Borderline View: Israel's democracy and its Arab population

Borderline View Israel

Last week's comments by Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman that the State of Israel should ask forgiveness from its Arab citizens for the way they have been treated during 60 years of statehood, raised, yet again, one of the basic dilemmas facing Israel as a sovereign state - namely how to be a Jewish and democratic state . It's not easy being a democracy, and it's even more difficult being a democracy when your country is self-defined as an exclusive nation-state. On top of that, it is almost impossible to be a democracy when the country's minority population (the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel) is part of a wider regional conflict in which it identifies (as would be expected) with the political and national aspirations of the neighbors, rather than of the state within which it resides. It is a dilemma Israel has faced since the day it was established, and it has never really been resolved. How, indeed, can a state define itself as being both Jewish (exclusive) and democratic (inclusive) at the same time? Democracy means a lot more than simply ensuring that everyone has the right to vote and be elected, regardless of ethnic or religious background. Democracy is about the ability of the state to fully integrate each of its citizens into every potential sphere of state activity. This includes equality in development, resource allocation, political appointments, even in achieving the highest office of state power - a whole sphere of activities that, it must be acknowledged, the Arab citizens of Israel do not enjoy. ONE DOESN'T have to be a radical left-wing activist to pay a visit to any Arab town or village in the country and see how undeveloped these places are in comparison to their Jewish neighbors. The roads, the infrastructure systems and the school facilities are always below par, and it is easy to understand why there is growing resentment among the country's Arab population. And one only has to look at the annual local government data openly published by the Central Bureau of Statistics (and freely available on the government Web sites) to see that the Arab communities receive much fewer resources per capita than any of their Jewish counterparts, even the poor development towns. It is not easy to understand the rationale behind almost every government policy to allocate fewer resources per capita to Arab citizens. It doesn't make sense and, in the long term, has proved to be totally self-defeating for the state. The younger, more educated elements among the Arab population, who find it almost impossible to enter the job market at the same levels as their Jewish counterparts and who encounter silent discrimination in almost every sphere, have, as a result, become increasingly radicalized in their political opposition to the state on the one hand, and their support for the Palestinian cause on the other. One of the biggest mistakes was the attempt by the state to create an artificial distinction between Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Prior to 1948, the Arab-Palestinian population residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean had been part of a single ethnic community, and this did not change as a result of the imposition of an artificial boundary drawn up in the Rhodes Armistice Talks. Subsequently they have undergone separate processes of development, but they remain part and parcel of a single national entity. The sooner we accept their right to define their own identity, the greater the chance that we will be able to accept them for what they are - equal citizens with a minority identity - rather than always suspect them of constituting a fifth column. The issue of land zoning for settlement expansion is but one of the more acute problems facing the Arab sector. It is ironic that the current Israeli government insists on the right of West Bank settlement expansion to enable internal natural growth of the existing settler population, while the same government does not enact the same principle for Arab citizens, who experience even more rapid internal growth. Their towns (euphemistically called "villages" in most statistical sources, even though they are much larger than equivalent Israeli development towns) are overcrowded and are prevented from growing by strict land-zoning laws. This is in stark contrast to the neighboring Jewish communities, which expand at much lower residential densities. GIVEN THE context of the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews, Israel can justly be proud that it does accord equal political rights to all of its citizens, including those who identify with the Palestinian cause. The fact that an Arab member of Knesset can make a speech negating the very essence of the Jewish state within which he lives may not be comfortable for most ears, but it reflects a high level of freedom of speech that few other countries in similar situations would allow. But that does not mean that we can expect the Arab-Palestinian citizens of the country to salute a flag, or sing an anthem, that has been designed to characterize and represent the Jewish and Zionist symbols of statehood. We need to be much more realistic in what to expect from the Arab population while demonstrating to them that we believe they can be fully integrated - politically, socially and economically - within every facet of life. If we succeeded in doing that, we would become a much better democracy than we like to think we are already. This does not mean having to reduce, in any way, the Jewish characteristics and symbols of statehood, the raison d'etre of why the State of Israel was established in the first place. But it does mean recognizing that democracies are judged by their policies toward their minorities and those groups that do not have power, far more than by the simple technicality of whether or not they are able to vote. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of The International Journal, Geopolitics.