Not All Apologies Are Created Equal: Israel’s Insecurity and the March Elections

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By Mitchel Hochberg, Columnist

Opinions presented in this article do not represent the views of the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the US Government

Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feebly expressed remorse for saying that Israeli Arabs voted in “droves” during March’s Israeli elections.[1] Netanyahu also attempted to walk back statements that reneged on his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough showed that Netanyahu had not appeased the U.S. administration when he told this year’s J Street Conference that, “We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made.”[2]

Yet, the problem is not simply Netanyahu’s racist comments – the problem is that Jewish Israeli politicians consistently make laws and statements that treat Palestinian constituents as a threat to Jewish Israel. Many Israelis perceive Palestinians as jeopardizing Israel’s role as a democratic homeland for the protection of the Jewish people. Israeli discourse emphasizes the security danger posed by the Palestinian minority, feeding and exacerbating Jewish anti-Arab racism, while simultaneously marginalizing and denying rights to Palestinians. Portraying Palestinians as a security threat and enacting discriminatory measures has destroyed the psychological and material circumstances needed to create a two-state solution more effectively than Bibi’s statement ever could.

Israel’s Jewish politicians and public have subjected Palestinians to an ongoing process of securitization. Securitization theory argues that societies select and address security threats in order to reinforce their own identities. Rather than focus on objective threats to physical safety, groups emphasize issues that seemingly endanger group identity. Discriminatory laws and public statements portray threats to Jewish identity as existential security issues, which increases the apparent danger posed by the Palestinian minority and justifies limits to Palestinian welfare and voting rights, among other biased measures.[3] While Palestinian population growth does threaten the Jewish demographic majority in Israel, Jewish Israeli fixation on the physical dangers Palestinians pose through violence forms the basis for treating Palestinians as a security threat. The issue is not whether some Palestinian individuals or groups pose a real threat, it is that Jewish Israelis conceive of Palestinians as a collective security issue.

Through speeches, historical narratives, and protests, Israeli politicians and their publics circumscribe the issues they deem most threatening.[4] This discourse bounds what concerns are considered legitimate security problems, reinforces the mobilizing power of leaders defining these issues, and justifies illiberal measures to address these threats.[5]

Legislation passed by the Knesset since the Second Intifada evidences how Jewish Israelis’ security-based fear of Palestinians reflects public attitudes and impacts Israeli governmental behavior. Discriminatory laws restricted the rights of Palestinians by denying them benefits, created fines for individuals calling on Israel to be boycotted, and threatened punishment for sheltering illegal Palestinian workers.[6] Public attitudes towards Israeli Arabs since the Second Intifada have become increasingly negative. Polls showed about a 30% spike in Jewish Israeli support for Palestinian emigration from Israel between 2003 and 2009.[7] In 2011, only 30% of those surveyed supported Arab parties participating in Israel’s ruling coalition while 77.8% said a Jewish majority should make important decisions on national security and peace.[8]

While the identification of Palestinians as a threat has been accompanied by a rise in racism reminiscent of Netanyahu’s in Israel, securitization and racism are distinct phenomena.[9] Both may involve castigation of an outside party to build in-group identity, but only with securitization is the ethnic out-group portrayed as a security threat. Racists stereotype and may feel unsafe around others, but they do not think of them primarily as security issues.

In fact, racism can be understood as a symptom of securitization. The failure of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s and subsequent Palestinian violence during the Second Intifada increased the salience of right-wingers’ claims about the dangers untrustworthy Palestinians pose. Israeli policies since—economic separation from the territories following Oslo, the separation barrier in the West Bank, and even withdrawal from Gaza—have willfully furthered the distance between the average Israeli and Palestinian.[10] Separation from the territories and de facto segregation of Arab Israelis denies Jewish Israelis and Palestinians the chance to interact in their daily lives.[11]

Amir Lupovici terms this “avoidance.”[12] Jewish Israelis promoting their own identities struggle to come to terms with their subsequent oppression of Palestinians. Lupovici argues that Israeli politicians have enacted policies that keep Palestinians physically distant to make it easier to ignore their suffering.[13] Perception of Palestinians as a security threat both creates the conditions that necessitate avoidance by justifying maltreatment and rationalizes avoidance as a security measure. Resulting separation of the groups makes it easier for racism to take root and grow.

