Keshet, Israel’s top commercial broadcaster, airs a weekly talk show starring two provocative hosts: sports journalist Ofira Asayag and Eyal Berkovic, a former midfielder on Israel’s national football team and current sports commentator. Their show is devoted to current events, not sports, and the hosts' unrestrained style appears designed to generate public controversy.
On Aug. 17, the show crossed yet another line, forcing the network's bosses to punish the hosts for their flagrantly racist remarks. In her introductory remarks, Asayag noted that Arab Knesset members refuse to come on the show, to which Berkovic responded by calling them “terrorists,” “spies” and “Israel haters,” with Asayag grinning at his side.
It was an unusually crude performance, one of the more racist seen on Israeli TV even during times of war and military operations. The show was suspended for a week, but effects of the move are questionable. The comments on various news sites said it all. Viewers could not understand why the network suspended the show, saying Berkovic and Asayag were merely expressing how many Israelis feel about the country’s Arab lawmakers.
The display of hatred reflects the public climate nurtured, among other things, by wild incitement on the part of right-wing leaders, chief among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
Berkovic’s rant came a week after the Aug. 11 demonstration led by Israeli Arabs in Tel Aviv against the nationality law, at which some participants bore Palestinian flags. Netanyahu, a fervent proponent of the law that enshrines Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people, could not have asked for more. At the start of the weekly government meeting the next morning, he said, “We saw PLO flags in the heart of Tel Aviv … unequivocal evidence of defiance to the existence of the State of Israel and the necessity of the nationality law.” Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein said what many Israelis, not necessarily supporters of the radical right, appear to feel: “The struggle being waged by the Arab Knesset members is not against the nationality law but against the existence of the State of Israel,” he argued.
Zionist Camp head Avi Gabbay and Knesset opposition leader Tzipi Livni announced ahead of the protest that they would not attend the rally out of concern about a display of symbols not germane to the protest. Gabbay argued that he could not attend a demonstration that addressed the Palestinian right of return, while Livni claimed that leaders of the Joint List refuse to accept the definition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people even if it promises equality for all.
Their concerns were justified. Instead of focusing on opposition to the law and underscoring that Israel’s definition as the nation-state of the Jewish people ignores the equal rights of Arab Israelis under the country’s basic laws and Declaration of Independence, demonstrators raised Palestinian flags and calls such as “with blood and fire we will redeem Palestine.”
The organizers, members of the High Follow-Up Committee and Joint List lawmakers, could have argued truthfully that only a handful of unruly participants waved flags and chanted cries that sound to Israelis like a repudiation of Israel’s existence. Instead, they opted to justify the noisy minority and offer unconvincing excuses for its behavior. Mohammed Barakeh, a former Joint List lawmaker and the head of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab citizens of Israel, an umbrella group representing Israeli-Arab civil society organizations, responded to critics, “The Palestinian flag at the protest is the flag of the oppressed Palestinian people, the flag that the nationality law seeks to remove from history, but it is the flag of a proud people.”
Ironically, only Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to understand the problem. Meeting with Arab Israeli activists at his offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah, he said things that Barakeh and his colleagues should have taken to heart. Instead of demanding equal status for Arab citizens in their state, they were waving the Palestinian flag and shooting themselves in the foot, he said. “I am seeking to remove the Israeli flag from the West Bank, not to hang a Palestinian one in the heart of Tel Aviv,” he told his guests.
His clear admonishment had no effect. Barakeh and Knesset member Ahmed Tibi showed up at the Aug. 15 meeting of the PLO’s Central Council in Ramallah and proposed cooperation on a campaign against the nationality law. Tibi, speaking for the Joint List's 13 lawmakers from different parties, and Barakeh, representing the top body of Arab Israeli society, suggested designating July 19 — the day the Knesset adopted the law — as “Struggle against Apartheid Day” and marking it annually.
Abbas, who several days earlier advised Arab Israelis not to hand Netanyahu a propaganda victory, agreed that PLO missions would help Israeli Arab representatives’ campaign worldwide against the nationality law and make their voices heard at the upcoming UN General Assembly.
Tibi, one of the sharpest and most seasoned members of the Israeli legislature who professes intimate knowledge of Jewish and Arab society, once again displayed a lack of judgment. He surely knows how most Israelis regard anyone they deem critical of Israel abroad, and even more so when they are in cahoots with the Palestinian Authority and the PLO’s emissaries overseas.
Tibi argues, largely rightfully so, that the nationality law distinguishes among the citizens of the state according to their ethnicity. It grants supremacy and full rights to Jews and makes Arabs unequal, second-rate citizens. However, the road he and his colleagues have taken is mobilizing more enemies than supporters for their struggle. For the protest to be effective, it must be broad. So far, Arab Israelis have done everything they can to shrink and limit it.
Many Israelis, Jews as well as Arabs, oppose the racist law adopted by the Knesset, but they certainly reject a Palestinian flag in Tel Aviv.
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