The nearly seven decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to overshadow the brewing conflict between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel. There is overwhelming evidence that successive Israeli governments failed to reconcile between maintaining the Jewish national identity of the state and a democracy that also connotes equality, the two principles on which the state was founded.
Israeli governments, with the strong support of the private sector, can and indeed must fully integrate the Arab citizens into the socio-economic and political streams of the country. Failing to do so will inescapably move Israel toward becoming an apartheid state (however distasteful such a term may be) and turn the Israeli Arabs into sworn enemies rather than loyal and contributive citizens.
The ongoing discriminatory practices have deepened the Israeli Arabs’ sense of alienation and they continue to foster collective resentment against the establishment as well as against a large segment of the Israeli Jews for their acquiescence, if not their outright participation, in these practices.
Repeated pledges by the government to improve the lives of Israeli Arabs amounted to nothing more than a propaganda tool to create the perception that it is taking measures to alleviate the problem when in fact the opposite is true.
To be sure, successive Israeli governments and many Israeli Jews view the indigenous Arabs as a security threat. The current government under Netanyahu has introduced scores of discriminatory and racist laws in the Knesset, designed to segregate Israeli Arabs from their Jewish counterparts.
These laws include the Nakba Bill, which forbids Israeli Arabs from commemorating what they term the “Catastrophe” of 1948, the Loyalty Oath, and the Basic Law stipulating that “Israel [is] the Nation State of the Jewish People,” which by its own definition suggests that the Israeli Arabs are not part of the state.
Another reprehensible law, the “Citizenship and Entry Law into Israel,” which restricts immigration into Israel under family reunification, was recently extended by the Knesset and worded as a temporary order. In addition, the government continues to practice job discrimination by inhibiting appointments to government posts, and provides unequal financing for public projects in Jewish versus Arab areas.
To prevent the Arabs from “becoming a majority” and maintain the Jewish national identity of the state, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed in 2004 a brazen plan that called for Israel to retain areas in the West Bank in exchange for giving the Palestinian Authority populous Israeli Arab areas within Israel.
Whereas a recent report by the Central Bureau of Statistics suggests that by 2035 the Israeli population will grow to 11.4 million with the Arab population reaching 2.6 million, Israeli officials are creating the perception that there is a “dangerous demographic shift” in favor of Israeli Arabs, even though the proportion between Israeli Jews and Arabs is projected to remain roughly the same in 2035.
This is another absurd manifestation of how right-wing Israeli leaders are incapable of contemplating even the possibility that Jews and Arabs can live and prosper together, and readily resort to ethnic cleansing from which historically the Jews have tragically suffered.
Nurturing the loyalty of Israeli Arabs to the state takes more than false assertions by the Israeli government or some “righteous” individuals who insist that there is no discrimination against Israeli Arabs.
Although the government claim that many Israeli Arabs attend top universities in the country and thousands work hand in hand with their Jewish counterparts is true, it is still nothing but a facade to obscure the reality of systematic discrimination.
Both the government and especially the private sector must work together to ameliorate this endemic problem with all the danger that would entail if not acted upon. Time is of the essence.
The government must recognize the Israeli Arabs as a national minority with full and equal rights under the law, which must extend to all areas where the government has control, including political appointments. It must also reverse all discriminatory laws and introduce no new laws that distinguish between the Jewish majority and other ethnic national minorities.
Although ideally Israeli Arabs should also serve their country in the military, this may be a stretch at this juncture as neither Israeli Jews nor the government will sanction the induction of a large influx of Israeli Arabs into the military.
This does not mean that the government should not require young Israeli Arabs to serve by performing community service, which will greatly enhance the process of integration and the development of trust between the two communities.
The government must also make every effort to settle the many claims by Israeli Arabs regarding confiscation of properties by compensating the legitimate claimants, many of whom feel displaced, as if they are refugees in their homeland.
The mutual affinity between Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians in the occupied territories has a direct effect on the plight of each other. As long as the Israeli Arabs continue to suffer from socio-economic and political discrimination, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes ever more elusive.
