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The Israeli Arab leadership has been making a concerted effort over the past few months to make its own voice heard in the discussions on a constitution for Israel, which have until now been held exclusively among Israeli Jews.
During these months, the leadership has produced three documents taking a broad look at what place the Israeli-Arab community should have in the state. The first two were issued by the Mossawa Center ("A Constitution that Gives Equal Rights to All") and the National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel ("The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel").
Not long ago, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, published the third document, entitled "The Democratic Constitution." The leaders and intellectuals behind this effort, tired of seeing Jewish legislators and academics thinking and speaking for them, hope to engage in a true dialogue in which they will speak for themselves.
It may be too early to determine whether the proposals have set off the kind of public dialogue they hoped for. But one thing is certain, somebody out there is listening. Recently, an Israeli Arab newspaper quoted Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin as accusing the Israeli Arab community of posing a strategic threat to Israel during a discussion with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the three documents.
Adalah's constitution has raised concerns not only in the political and security echelon, but also among Jewish liberals and academics for whom human rights are a top priority. But criticism in these circles varies, depending on who one talks to.
Article 3 of Adalah's proposed constitution declares that "Israel is a democratic state based on the values of human dignity, liberty and equality." Gone is the definition of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state.
Article 15 declares that the laws of citizenship and immigration will be established on the basis of the principle of anti-discrimination.
Gone is the Law of Return.
Article 15 calls for a full bilingual state in which almost all documents will be printed in both languages. Schools will teach the curriculum in either language.
Article 18 calls for autonomous educational and cultural institutions.
The Jewish and Arab communities will elect a representative body to run these institutions.
Article 20 calls for equal or disproportionate representation for Israeli Arabs in matters related to "bilingual and multi-cultural affairs." According to one option, a parliamentary committee will be established in which half the members belong to Arab or Arab-Jewish parties. No law will be passed involving bilingual or multicultural matters unless the committee first approves it. The plenum may overrule the committee decision if it obtains a two-thirds majority for the bill. The second option states that in order for a bill to pass in the Knesset, 75 percent of the members of the Arab or Arab-Jewish parties must vote in favor.
Articles in Chapter 3 state that Arab citizens whose land was expropriated will have it restored to them and they will be compensated for the years it was taken away. The document recognizes that if there is an "objective and genuine" obstacle to returning the land, an "alternative and fair" alternative to restitution will be found.
The chapter also calls for allowing "internal Arab refugees" to return to their homes, recognizing of Beduin claims to their land in the Negev, and recognizing the unrecognized villages.
According to Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Avineri, Adalah's proposal "is a very clear and sophisticated mechanism for disestablishing Israel as a Jewish state. The constitution seeks to disintegrate Israel into two communities, more or less with equal rights, more or less with equal say, not only in political issues but in the symbolic nature of the country."
Avinery warned, for example, that if the state grants educational and cultural autonomy to Israeli Arabs, it will be fostering two official and conflicting narratives of the birth of the state, which Israeli Jews celebrate as Independence Day and Israeli Arabs memorialize as the Naqba (catastrophe).
"There is only one national narrative in this country," Avineri told The Jerusalem Post. "Obviously, everybody is entitled to their own private narrative, just like Neturei Karta, but not as a state institution."
He warned that handing over control of cultural and educational institutions to the Israeli Arab community "will disestablish the country as a unitary entity. The proposal aims to disintegrate the country and make it into basically two countries."
Ilan Saban, a lecturer in international law at Haifa University, is far more sympathetic to the Adalah proposal than Avineri, although he too objects to what is in effect the establishment of a binational state in place of the Jewish state.
For one thing, he agrees with the constitution's material demands such as land restitution, and believes that Israel should go as far as it can within the context of a Zionist state to treat its Arab citizens fairly. He is also not opposed, within fundamental constraints, to their demand for cultural and educational autonomy.
But he is not in favor of granting equality, even proportional equality, in immigration. The Law of Return should remain in force, and the Palestinian right of return should be applied to the Palestinian state which will be established in the West Bank and Gaza, he argued. Although Saban opposes granting Palestinians the right of return to Israel, he maintains that Israel "should be very active on the question of compensating the Palestinian refugees and finding a solution for their plight."
The question of power-sharing seems to be the most critical issue for Saban in determining that the Palestinians are talking about a binational state "along the lines of Canada, Switzerland or Belgium."
Such an arrangement cannot work in Israel for the foreseeable future for two reasons. Firstly, Israel does not have a federal system which leaves a large degree of power in the hands of regionally elected governments. Secondly, Arabs and Jews do not maintain a consensus on very fundamental issues of state, particularly the Israeli-Arab conflict.
"The necessary condition for a binational arrangement is a situation in which there is fundamental agreement on key issues, values and decisions and a common purpose," said Saban. This description does not apply to the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel.
Saban said he was not opposed in principle to a change in the constitutional relationship between Arabs and Jews - as long as it was done through democratic procedures - but did not believe it was a realistic option in the foreseeable future. And, although he found Adalah somewhat sensitive to Jewish concerns, he felt they were not enough sensitive enough and that therefore, the proposal was not "a wise one." On the other hand, Saban said he could understand why the Israeli Arab community had lost its faith even in the most forthcoming and considerate of Zionist Jewish Israelis, those, like himself, who propose "the paradigm of a Zionist state that goes to the outer edge of its Zionist ideology [in order to treat the Arab minority without discrimination] or of a Jewish and democratic framework which is fair."
"I can understand that after 60 years, the minority ethnic community does not believe in that possibility," he said. He pointed out that the Rubinstein Committee, appointed by former interior minister Ophir Paz-Pines to determine Israeli policy on immigration and naturalization, including the right of Israelis to marry spouses from the West Bank and Gaza, had given disproportionate emphasis to security considerations "without taking into account its effect on the Arab minority." Furthermore, the government ignored the recommendations of the Or Commission of Inquiry report on the riots of October 2000.
"The Arabs say, 'Look at what Israel could have done something about, and they even had a wake-up call in the form of the Or report and the October riots,'" said Saban. "So when you talk about a fair Jewish and democratic state, the burden of proof is on you. What have you done to prove it?' I think that is a very strong argument."