While commentators will be talking about Netanyahu’s anti-Arab race-baiting for a long time, his opponent’s anti-Arab campaign tactics never stirred up too much controversy.
There were many reasons why Benjamin Netanyahu galloped to victory in last week’s election. His opponent, Isaac Herzog, was viewed by many as disconnected, elitist and lacking an alternative vision for the future of the country. However, it was Netanyahu’s campaign blitz, which came after polls revealed he was trailing his opponent by four seats, that truly won him the election.
Netanyahu pulled out all the stops, from driving a stake through the two-state solution to calling on his supporters to vote in order to counter “droves of Arabs” who were allegedly being bused to polling stations by foreign-funded left-wing NGOs. Many in Israel, as well as the international community, condemned the prime minister’s comments. After all, this wasn’t the leader of some fringe, right-wing extremist group — this was the prime minister of a state that claims to be both Jewish and democratic.
In classic Netanyahu style, the prime minister tried to backpedal from his remarks during his speech on election night, in which he promised to act as prime minister for all Israeli citizens. But it was too late: Bibi won a landslide victory through acts of shameless race-baiting.
The media, of course, rightfully panned Netanyahu for his remarks. But while Bibi’s racism was clear as day, it was Herzog’s utter indifference toward Israel’s Palestinian minority, not to mention the 47-year military dictatorship in the occupied territories, that received little media attention.
In fact, the only time Herzog’s campaign really made an effort to spotlight Israel’s Arab citizens was in a video featuring IDF veterans who served alongside him in the prestigious Unit 8200, which is part of Israel’s vaunted intelligence corps. In the video, the veterans laud Herzog as someone who “understands the Arab mentality” and “has seen Arabs in all kinds of situations,” including “in the crosshairs.”
WATCH: Unit 8200 support Herzog in election campaign video
If that wasn’t enough, Herzog and the Zionist Camp also supported the disqualification of MK Haneen Zoabi from the elections, joining the chorus of far-right extremists who have been inciting against her for years. Perhaps Herzog hoped that by attacking Zoabi he would be able to steal some seats away from centrist parties, which lean to the right on security issues. In doing so, however, Herzog only proved that he is willing to delegitimize an entire public for the sake of a few votes.
On Saturday, Herzog slammed Netanyahu for his comments, saying they “humiliated 20 percent of Israeli citizens for the sake of his election campaign,” and calling them “the most fraudulent and racist utterances that exist.” By the time Netanyahu sounded the alarm, everyone forgot about Zoabi and the vicious campaign video.
I do not know whether Netanyahu or Herzog harbor a deep hatred for Arabs, or whether they simply know what brings in votes. What is clear is that Netanyahu, who took a page out of Meir Kahane’s book, was roundly criticized, while Herzog — who rubber-stamped the delegitimization of Israel’s Palestinian citizens — was mostly let off the hook.
Why? Because the Israeli consensus does not take kindly to what it views as the “extremist fringes” of society. Haneen Zoabi is often compared with far-right figures such as Baruch Marzel (it is no surprise that all the major parties also supported Marzel’s disqualification by the Central Elections Committee), who has been arrested countless times for violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. By warning against “buses full of Arabs,” Netanyahu crossed the line from Likud hawk to Marzel-type incitement. Herzog, on the other hand, remained strictly within the confines of “good taste” — and lost.