Conversely, even if the Israeli Arabs are fully integrated and enjoy full civil rights, as long as the occupation persists they will remain torn between their expected loyalty to the state and kinship to their brethren.
In this regard, Israeli security forces in the West Bank must demonstrate zero tolerance to settlers’ attacks on the Palestinians, as this directly affects how the Israeli Arabs perceive the future prospect of Israel-Palestinian coexistence and its long-term effect on the nature and quality of their own existence and loyalty to the state.
Civil society, educational institutions, and NGOs should play a greater role to further promote an open dialogue to allow Israeli Arabs to voice their frustration and for these institutions to join in collective efforts to help them integrate into society.
They should also support cohabitation between Jews and Arabs, à la Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), “fight” for government subsidies, and seek investors and developers to build new housing units in mixed areas. Such efforts will improve the socio-economic conditions of these areas, mitigate conflicts, and promote amity instead of hostility.
Orthodox Israelis are “invading” mixed communities by buying and converting rundown Arab areas in cities such as Jaffa, Acre, and Lod. They openly confess that their intention is displacing Israeli Arabs instead of encouraging peaceful and cooperative cohabitation.
The appalling call, by rabbis no less, to refuse renting or selling properties to Israeli Arabs is yet another despicable effort to change the demographics in these communities, which will eventually lead to social unrest if not outright violent confrontation.
Finally, the private sector ought to play an active role by providing the Israeli Arabs with business opportunities to facilitate their integration to become active contributors to Israel’s growth and successes while fostering a sense of ownership.
All Israelis and the government must come to terms with the reality of the Israeli Arabs. They exist and will stay where they are, short of a forced expulsion, which is unthinkable even by the most ardent lunatic right-wing Israeli.
Being that the Israeli Arab citizens are a part and parcel of the Palestinian community in the West Bank in particular, Israeli policy toward one segment of the Palestinian population directly and indirectly affects the other.
What has precipitated the most recent war between Israel and Hamas is a reflection of the overall bilateral Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The abduction of three Israeli teenage boys is a criminal act, and the perpetrators were identified as being affiliated with Hamas. Regardless, however, of who was responsible, Prime Minister Netanyahu made matters much worse for both Israelis and Palestinians. His sweepingly harsh response has already led to more deaths and may potentially lead to more abductions, if not an outright Palestinian uprising.
It was legitimate for Israeli security forces to go into the West Bank and investigate in an effort to find the missing boys and capture the perpetrators, especially when President Abbas demonstrated in words and deeds his unreserved cooperation. Abbas condemned the kidnapping, not just for Israeli and US ears but also the Arab world, as he “delivered [his comments] at a high-profile gathering of Muslim and Arab officials in Saudi Arabia.”
Instead of working diligently with Palestinian internal security to demonstrate how the two sides can fully cooperate on matters of security now and in the future, Netanyahu sent his security forces on a rampage throughout the West Bank. More than 1,150 locations were searched including charities, media outlets and university campuses.
Around 400 Palestinians were arrested and more than half were Hamas operatives and politicians. Netanyahu, who vehemently rejected the Palestinian unity government, seized upon the agonizing kidnapping to play politics with the lives of three innocent youngsters, who he already knew were dead.
Instead of challenging Hamas to help in the search for the missing teenagers to demonstrate their commitment to the unity government, he immediately accused Hamas members as the “usual suspects” behind such a hideous crime which subsequently escalated to the latest tragic war between the two sides.
The subsequent deaths of four Palestinians—the youngest, who was only 15 years old, was killed while throwing stones at Israeli soldiers—provoked massive demonstrations during his funeral. This sad episode has outraged the Palestinians and only deepened their resentment and hatred of the Israelis, further damaging the already deeply frayed bilateral relations between the two sides.
Regardless of how wrong the Palestinians are and how the extremists among them contribute to this sad state of affairs, the vast majority who seek peace still live a life of servitude, intolerable by any civilized standard. Every Israeli of conscience should put himself in the shoes of an ordinary Palestinian, who wakes up in the morning feeling besieged and goes to sleep trampled upon in his own home.
