In recent months, analysts from diverse ideological persuasions and political
stripes have been sounding the alarm bells about Israel’s “internal Palestinian
On the one hand, it is claimed that if Israel does not accede
to the political demands of the Arab minority and does not recognize it as a
national and indigenous minority with extensive collective rights, Israel’s
domestic stability and very democratic character will be undermined.
the other side, some politicians and academics have been vociferously arguing
that the Arabs in Israel constitute a fifth column and need to be dealt with as
a security threat.
Although these two perspectives emanate from the two
polar ends of the political spectrum, they share one key assumption: If Israel
does not take dramatic and immediate action to address its “internal Arab
problem,” great dangers are in store.
This alarmist approach is not only
unjustified, it risks further polarizing an already highly emotion-laden public
debate that more than anything right now requires sober
To be sure, there are reasons to be seriously concerned.
The intensity of the Jewish-Arab cleavage is continuously escalating. Mutual
mistrust is high. The Arab minority has always suffered from persistent
discrimination in allocation of resources and access to services. According to
reports by the NGO Sikkuy, following a period of positive trends in the 1990s,
gaps along several important socioeconomic indicators have arisen over the past
Furthermore, Arabs have never been allowed to integrate
culturally, socioeconomically, or politically. Surveys reveal that many Israeli
Jews believe that Arab civil and political rights ought to be more limited than
those of Jews. Recent years have also seen a sharp rise in rhetoric and
legislation initiatives that target the Arab minority.
On the Arab side,
Palestinian nationalism has come to the forefront of political mobilization in
Israel. Arab political parties, NGOs and intellectuals are increasingly
demanding state recognition of them as an indigenous and national minority with
corresponding collective rights.
Moreover, they identify the Jewish
identity of the state as the root cause of their plight and claim that the just
way to address their disadvantage is through formally turning Israel into a
bi-national state with proportional representation for Jews and Arabs in state
institutions, coupled with proportional allocation of resources.
further insist on changing state symbols, extensive institutional autonomy,
language protection, and the right to control over their economic resources,
education system and other social and cultural institutions.
adopting the Palestinian narrative of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, they
demand freedom to maintain ties with Palestinians and Arabs elsewhere, including
the freedom to travel to Arab countries that are in conflict with Israel. This
approach has been most openly expressed in the Future Vision document and Haifa
Declaration that were published several years ago.
Although there is
little doubt that the Jewish-Arab cleavage is widening, a broader perspective
reveals that all is not bleak. In the midst of the overheated debate, the most
basic facts are sometimes forgotten. Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the benefit
of many democratic civic rights, including the right to vote and get elected to
the Knesset, access to an activist court system, and protection of freedom of
speech, association and protest. They also benefit from some collective rights,
including being able to teach in their own language and practice their own
religion. Furthermore, the past decade saw Arabs appointed to cabinet posts, the
Supreme Court and the highest level of the bureaucracy.
For its part,
Arab politics is usually conducted through institutionalized channels: political
parties, NGOs, litigation to courts, lobbying and Arabic media outlets.
Political violence is very rare (that Israeli society is still traumatized by
the events of October 2000 is an indication of the extent to which political
violence is unusual and unacceptable) and this should not be taken for granted.
Many societies that are as deeply divided as Israel along national, ethnic, or
sectarian lines are fraught with inter-group violence.
All in all, Arabs
do politics in Israel just like other segments in Israeli society, including
religious groups, immigrants, settlers, secularist liberals and others. They
take advantage of the avenues provided by Israeli democracy just like many
others in Israel. The fact that the political manifestations of the internal
strife are channeled mainly through the conventional institutional conduits
despite the protracted regional conflict makes it all the more
To be sure, the call for calm should not be interpreted as a
prescription for complacency. It is essential to remember that there are no
silver-bullet solutions to ethnic conflict.
Some of the Arab demands
should be more easily addressed than others.
Working toward ending social
and economic discrimination and for equality in access to state services and
distribution of resources is of paramount importance.
national demands within Israel will be more difficult to accommodate
particularly as the regional conflict persists and many Israeli Jews feel an
Nevertheless, Palestinian national demands within
Israel, as unsettling as they may be to many Zionist Jews, should be
differentiated from Arab organizational patterns of political mobilization,
which are typical of Israeli democracy.
Ultimately, it is important for
Israel to ensure that the existing institutionalized channels for Arab political
mobilization remain open and not to try to limit the capacity of Arab
organizations to mobilize freely (the decision taken earlier this month by the
Knesset Ethics Committee to retract Arab MK Ahmad Tibi’s (United-Arab List –
Ta’al) right to make one-minute speeches in the Knesset for a month is part of
this effort). Thus far, Israel’s democratic institutions have managed to contain
the internal conflict and it would be prudent not to shake the delicate
balance.The writer is the author of the recently published
Ethno-nationalism in Israel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). He is an
associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University
of Kingston, Canada.
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