Israel has discriminated against its Arab population ever since 1948, Labor rebel MK Ophir Paz-Pines said at a conference in Herzliya.
He spoke about Israel's "structured discrimination" at an Israel-Europe Policy Network symposium on Muslim minorities in Israel and in Europe and their influence on foreign policy, which took place Thursday.
Paz-Pines said that as interior minister in Ariel Sharon's government in 2005, he oversaw policies and practices that were overtly discriminatory.
"The Arab minority in Israel is structurally discriminated against and has been since the day the state was founded. I say this with great sorrow, I think it is one of Israel's biggest historical mistakes," he said.
"I think it harms the state as a whole, not only the Arabs. It harms us as Israelis. It harms integration and it harms the ability to work together. I also think it hurts the efforts for peace and harms Israel's image in the eyes of the world. But it is a fact," he said.
"The aspiration is to have a Jewish and democratic state with elements of full equality on the civil and social level. In practice we are far from it," said Paz-Pines.
He gave as an example the equalization grants worth billions of shekels that are given to local authorities according to a complicated equation that determines how much each local authority should receive.
"I quickly learned that if you took an Arab village and a Jewish village with roughly the same amount of people, you'd see that Jewish towns would usually receive more. When I examined why this happened, it turned out that the equation held a number of components that don't apply to Arab villages, for example, points given for immigrant absorption," Paz-Pines said.
"It's a collection of little things, but it doesn't take much for big gaps to grow when you're talking about such huge sums," he said.
"It is also important to note that alongside the aspiration for equal rights, there should also be equality of duties. I am a strong supporter of mandatory civil service for all Arab Israelis and think that the Arab leadership's refusal is misguided."
The Israel-Europe Policy Network works under the direction of the Israel office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation and its partners, the MACRO Center for Political Economics, Tel Aviv, and the UniversitÃ¤t der Bundeswehr in Munich.
It aims to establish a continuous, long-term, constructive and critical dialogue between Israel and the EU on pertinent issues in EU-Israeli relations and wider Middle East politics.
Thursday's symposium presented a series of papers analyzing the situation of Muslim minorities in both Europe and Israel and their effects on foreign relations.
Prof. Zeev Segal, a law professor at Tel Aviv University and the legal commentator for Haaretz, had this to say:
"Israel is a Jewish state and not a dual-national state. Still, Israel is a democracy, and as such is committed to grant equal rights to both Jews and non-Jews. The Arab minority is not recognized formally as a national minority, but different arrangements by special laws and by Supreme Court judgments recognize de facto the collective rights of the minority, thus recognizing the Arab minority as a matter-of-fact national minority."
Segal outlined Israel's historic treatment of minorities, pointing out many deficiencies, but also positive examples such as adopting Arabic as an official language, providing a state-sponsored minority educational system in the Arabic language, and the beginning of affirmative action policies.
He said that Israel follows the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty on the treatment of minorities, "yet it is evidently clear that the road toward full equality of the Arab minority in Israel is still long and the work has not yet ended."
Dr. Amal Jamal, from Tel Aviv University's political science department, said, "It is nice and joyful to read idealist, analytical philosophy, but we cannot learn about reality from talking about what ought to be. There is a wide gap between what ought to be and what is."
Jamal spoke about the great difference between the formal equality, as enshrined in Israel's Declaration of Independence, and the blatant inequality present on the ground.
He also criticized the European nations for espousing liberal and egalitarian values at home, but doing little to promote those values in their foreign policy.
"The levels of economic cooperation between Israel and the European Union are strong and trade is constantly going up, but on the political level the EU ignores its own principles... The EU and Israel understand each other very well. They both play the game, but both understand there is a gap between what they say and what they are."
Two other papers were also discussed, one that had to do with Turkish immigrants in Germany, which found that anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not a central concern for them, but that increased Turkish alienation from Europe and identification as Muslims may cause a move toward more extreme behavior, and another that studied the media consumption habits of Muslims in six European countries.
The study, which has yet to be concluded, initially revealed that most European Muslims chose to watch Middle Eastern soap operas, and when it came to news, they split their time between the national channels in their country of residence and satellite broadcasts originating from their region of origin.