Amid Likud’s ‘Bibi or Tibi’ campaign, ADL slams ‘demonization’ of Israeli Arabs

As PM repeatedly warns Gantz will form government with Arab parties, ADL says stigmatization is ‘unacceptable’; premier spars with reality TV host who slammed his campaign

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech launching his Likud party's election campaign in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan on March 4, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech launching his Likud party's election campaign in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan on March 4, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Anti-Defamation League on Sunday lambasted political rhetoric “vilifying” Israeli Arabs, referring to frequent alarmist accusations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies that their rivals supposedly intend to form a government with Arab Knesset parties.

“The role of Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset is increasingly emerging as a key wedge of the current election campaign, with several party leaders and politicians vowing not to include them in any future coalition, while accusing their political foes of a willingness to do so,” Carole Nuriel, director of the ADL’s Israel office, said in a statement that didn’t explicitly mention Netanyahu.

“In some cases, even the distinction between Arab parties and the Arab population is blurred and these parties are simply referred to as ‘the Arabs.'”

“This anti-Arab rhetoric is a deeply troubling trend that, if continued, could undermine Israel’s vibrant democracy,” she added. “The representation of Israeli Arabs in the Knesset has historically been a source of pride for Israel, highlighting its democratic character, despite the enduring conflict with its Arab neighbors, and attesting to its genuine efforts to include the Arab community as equal citizens.”

“Coalition-building considerations, and the politicking that surrounds the process, are a legitimate part of Israeli politics. But it should not include the use of rhetoric that stigmatizes and demonizes the Arab minority population,” the ADL continued.

Carole Nuriel, the Acting Director of ADL Israel (courtesy)

“We urge all Israeli politicians to exercise caution in their choice of words. Stereotyping and stigmatizing Israeli Arabs is unacceptable and immoral. Such rhetoric has no place in the Knesset.”

A central part of Netanyahu campaign against his prime challenger, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, has been his allegation that Gantz will be unable to build a ruling coalition without the backing of Arab parties. Arab parties have never sat in an Israeli coalition government, and they say they have no interest in doing so now.

Gantz has been quick to reject the association, citing his tough military record of pounding Gaza terror groups and saying he would not rely on the Arab bloc in the Knesset to stabilize a future government.

The charge nonetheless is part of the Netanyahu campaign playbook that has worked before.

Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)

On election day in 2015, fearing a possible loss, Netanyahu mobilized his supporters by releasing a frantic midday video in which he warned that Arab voters were heading “in droves” to the polls. The move, for which he later apologized, may have helped turn the tide and secure another term for him.

Netanyahu and Likud ministers have over the past week pushed the talking point that the choice in the election is between Netanyahu and the Arab lawmakers, chief among them the Ta’al party’s MK Ahmad Tibi. The refrain “It’s Bibi or Tibi,” using Netanyahu’s nickname, has been uttered multiple times in recent days by top party officials.

On Sunday, Netanyahu engaged in a social media argument with a popular reality TV host who criticized his party’s anti-Arab rhetoric, after Culture Minister Miri Regev in a Saturday TV interview repeated the claim that Gantz will form a government with Arab parties.

TV host, model and actress Rotem Sela. (CC-BY-SA-4.0 דבש סדן/Wikipedia)

“What is the problem with the Arabs???” 35-year-old model and actress Rotem Sela wrote on Instagram.

“Dear god, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal, and that even the Arabs and the Druze and the LGBTs and — shock — the leftists are human,” she said.

Netanyahu shot back on his account: “Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else.

“As you wrote, there is no problem with Israel’s Arab citizens. They have equal rights and the Likud government has invested more than any other government in the Arab population,” he added, but immediately went on to claim, once again, that a Gantz-led government that includes the Arab parties would “undercut the state’s security.”

Sela said she received an outburst of fiery comments criticizing her post, and in another post said the “disgusting” responses “will never prevent me from voicing my opinion.”

Regev also responded to Sela and said: “We have no problem with the Arabs. We do have a problem with hypocrisy and with [Yair] Lapid and Gantz trying with all their force to conceal that fact that they are leftists masquerading as centrists.”

MKs Ayman Odeh (L) and Ahmad Tibi at the weekly Knesset faction meeting of the Joint (Arab) List on June 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Arab lawmakers came to Sela’s defense and praised her for her “courage.”

“Rotem Sela, we don’t know each other but bravo,” said Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh.

“The very fact that a senior media personality like Rotem Sela needs courage to say Arabs are also humans is a testament to the dark times in which we’re living,” said the party’s No. 2 Ahmad Tibi, who has been a frequent target for Netanyahu’s attacks.

AP contributed to this report.

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