The processes needed to ameliorate this social problem, namely exposure, dialogue, and living together are sadly absent. They are absent because Palestinians are treated as a security problem and not a minority in need of rights. The discourse of fear lends power to those who treat Palestinians as a threat and take steps to discriminate against them and distance them from Jewish Israelis. Even left-of-center politicians lack the incentives and political will to pursue policies that would re-humanize the Palestinian minority. Some analysts suggest that Israel’s left needs to better speak the right’s language of security in order to win elections.[14] A bold left would instead reject the paradigm of security for Jews at Palestinians’ expense and champion a more inclusive vision of security for all.

Securitization has made achieving a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extremely difficult and entrenched Israeli oppression of Palestinians. First, Jewish Israelis perceive Palestinians as a threat to their own identities and are reluctant to trust Palestinians or support concessions to them. Any Palestinian violence during the vulnerable stages of peacemaking could easily reinforce Jewish Israeli fears and end support for the process.[15] Second, Israeli military agencies run the territories through the lens of security, treating Palestinians as a threat to be managed. Israeli leaders permit military tactics to overpower political strategy as they fail into a security-first approach.[16] Israeli security measures have made life in the territories hard, destroyed Palestinian anti-terror capabilities, and made the Palestinian public less supportive of peace. Further, by making more significant concessions to violent groups than peaceful negotiators, Israel weakens the allies it needs to build peace.[17] The logic of security justifies unlivable conditions in the territories based on what former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom termed the “excuse” of the war against terrorism.[18]

Smarter security policies and better treatment of Palestinians under the law would mitigate the worst effects of Israeli securitization. Still, it is hard to imagine a lasting solution to the conflict if Israeli society does not first expand its understanding of security to include Palestinians.


Mitchel is a first year in the Security Studies Program and a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown concentrating in international security. He is especially interested in security dynamics in the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia. Currently, he is interning in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy-Middle East. He previously interned at the Council on Foreign Relations, United States Embassy London, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.


[1] Nick Gass, “Netanyahu: ‘Arab voters are coming out in droves,’” Politico, March 17, 2015,

[2] Judi Rudoren and Julie Hirschfield-Davis, “Netanyahu Apologizes; White House Is Unmoved,” March 23, 2015,

[3] Ronnie Olesker, “National identity and securitization in Israel Ronnie,” Ethnicities, vol. 0 no. 20, 2.

[4] Olesker, 5.

[5] Olesker 3, 4, 6, 17

[6] Olesker 10, 11, 12, 13

[7] Olesker 14, 15

[8] Olesker 14, 15

[9] Olesker 16

[10] Lupovici, Amir. “Ontological Dissonance, Clashing Identities, and Israel’s Unilateral Steps towards the Palestinians.” Review of International Studies 38.04 (2012): 809-33; Or Kashti, “Israeli teenagers: Racist and proud of it,” Haaretz, August 23, 2014,

[11] Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu, “Segregation of Jews and Arabs in 2010 Israel is almost absolute,” Haaretz, October 29, 2010,

[12] Lupovici

[13] Lupovici

[14] Daniel Kurtzer, “Netanyahu’s Right of Way,” Foreign Affairs, March 26, 2015,

[15] Daniel Byman, “A high price” book 348

[16] Byman, Daniel. A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. New York: Oxford UP, 2011, 348; The Gatekeepers. Dir. Dror Moreh. Perf. Avraham Shalom. Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

[17] Byman, 348

[18] The Gatekeepers

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