Radicalization of Arab-Israelis is a threat to Israel - opinion

Two new studies warn of radicalization among Arab-Israelis and urge robust government action.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett chats with Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas in the Knesset in June. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett chats with Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas in the Knesset in June.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

In recent years, I have been quite optimistic about the forward-looking integration of Arab-Israelis in broader Israeli society. So many positive polls and helpful government initiatives suggested that better Arab-Jewish relations were on the upswing.

But in the wake of May’s violent Arab riots and two just-published, in-depth and ill-boding studies, there is ample reason to worry that the progress could prove ephemeral. It is up to Israel to act swiftly against Arab-Israeli radicals so that Arab-Israeli moderates (the majority, I believe) can win the day.

Ostensibly, Arab-Israelis have gradually but inexorably moved to acceptance and even preference of life in the Jewish State of Israel. Recent polls suggest that 71% of Arab-Israelis feel that Israel is a good place to live; 68% prefer to live in Israel than in other countries; and 60% even says they feel Israel to be a home and a homeland. Ninety-three percent of Arab residents in eastern Jerusalem prefer to live under Israeli governance than that of the Palestinian Authority!

When asked whether they wanted to be transferred to an Arab government in the West Bank (as Avigdor Liberman proposed in one of his transfer plans), Arabs of the “Triangle” in the North prefer by a 10-to-1 ratio to remain Israeli citizens.

And, of course, as anybody who studies at an Israeli university knows, as anybody who walks into an Israeli hospital or pharmacy knows, Arab-Israelis (including many women) increasingly fill professional positions in these important institutions.

Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Mount Scopus Emergency Medicine Department with her Jewish and Arab staff. (credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Mount Scopus Emergency Medicine Department with her Jewish and Arab staff. (credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)

(All these statistics and facts tell you exactly what Arab-Israelis think of the corrupt Palestinian Authority police state and neighboring dictatorial Arab states versus their opportunities in the State of Israel.)

Indeed, the previous (Likud) and the current (Yamina-Yesh Atid) governments have invested hundreds of millions of shekels to integrate Arabs into the country’s burgeoning hi-tech and other profitable sectors. The previous government poured NIS 10 billion into infrastructure, education and employment in Arab communities in 2016-2020. This year’s budget allocates NIS 29.5b. over five years, along with billions more in initiatives to fight crime and increase access to health care.

But Arab-Israelis, indeed all Israelis, are paying the price for minority community autonomy, anarchy, and lawlessness – and government fecklessness in the face of these challenges.

Arab behavior throughout the coronavirus crisis, Arab behavior during the 2021 riots in many mixed cities, the continuing high crime rate among Arab-Israelis (led by powerful Arab-Israeli mafia gangs and radical Islamic movements), the continuing aggressive sprawl of Bedouin across the Negev, and more – make it clear that Israel that can no longer afford the purposeful and self-destructive sectarianism of some bad Arab-Israeli actors.

WRITING IN THE spring issue of Middle East Quarterly, noted Arabist Prof. Efraim Karsh warns that things are trending in the wrong direction; that there is growing rejection among Arab-Israelis of Israel’s Jewish nature and that they are systematically moving to subversion of state sovereignty and governability. He calls this “a clear and present danger to Israel’s domestic stability and national security, indeed to its very existence as a Jewish state.”

On the face of it, the participation of the Islamist Ra’am Party in the government coalition seems to point in the opposite direction. For what conceivably can be a better indication of sociopolitical integration than the inclusion of an Arab party in an Israeli government after a 45-year break? 

But Ra’am, Karsh avers, is an avowedly anti-Zionist party committed to the substitution of a Muslim theocracy for the State of Israel. For example, Ra’am has no qualms about threatening Israel with a religious war should Jews be allowed to formally pray on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.

“Reluctant to acknowledge the May 2021 riots for what they are and what they portend, the Israeli media, the academic and intellectual elite, and most of the political establishment attributed this volcanic eruption to the supposed discrimination and marginalization of the Arab minority... Evoking the age-old Zionist hope that the vast economic gains attending the Jewish national revival would reconcile the Palestinian Arabs to the idea of Jewish statehood, this self-incriminatory diagnosis is not only totally misconceived but the inverse of the truth,” according to Karsh.

“If poverty and marginalization were indeed the culprits, why did Arab dissidence increase dramatically with the vast improvement in Arab standard of living in the 1970s and 1980s? Why did it escalate into an open uprising in October 2000 – after a decade that saw government allocations to Arab municipalities grow by 550% and the number of Arab civil servants nearly treble? And why did it spiral into a far more violent insurrection in May 2021 – after yet another decade of massive government investment in the Arab sector?”

Karsh notes that the latest riots were closely coordinated with Hamas, as evidenced among other things by their cessation as soon as the Gaza hostilities ended. Arab-Israelis now possess “the means and intent to produce large-scale terrorism that will disrupt the routine of life within the country, both of the civilians and of the security forces” – to the point that in a future war, the IDF would avoid moving forces and equipment through the Wadi Ara highway for fear that this central transport artery would be blocked by neighboring Arab towns and villages.

A SOMEWHAT LESS alarmist but equally disturbing study on Arab-Israelis was published this week by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, led by Dr. Dore Gold. In this 200-page (Hebrew) study, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser argues that alongside a desire to benefit from integration economically and sociologically, there is a deep-rooted ideological consciousness among Arab-Israelis that rejects Zionism and the Jewish right to a homeland in Israel. He writes that the hardcore Islamist rejectionists have been making headway in radicalizing Arab-Israelis.

In a close study of Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, Lt.-Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi of the JCPA finds that Abbas’s political pragmatism (evidenced by his partnership in the current government) has deep roots in Muslim Brotherhood ideology. This means that he is not a refreshing, long-term Arab-Israeli ally for building the Jewish-democratic State of Israel.

Nadav Shragai tracks the resurgence of the “Nakba” (disaster) narrative and the demand for an Arab “right of return” in the fullest-imaginable magnitude – among Arab-Israelis. These demands have moved from refugee camp residents and descendants on the margins of Palestinian society into the mainstream, he finds.

Arab scholar Pinhas Inbari notes that Bedouin leaders are literally begging Israeli authorities to crack down on the radical Islamic preachers and Arab criminal gangs that have turned the Negev into the Wild West. The double-whammy of Bedouin poverty and societal lawlessness requires even more massive government investment and establishment of an Israeli “national guard” corps to rule effectively, he says.

In the end, hostile outside actors like the UN and Amnesty International capitalize on Arab-Israeli rioting and Bedouin complaints to “prove” how discriminatory Israel is, warns Kuperwasser. And the Palestinian Authority leverages Amnesty’s “apartheid” charge both to egg on Arab-Israeli radicals (thus fueling the forces of radicalization) and to advance Ramallah’s campaign to criminalize Israel in international legal institutions.

The bottom line: It is high time to impose more obligations and responsibilities on this country’s minority populations, while investing in their advancement too. Not to punish them, but to encourage their good citizenship and better integration, and to rule effectively. This will be a painful but long overdue, process. Get started now.

The author is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and in the research department of Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum. His diplomatic, defense, political, and Jewish world columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com