the closing hours of Israel’s election last year, Benjamin Netanyahu rallied his supporters with a video warning that “droves” of Arab citizens were being bused to the polls to unseat his right-wing government.

Now, about 16 months later, the prime minister has released a surprise on-camera apology in what amounts to an embrace of Israel’s 20% minority population. In a three-minute YouTube video — in English and Hebrew with Arabic subtitles — Netanyahu said that he misspoke on election day and that he understood why Arabs in Israel were upset by his remarks.

“Today, I’m asking Arabs to take part in our society in droves,’’ he said. “I am proud of the role that Arabs play in Israel’s success. I want you to play an even greater role…. Respecting minorities isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s critical to our progress.

“My vision is that young Arab boys and girls grow up knowing they can achieve anything in Israel,” he said.

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The gesture, unexpected and seemingly at odds with Netanyahu’s past stances, was all the more jarring given that it follows months during which relations between Netanyahu’s right-wing government and Israel’s Arab citizens — who say they suffer from decades of government neglect — have become even more strained.

Nobody fools themselves and thinks that now the Arabs will be big Netnayahu fans

Aviv Bushinsky, former spokesman for prime minister

“If [Netanyahu] said this seven years ago, when he became prime minister again, you could say, here he’s started with good intentions,’’ lawmaker Ayman Odeh said in an interview with Army Radio.

“But after seven years of incitement and de-legitimization of the Arab population, how do you expect me to believe this person?”

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This month, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law allowing a special majority to dismiss a legislator who expresses support for an enemy of Israel — legislation seen as targeting Arab lawmakers.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week compared the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet born in what today is Israel, to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

And the government has delayed spending billions in approved funds in neglected Arab towns and cities. Arab citizens are also concerned about a bill sponsored by the government to crack down on houses in Arab towns that were built illegally.

Indeed, after an Arab citizen attacked a Tel Aviv bar in January, Netanyahu said the minority group had created a “state within a state,” an accusation that still echoes.

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Arab political and human rights leaders said they are skeptical about the apology.

The fact that the message was recorded in English indicates that the prime minister had an international audience: Officials in the U.S. and Europe have been increasingly critical of new Israeli legislation that they say will erode the standing of Arabs in Israel.

“One dimension is to improve Israel’s international image with respect to the Arab minority,’’ said Ofer Zalzberg, an Jerusalem-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Some international observers can find this credible.”

Zalzberg said there was a policy dimension to the statement as well: The government is planning to boost police presence in Arab towns that have been ignored by law enforcement for decades and where there are tens of thousands of illegal firearms. In the video, Netanyahu said that he had received personal appeals from Arab citizens for such a move, but it still could stoke clashes.

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Netanyahu’s Arabic-language spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, said Israelis shouldn’t be surprised by the outreach effort.

“This message clarifies what he’s said to Arab citizens in a direct way: This government is committed to the goal of a radical change in Arab-Jewish relations and in the living conditions of the Arab community,” he said in an interview with Al Shams radio.

But one former Netanyahu advisor said the appeal is unlikely to make political converts or signal a true watershed in Israeli domestic policy.

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“Nobody fools themselves and thinks that now the Arabs will be big Netanyahu fans,’’ said Aviv Bushinsky, a former spokesman for the prime minister. “It’s a right-wing coalition and a right-wing leader, and he has priorities that he was elected on.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

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