The Israel-Arab Time Bomb

Israel’s policy towards Arab minority needs to be reconsidered comprehensively, covering variety of pending issues, including both duties and rights.

Palestinian protesters 311 (photo credit: AP)
Palestinian protesters 311
(photo credit: AP)
TEN YEARS AGO, IN OCTOBER 2000, ISRAELI JEWISH society was stunned as Arab Israeli citizens rioted for five days across northern Israel. Giving vent to tensions that had been escalating in the wake of the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada and expressing long-simmering resentment, the demonstrations revealed the depth of Arab citizens’ support for the Palestinians living over the Green Line and their disillusionment with Israeli society.

As rioters attacked symbols of state sovereignty, blocked major roads and torched forests, police forces responded with snipers and tactical forces, killing 12 Arab citizens and one Palestinian from the Gaza Strip; one Jewish citizen was killed by rocks thrown on the coastal road, presumably by rioting Arabs.

Most Arabs perceived the riots as civil disturbances and the decision by the police to use lethal ammunition against the protesters left them feeling even more enraged and alienated from the Israeli political system and society, while many Jews were left feeling frightened and betrayed by the violence.

After initially stonewalling, the government, headed by then-prime minister Ehud Barak (Labor) established the Orr Commission to investigate these events. In September 2003, the Orr Commission released its findings, in which it criticized the police for the use of excessive force and determined that Arab citizens suffer discrimination. The commission criticized successive governments for failing to treat Arab citizens fairly and equally and offered a series of recommendations to correct the injustices that were, the commission found, at the root of the riots.

To date, almost none of the recommendations of the Orr Commission have been implemented.

“The writing was on the wall then, and is still on the wall now,” warns Prof. Elie Rekhess, professor of history and the Visiting Crown Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, and one of the leading experts on the Arabs in Israel. “With all due respect to Hamas and Iran, the relationship with the Arab minority in Israel is the real existential problem facing the State of Israel in the years to come.”
The Jerusalem Report: How did the events of October 2000 impact on Israeli society?
Prof. Elie Rekhess: We must evaluate these events and their aftermath on three levels: Arab society, Jewish society and the government.
In terms of Arab society: Although the tensions had been building and the riots should not have come as a surprise to anyone, the events of October 2000 were the “Big Bang” for the Arab community in Israel. The riots and the deaths brought about a paradigm shift among the Arab intellectual and political elites, leading them to search for alternative models for their relationship with the Jewish majority in Israel.
Sensing more sharply than ever before that they are not allowed into the collective of the Jewish majority, the Arabs have determined that they should draw their own conclusions and assert themselves as an indigenous national minority. This has led to a new stage in which the Arabs are taking political initiatives and consolidating their opposition to the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
What initiatives has the Arab public taken in this direction?
First, they have forcefully rehabilitated the local Palestinian historical narrative, including an emphasis on the naqba (the “catastrophe,” the Arabs’ terminology for Israel’s War of Independence). As part of their opposition to the current Israeli paradigm, they are attempting to delegitimize Israel in the international arena and to bring their problems to international forums, such as the International Criminal Court.
Some Arab elites are now calling for a consociational democracy, that is, a one-state solution similar to Belgium or Switzerland. That would essentially be a bi-national solution and would mean the end of the Jewish State as we know it. This demand is becoming part of the debate.
In this regard, we hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly stating that the negotiations with the Palestinians must include recognition of Israel as the Jewish State. There are many reasons for this, some political, but it is important that this be stipulated, so that we don’t find ourselves, after we come to a final agreement with Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], facing additional national demands from within Israel as well.
Since the formal Arab politicians are largely constrained – because the Jewish polity keeps them out of the decision-making circles – much of the activity is centered in the NGOs (non-governmental organizations.)
We are in a very embryonic stage of this transitional process, and there is no mass movement behind the call for a bi-national state. The Arab leaders know that, given the realpolitik of the region, there is no chance that the idea to dissolve Israel as a Jewish state will come to pass.
We should also note that, concurrently, Arab society is experiencing a rapid process of Islamization and the Islamic movement, especially the more radical Northern Faction, has become a significant political force within Israel.
How has the Jewish public responded?
The Israeli Jewish public has been traumatized, too, and has responded in two, diametrically opposed, ways. Some Jews have come to realize that there is a real problem and that it can no longer be swept under the rug. The conclusions of the Orr Commission, for example, represent a landmark. It is one of the most significant documents ever written in Israel, and it reveals that the members of the inquiry understood the severity of the problem.
Civil society groups have also grown stronger in Israel and within Jewish communities abroad – the Inter-Agency Task Force, for example, shows that at least some American Jews do understand that we must do something to create a new way for Jews and Arabs to live together.
But a larger part of the Jewish public now views the Arabs as a “fifth column,” looking for instantaneous and miraculous solutions.
Suggestions such as stripping the Arabs of their citizenship or an enforced swapping of territories are not only unethical and immoral, they are ludicrous. But they create the illusion of a solution and further widen the Jewish-Arab schism.
And so the Jews and the Arabs are reinforcing each other’s extremists.[Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, with his nationalistic rhetoric, is a tremendous asset for the Arab extremists and the Arab extremists are a tremendous asset for Lieberman and his supporters.
What about the government?
None of the governments that has been in power since October 2000 has drawn the necessary conclusions or even taken the time to seriously discuss the issue. There have been numerous programs and the present government appointed a minister for Minority Affairs, Avishai Braverman.
But there is no consolidated concept behind the sporadic steps. No government has attempted to reformulate the paradigm of a “Jewish and democratic” state or to articulate what this means for the Arab minority, in light of the internal changes which Arab society is dramatically undergoing. We have not offered the Arabs any alternatives except the existing one, even though it is clear that it fails to respond to the pressing challenges of today. We urgently need to re-conceptualize the model of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. The foundations are there, but require adjustment to the new realities.
We must come up with a revised paradigm that will offer all Israeli citizens both rights and obligations, reestablishing what is feasible and what is not. The Arabs must realize that Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state – after all, the majority has rights, too. But the majority cannot ignore the 20 percent minority in its midst and continue to discriminate against it or deny its national identity.
As someone who has studied Arab politics in Israel for many years, I feel that the violence of October 2000 will return if we continue to ignore what has happened.
The government recently approved an amendment to the Citizenship Law, according to which those seeking to become naturalized citizens (which excludes most Jews, who become citizens under the Law of Return) will take an oath of allegiance to the State of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
How will this affect the situation?
Citizenship is supposed to establish the relationship between the individual and the state – citizens have certain rights, duties and responsibilities and these include, inter alia, allegiance. In our unique case of split loyalties, allegiance to the state should not be left to interpretation.
However, a one-sided act of legislation is not the wisest thing to do at this time. It is provocative and politically-motivated. Most importantly: Israel’s policy towards the Arab minority needs to be reconsidered comprehensively, covering the variety of pending issues and including both duties and rights. This is merely another one of the poorly conceived, non-comprehensive “solutions” that not only will not solve the problem but will make it worse.