A potential cease-fire provides some hope that Operation Protective Edge will come to an end and that both Palestinians and Israelis may resume their normal lives. Of course, nothing has been normal in this part of the world recently, as Israel and Hamas have engaged in three major conflicts within the past six years. These conflicts have taken a painful toll on both sides. One potential cause of the ongoing war and the failed diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the fragile coexistence between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel.
Arab Israelis, many of whom identify themselves as Palestinian Israelis, represent 20 percent of the nation’s overall population. Ever balancing between two somewhat conflicting identities, the coexistence between Arabs and Jews within Israel has seen its share of ups and downs ever since the nation was founded in 1948. While a small group of Arab and Jewish members of parliament have used intergroup tensions to gain media attention and further their own political careers, a majority of Israelis – both Jews and Arabs – recognize the importance of mutual coexistence.
In these difficult days of war, it is easy for Arabs and Jews alike to focus on the differences rather than those things that make coexistence possible. The sense of desperation afflicting both sides can make the very prospect of coexistence seem unattainable.
Yet, skeptics ought to keep several facts in mind.
While sympathetic to Arabs who were victims or victimizers of Israel, the majority of Arab-Israelis did not historically engage in hostilities toward the Jewish state. The latest round of fighting in Gaza serves as a case in point. The majority of Palestinian-Israelis clearly empathized with their brethren in Gaza, yet they remain loyal to Israel. While thousands of foreign fighters flood Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, there are virtually no reports of Arab Israelis fighting alongside Hamas.
Despite numerous calls from Hamas leadership, Palestinian Israelis have not taken up arms. Moreover, in spite of the devastation in Gaza, the majority of Arab Israelis have not taken to the streets.
After the current round of violence ends in Gaza, both Jews and Arab-Israelis ought to bolster their currently fragile coexistence out of necessity rather than good will. Simply put, Jewish and Arab coexistence is a requirement for the basic functioning of Israeli society.
From the Galilee in the north to the Negev, from the coastal cities of Haifa and Jaffa to the capital city of Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews alike live in close quarters where they continuously interact on a daily basis. Many economic sectors such as health care, agriculture, tourism and education depend upon the participation of Palestinian Israelis. In every election, mainstream central-left political parties depend on Christian and Muslim voters as key members of their voting coalition.
Difficult days lie ahead of Israel as it deals with complex challenges that threaten its future.
As noted by many of its advocates, Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy more freedoms and constitutional protections than most Muslims in the Middle East. Charged by emotion and despair, many Jews may be prone to resent and ostracize their Arab Israeli neighbors. The Israeli government should recognize that the treatment of its minority groups serves as a continued litmus test for the Jewish nation’s democracy. Therefore, its leaders must place the promotion of coexistence as a top national priority. The government should allocate resources toward investments in Arab-Israeli infrastructure and engagement programs that will help heal tensions and solidify equality for all of its citizens alike. Arab Israelis should marginalize politicians who call for the delegitimization of Israel or fail to actively promote cooperation between Jews and Arabs. It is time for the voices of collaboration to trump those of divisiveness.
Israel is a shining democracy in an authoritative Middle East. Through coexistence and the promotion of equality of all of its citizens, Israel should articulate its values, enhance its soft power and differentiate itself from its enemies.The author is an associate professor of public diplomacy in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.