No Balm in Galilee

Alarm bells are ringing loudly in Israel's Arab sector. The violent confrontations between police and demonstrators in the Galilee villages of Peki'in and Rameh are symptoms of the same worrying trend: The inherent tension underlying Jewish-Arab relations is fast approaching flashpoint. This should come as a surprise to no one. Despite the explicit recommendations for easing tensions made by the 2003 Or Commission, established to investigate the October 2000 riots in which 12 Arab citizens were killed by police, and despite repeated and urgent calls for government action, there has been no real change. The socioeconomic gap between Jews and Arabs has continued to widen and to fuel the Arabs' pent-up anger and frustration. Jewish-Arab relations in Israel are not static. They are buffeted by powerful forces from within Israeli society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mutual alienation and feelings of fear, apprehension and mistrust are deepening. The deteriorating environment expresses itself in polarizing stereotypes, some explicitly racist in character. For example, recent Israel Democracy Institute surveys (Racism Index 2006 and Democracy Index 2007) show that 51 percent of Arabs believe that Jews are racists; 75 percent of Jews object to living in the same apartment buildings as Arabs; 55 percent of Jews assume that Arabs are not capable of reaching the same degree of cultural development as Jews; and 37 percent of them view Arab culture as inferior. Thousands of fans of Israel's top soccer club, Jerusalem Betar, regularly chant "death to Arabs" and individuals interviewed boast openly of being racists. These worrisome trends did not develop in a vacuum. The 2006 Lebanon War and the identification of part of the Arab population with Hizballah contributed to rampant mutual mistrust. The situation was further exacerbated this year by the publication of a series of documents entitled "The Future Vision of the Palestinians in Israel." These documents, drafted by Arab local government leaders, Arab intellectuals and legal and civic NGOs, constitute a watershed in the history of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. They are foundational in nature and reject the integrationist paradigm of Jewish-Arab relations formulated by the state in 1948. Significant sections of the "vision" documents, which call for the abolition of discrimination and the establishment of genuine equality, are acceptable to large segments of Jewish opinion. However, sections on the national question are extremely disturbing to Jewish ears. These comprise a wholesale adoption of the Palestinian narrative and rejection of the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and the Jewish character of the state; in other words, denying the validity of Israel's self-definition as "Jewish and democratic." The "vision" documents tendered various alternative, separatist models for the state: consociational democracy, a binational state or a democratic bilingual state. Another expression of the radicalization of the Arab leadership's position on the national question is evident in the negative reactions to the idea of civilian national service now being discussed in the prime minister's office. Opposition to national service has become a founding principle in the Arab nationalist camp's worldview. Some of the reactions were acerbic and sarcastic. The Israeli Communist Party youth movement, for example, coined the slogan: "I volunteer for my country, not for my hangman" (this rhymes in Arabic: Atatawa' li-Biladi, La li-Jalladi). The intention to recruit Arabs for civilian national service is seen by them as another layer in a policy designed to eradicate the Palestinian national identity of Israel's Arabs. "The opposition is justified and natural, because the overwhelming majority of the Arabs in Israel reject the definition of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state," wrote Zuheir Andreus, managing editor of the Israeli-Arab newspaper Ma al-Ahdath. Other critics highlight the historic context. Israel, they say, inflicted a historic injustice on the Arabs and, therefore, has no moral right to demand such service of them. These alarming developments require immediate attention. The government should adopt a proactive, dynamic and creative approach to provide an appropriate Jewish response to the national challenge posed by the "Future Vision." As for the widening socioeconomic gap, there are numerous decisions and recommendations for action. All that is needed is readiness to implement. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The national issue is far more complex, since it relates directly to the character of the Israeli state and is strongly influenced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dealing with it calls for a thorough re-examination of the status of the Arabs in Israel as a national minority within a Jewish democratic state. A comprehensive model, based on the principles of equality, integration, inclusiveness and coexistence, should be developed, first and foremost, by the government. It should also develop a coherent strategy for dialogue with the leadership of the Arab community, a process leading eventually to discussion of the national issue. One thing is clear and the events of Peki'in and Rameh have illustrated it in the most salient way: A policy of perpetual disregard of the Arab community has its price. If present trends are allowed to continue, the question is not if the Arab sector is going to explode, but when.