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Naftali Bennett, Ra’am, and Increasing Israeli Arab Integration Explained

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avatar by Robert Cherry


Yamina Party member Naftali Bennett attends the Srugim conference in Jerusalem on Sept. 2, 2019. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

There are many misunderstandings about the complexity of Israel’s new “change bloc” government, in particular, there is little recognition that both Zionists and Arab citizens of Israel make a substantial distinction between their interests as Israelis and their attitude toward the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. These distinctions go a long way toward explaining why there was substantial Arab support for their representatives seeking to become part of a ruling coalition and why many right-wing Zionists, like prime minister-designate Naftali Bennett, were willing to include them in a ruling coalition.

The recent upheavals and violence in Israel’s mixed cities should not blind us to this achievement. The violence was initiated by Arabs outraged by insensitive government actions on the Temple Mount, and it led to violent responses by right-wing Jewish extremists. The intensity of the violence reflected significant forces in both communities that wanted to upend the increasing integration of Arabs into the fabric of Israeli society. A hopeful sign has been that in many of these mixed cities, Arab and Jewish residents have successfully led joint actions to reestablish peaceful and accepting relationships.

Hopefully, these tensions do not derail the positive trends in intergroup relations, and those trends are substantial: Over the last 15 years, occupational and educational advances have more fully integrated Israeli Arabs into Israeli society. While this was most vividly illustrated during Covid as Jewish and Arab medical personnel worked together, it is also increasingly noticeable in the hi-tech sector and among public school teachers. While they certainly have concerns for the well-being of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Arabs are proud of their Israeli citizenship and identify strongly with it. Today, only a sliver call themselves Palestinian, with many more considering themselves Israeli Arabs.

This was the context that led the Ra’am party to split from the majority-Arab Joint List party in order to focus on becoming part of a ruling coalition. Being on the inside would enable Ra’am to win many reforms beneficial to the Arab community, but its initial apparent willingness to ally with the Netanyahu coalition was vilified by one of the Joint List’s leaders. “Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome, to have empathy with that person who kidnapped you or oppressed you,” Ahmad Tibi said.

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Not only did a sufficient share of Israeli Arabs vote for Ra’am to boost the party over the Knesset threshold, but Ra’am also deftly navigated the coalition-building process with the change bloc. It extracted substantial gains for the Israeli Arab community, including almost $20 billion for economic development, replacing crumbling infrastructure, and fighting violence and organized crime. In addition, three unrecognized Bedouin villages are set to be legalized and the Kaminitz law, which targets illegal Arab construction, will be dramatically amended.

The US public has been presented an incomplete picture of prime minister-designate Bennett’s view of the Arab community. We are consistently told that he was a leader of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank and opposed a two-state solution. This is true, but woefully incomplete. While Bennett believes in Jewish sovereignty, he — like many right-wing Zionists — supports equal treatment for Jews and Arabs in the educational, occupational, and business sectors. His past efforts on behalf of Israeli Arabs demonstrate this commitment.

While education minister, Bennett instituted policies to bring more Israeli Arab teachers into the Jewish school system, and the financial aid and support services he provided more than doubled the number of Arab teachers, especially in non-Arabic language positions. Government efforts were funded through Merchavim, a well-respected Jewish-Arab NGO. One of its leaders told me that when she reported the results, it brought tears to Bennett’s eyes.

When I related this to one of the leaders of the NGO Tsofen, which receives Israeli government funds to integrate Israelis Arabs into the hi-tech industry, he was not surprised. I was told that Bennett was crucially responsible for Tsofen’s initial government funding. Arabs now comprise more than 20% of student graduates from the Technion — Israel’s MIT — and they have made Nazareth a hub for hi-tech startups and international company sites.

Indeed, Bennett’s views are well understood by the Palestinian Authority. Asked if he thought there was hope for boosting economic ties between the Palestinians and Israel under a Bennett government, a PA official replied, “Absolutely. It seems the man has been very successful in his business career and has adopted a liberal approach on economic issues. We are ready to work with any Israeli leader who will help us strengthen our economy.”

None of this negates the limitations Zionists sometimes impose on Israeli Arabs, nor the significant section of the Jewish populace that is antagonistic to Israeli Arab gains, particularly when they increasingly see them in senior business, government, and medical positions. And a sizable Jewish population still remains fiercely opposed to Arabs participating in the government.

But only by understanding the reasons why Israeli Arabs have an increasingly positive attitude toward Israel society, and Bennett’s attitude toward them, can we appreciate the potential of this new government to overcome prejudices and further the positive trends that are steadily gaining momentum.

Robert Cherry is the former president of Brooklyn College Hillel and author of “Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture” (Rowman & Littlefield).

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