Rattling the cage: Our Arabs, indeed

77% of Israeli Arabs think Israel is a better country than most others.

azmi bishara (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
azmi bishara
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Call him "Ismail." He's a professional in his 30s whom I met in Nazareth, a very astute observer of probably just about anything, so I asked him to describe the political mood of Israeli Arabs these days. Noting that he voted for Azmi Bishara's Balad Party in the election three years ago but that he was undecided now, he said: "I don't know what the political agenda is today. The Arab parties have no credibility, there's no confidence in them. People aren't even thinking about politics so much anymore, they're thinking about economics, about what's in their pocket, about food. "Palestinians in Israel used to be focused on the struggle of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but now we see it's on the way to being solved, that even Sharon finally came around, and now it's just a question of which Israeli leader is going to make the peace - and yet we had nothing to do with it. Everything we did made no difference to Palestinians in the occupied territories, and what did it do for us over here? Nothing. So now people are saying, 'We've worried about our cousins on the other side of the border all this time, now it's time to worry about ourselves.'" Put Ismail's words together with the new "Herzliya Patriotism Survey," which found that 77% of Israeli Arabs think Israel is a better country than most others, 53% are proud of Israel's welfare state, and 44% are proud of their "Israeliness." Even if these numbers seem a little too rosy to be trusted completely, they bring additional evidence that a very deep-seated change has been taking place among Israeli Arabs in the last few years. This change ought to be noticed by Israel's Jewish majority, it ought to be welcomed, and it ought to revise the way Israel sees its Arab minority, just as the Arab minority has revised the way it sees Israel. It's time for Israeli Jews to understand that the 1.3 million Arab citizens of this country are decisively different from the 3.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli Arabs don't want to live in Palestine, they want to live in Israel. So Israeli Jews have to stop daydreaming about getting rid of a few hundred thousand of them by lopping off Greater Umm el-Fahm and giving it to the Palestinians. They won't go, and nobody should ask them to go, and nobody should even want them to go. Israeli Arabs are not a threat, demographic or otherwise, to the Jewish state. They're only 20% of the population now, but even as that figure inches up in the coming decades, they're not going to want to take over the country, or fight a civil war with the Jews, or do anything to destabilize Israel. In 58 years, they never have. Even the October 2000 riots, for all their wild fury and the fear they caused in Jews, burned out in less than a week, leaving a handful of policeman with minor injuries, along with one unlucky Jewish driver killed on the coastal highway by a flying stone. A revolution it wasn't. Instead, what the October riots turned out to be was the high-water mark of the Israeli Arabs' "Palestinization." Since then, they've found little they're eager to identify with in the West Bank and Gaza, or, for that matter, in the Arab-Muslim world at large. Across the Green Line, the intifada failed completely. Yasser Arafat turned out to be a corrupt, megalomaniacal disaster, while the Fatah movement and the Palestinian Authority turned out to be made precisely in his image. They've disgraced the cause Israeli Arabs believed in. Moreover, where in the entire Middle East is the Arab movement, who is the leader who could possibly inspire an Arab public that's lived in an economically developed democracy for three generations? Saddam Hussein? Osama bin Laden? Bashar Assad? Hosni Mubarak? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The Janjaweed monsters in Darfur? Meanwhile, in Israel, the only Arab political movement that does anything besides talk is the radical "northern faction" of the Islamic Movement, which runs mosques, schools, clinics, charities and even soccer teams while preaching its craziness. But the Islamic Movement has a very limited horizon in Israel; its path of severity and separatism isn't going to appeal to too many Muslims in this Westernized country. "Like everywhere else, it attracts mainly the very poor, the hopeless," says Ismail. So most Israeli Arabs look at the directions the Arab world is taking, and find themselves demoralized. Then they look at the direction Israel is taking, and they're surprised to find it's heading their way. Those Zionists, it seems, aren't as right-wing as they used to be. "I definitely see a rise in the number of Arabs voting for Zionist parties in this election," said Elie Rekhess, head of Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Program on Jewish-Arab Cooperation in Israel. "Labor and Amir Peretz will probably get most of these votes, but many could also go to Kadima." This is a far, far cry from the political mood Israeli Arabs were in five years ago. I think they're changing not only as a result of what's happened in the Arab world and Israel, but also what's happened in the developed world as a whole. Social consciousness has long been replaced by the drive for personal economic advancement. The news took a while to reach Umm el-Fahm, but it finally arrived. The Arab citizens of Israel have come to realize that their destiny is with the Jews of Israel, not with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza - and they're glad of it. They just don't like being made to feel inferior, which is understandable. If Israeli Jews come to this same realization, I sincerely believe that we citizens, Jews and Arabs both, can live in this prosperous, democratic Jewish state happily ever after. And to hell with demography.