Opinion: ‘Bibi or Tibi’ debate is about Zionism, not racism

The argument between the prime minister and a reality-show host over whether Israel is “a state of all its citizens” or a Jewish state is not a test of tolerance.

By Jonathan S. Tobin, Editor-in-Chief, JNS

He’s done it again. After being called out for allegedly employing racist incitement against Israeli Arabs during election campaigns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being attacked now for saying things that supposedly hurt the feelings of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and offend the sensibilities of some Jews. This has led to renewed charges that he is guilty of denigrating Arabs and trashing the democratic nature of the state.

But, as with past claims, there’s less to this allegation than the anguished criticism directed at Netanyahu would lead one to believe.

This latest kerfuffle stems from the attack by Netanyahu’s Likud on its Blue and White party rivals. Likud is asserting that the only way that Blue and White Party leader and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz could form a government, even if he finishes first, would be to reach out to Arab political parties.

The shorthand for this argument is “Bibi or Tibi,” meaning that the real choice voters face is not between Netanyahu and Gantz, but between a government led by the incumbent or one that will include Ahmed Tibi, leader of the Ta’al Party, which is running on a joint list this year with Hadash, the Israeli Communist party.

This attack is part of the Likud’s effort to portray Blue and White as leftists in centrist clothing, but the charge is pretty far-fetched. All four of the Arab parties, which ran on one Joint List in previous elections but have split into two for the April vote, have made it clear that—as has been their stated policy in the past—they won’t join any government formed by a Zionist political party. And Blue and White and every other party, other than the hard-left Meretz, have stated in turn that they won’t invite Arab anti-Zionists or Communists into any coalition to govern Israel.

Blue and White doesn’t currently have a path to a majority coalition without doing the unthinkable unless current members of the Likud-led coalition defect to them.

The facts of Israeli political life

This will be sorted out after the voters render their verdict on April 9. But the current controversy stems from the fact that some people have taken offense at Likud’s mention of the facts of Israeli political life. Saying that it’s “Bibi or Tibi” is just another way of reminding everyone that while Arabs have full and equal rights, including voting and holding office, the unwritten law of Israeli politics is that Arab political parties will never be invited to join a governing coalition.

Some call that racist. Which is why Rotem Sela, a 35-year-old Israeli model, actress and host of a popular reality-television show, took to Instagram to denounce Netanyahu for showing such disrespect to Tibi and those who vote for him by saying: “What is the problem with the Arabs??? 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.”

This was elevated to a major political controversy because none other than the prime minister chose to respond to it.

Netanyahu used his own popular social-media account to say, “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.” He went on to claim that a government led by Blue and White that included the Arab anti-Zionist parties would “undercut the state’s security.”

The blowback against Sela from Netanyahu’s supporters allowed her to claim that she was being intimidated from speaking up and prompted others, including Israeli actress and “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot, to speak up in her defense.

President Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member but also a bitter foe of Netanyahu, also weighed in with a veiled response to the prime minister in which he reminded the country that there are “no secondhand citizens.”

Rivlin is right about that, as is Sela when she says that non-Jewish citizens deserve respect.

But though it is considered impolite by some to point it out, Netanyahu is also right when he says it would be unthinkable for any government to include the Arab parties.

It’s not because they’re Arabs

That’s not because they are Arabs, but because their avowed purpose is to change Israel from a Jewish state into one in which its Jewish character is no longer protected.

The four Arab parties vary in character, with Tibi’s and its rival Balad being secular anti-Zionists while Ra’am is Islamist and Hadash is Communist. But all four reject the founding principles of Israel as accepted by Jews—be they of the right, center or the left.

While Sela’s claim that “Israel is a state of all its citizens” sounds harmless, the prime minister is correct when he says all citizens have equal rights but that the state’s essential purpose is to guarantee the rights and the safety of the Jewish people first and foremost.

This shouldn’t be controversial; it has been made clear in the country’s Declaration of Independence and its basic laws even before last year’s nation-state legislation was passed. This latest argument actually illustrates why that law was necessary.

A “state of all its citizens” is the goal of Arabs and others who want to eliminate the sole Jewish state on the planet. Anyone who embraces it is not opposing anti-Arab racism; they are, whether they understand it or not, backing anti-Zionism.

That’s why the claims that Netanyahu is fomenting racism are blatantly false. It may seem rude to say it, but Netanyahu, Gantz or any other person who could conceivably be Israel’s prime minister has no plans to include Arabs determined to undermine or destroy the state into the government. That isn’t racist. It’s common sense.