The very public failure of the current round of peace talks has focused more attention on the threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish state. That threat, it is argued, comes from holding on to the West Bank. But this has obscured the important role that Palestinian citizens of Israel will play in coming discussions about Israel’s identity.
While the community’s leadership has adopted radical alternatives to Israel as a Jewish-majority state, the general Arab public has resisted these calls. But without major changes in the state’s policy and attitude toward them, Arab-Israelis will likely begin supporting their leaders’ demands more actively, calling into question Israel’s ability to maintain its Jewish and democratic structures.
Within the Green Line, as the Orr Commission found, the Israeli state has long imposed neglect and discrimination on the Arab community.
There is a maldistribution of resources across the Arab and the Jewish sectors, and tension between the hegemonic Jewish identity and the minority Arab identity.
For example, as of 2009, according to the latest Equality Index, by the NGO Sikkuy, 93 percent of officials in the Israeli civil service are Jews; only about 7% are Arabs.
More specifically, Palestinian-Israelis make up 8.5% of the boards of directors of government corporations; 2.9% in the Israel Land Administration; and there are no Arabs in the Stock Exchange Authority at all. This despite the fact that Arabs make up about 20% of Israel’s population and the government has expressly committed to a more equitable representation of population groups in government service.
The imbalance is also clear in government expenditures. The percentage of housing built by public monies in communities over 10,000 was 16.3% for Jewish/mixed neighborhoods, and only 1.2% for Arab communities. Overall, public expenditure (by the national and local governments) per person for the Jewish sector was NIS 551; for the Arab sector it was NIS 375.8.
There are political implications to these material inequalities. Though the Arab vote has declined overall (as the Jewish vote has), the trend among the Arab community has been an increase in voting for the Arab parties rather than the Jewish and Zionist parties. In 1999, 68.7% of the Arab vote went to the Arab parties. In 2006 the percentage was 71.9%; in 2009 81.9%; and in 2013 in the high 70s.
The political and intellectual leadership of the Arab community (comprised of the main Arab political parties, academics and activists, the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens, and the Islamic Movement) have responded to these problems not only by demanding that Israel directly address these deficiencies, but by proposing a series of alternatives to the character of Israel as a Jewish state – from binationalism to a recognition of the Arab community’s indigenous, and therefore independent, status.
In short, they have adopted increasingly anti-Zionist and nationalist solutions to the internal tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian populations that are more in line with the one-state demands presented by many in the PLO and abroad.
For the moment, though, these demands have not been widely accepted in the general Arab-Israeli community. Indeed, the general Arab-Israeli population mistrusts its leaders and does not appreciate its focus on abstract issues of identity or on Palestinian nationalism.
According to Sammy Smooha’s public opinion surveys, in 2012 58.2% “did not trust” Palestinian leaders in Israel, while 63.2% did not think they advanced solutions to concrete problems. Three-quarters (76%) indicated that the Arab leadership should focus more on the daily problems of the community than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the same time, though the Arab public has become more ambivalent about the Israeli state’s Jewish character and would, all other things being equal, prefer that the state not impose a Jewish hegemony on its citizens, a majority of Palestinian citizens have reconciled themselves to and accepted Israel as a Jewish-majority state.
The gap between the Arab public and the Arab leadership, then, is large enough at this point to slow down the demand for major changes to Israel’s identity. In some ways that gap is even growing: In almost all of the areas mentioned above there have been improvements, and the percentage of Arab representation and government expenditures on the Arab community has been going up. The Israeli government has made a good faith effort to at least begin the process of addressing these gaps, setting up agencies to deal directly with them. Employment training has increased, measurements of educational standards have risen, and local governments have been working more closely with Jerusalem on these issues.
But if these improvements stall or are reversed (they are not large increases to begin with), then we can expect frustration, resentment and anger to translate into greater support for the Arab leadership.
This will strengthen their demands for changing the Jewish character of the state, and might even lead the community to link up with the demands and negotiating positions of the Palestinians of the PLO and the PA. Israel would then face a two-front struggle for legitimacy and its existence as a Jewish, democratic state with an Arab minority community: an internal and an external one.
The author is associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches and researches Israeli politics. He tweets at @besasley.