How absurd and cynical it is to maintain an occupation for 47 years and expect the Palestinians to simply obey and feel sanguine about it.
How outrageous it is to build new and expand existing settlements on Palestinian land, robbing them of their dream to build a state of their own, and then blame them for harboring malice toward Israelis.
Why should any Palestinian feel compassion toward the abducted teenagers when Israeli security forces conduct night raids in private homes, often unnecessary and unjustified, terrifying the young who cower in fear? They witness with horror their father or older brother being humiliated and violently dragged away.
How could Netanyahu bolster restrictive and discriminatory laws against the Palestinians, build physical barriers and endless checkpoints, and make their lives ever more miserable but then expect them to take these abuses with equanimity?
Netanyahu, who claims to be the champion behind Israel’s security, is driven by blind ideology and consistently acts in a manner that in fact is dangerously eroding instead of enhancing Israel’s legitimate security concerns.
While Netanyahu professes to seek a two-state solution, he spares no effort to undermine the peace process in every way possible. With typical chutzpah, he insists that there is no partner with whom to negotiate.
He accuses the Palestinians of being divided and unable to uphold any agreement, but then he suspended the peace negotiations because the Palestinians created a unity government with Hamas that represents all Palestinians in an effort to end their division.
In spite of the fact that the unity government committed itself to the three Quartet principles (recognizing Israel, honoring prior agreements, and forsaking violence), Netanyahu argues that he will not negotiate with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas instead of giving it a chance to demonstrate its commitment to peaceful negotiations which might have avoided the recent tragic war.
Three years ago Netanyahu released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier. What kind of message has he sent to the Palestinians and to the whole world for that matter? One that says the release of one Israeli captive is worth more than the souls of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
How should the fathers and mothers of more than 5,000 incarcerated Palestinians, among them scores of teenagers the same age as the kidnapped Israelis, feel about their kids who are languishing in jail, many of whom without being put on trial and with no end in sight?
Many Israelis, including members of Netanyahu’s coalition, are outraged by this brazen response to the abduction of the Israeli teenagers. Friends of Israel the world over are puzzled by his extraordinarily brutal exploit with utter disregard for human rights Netanyahu himself and no other is responsible for the development of this unfortunate state of affairs.
Those who cheer Netanyahu’s crackdown are severely undermining Israel’s future security and its place among the nations. They must stop and think about how the collective pain and punishment being inflicted on the Palestinians will play out and why these conditions could lead to a nightmarish explosion.
Netanyahu is simply incapable of grasping the implications of his own actions because neither he nor any of his cohorts know where Israel should be ten or fifteen years down the line.
The question is, how can any leader lead his country without a strategy that will take his people to the intended destination? Netanyahu’s strategy, if he has one, is to torpedo the peace process and hope for some miracle that somehow the Palestinians will just disappear.
If Netanyahu genuinely cares about the wellbeing of the three teenagers, he must also demonstrate sensitivity and empathy toward Palestinian youth to cultivate trust and constructive neighborly relations. Instead, he is nurturing hatred and hostility between the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians, and is condemning them to a cruel and violent future.
It is time for all Israelis to wake up and ask the simple question—where are we heading—and demand a clear and unequivocal answer from Netanyahu himself. It is only a question of time when the Palestinians will rise again, and though they would be crushed militarily in Gaza, they have little left to lose and Israel’s “victory” will be its greatest defeat.
The Israeli public, more so than their misguided political leaders, must wake up to this fateful reality and decide what kind of future to chart for themselves and for future generations.
They can choose a course marred with discriminatory practices that sacrifice democracy and gradually push the country into becoming an apartheid state, with all that it will imply, or strive for peaceful and cooperative coexistence.
By choosing the latter, both sides can grow, prosper, and make Israel a true democracy without risking its national identity. This will eliminate the danger from within and also facilitate the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.