The First Word: How Palestinian-Arabs in Israel see their future

Expanding scope of nat'l claims could lead to situation similar to preceding October 2000 riots.

palestinians 88 (photo credit: )
palestinians 88
(photo credit: )
Among several recent position papers on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, the most striking is "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel," prepared by the National Committee of the Heads of Arab Local Councils and endorsed by the Supreme Follow-up Committee of the Arabs in Israel. What has gained the most attention is its national-historical perspective on three issues: First, the document rejects the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state which, the authors argue, perpetuates the inferior status of its Arab citizens. The present system, says the document, should be supplanted with a "consociational democracy," namely a binational state model, based on full power-sharing between the two national groups in government, distribution of resources and decision-making, including proportional representation and the mutual right of veto on crucial decisions. The country's national symbols, such as the anthem, flag and emblem, would also be modified. Secondly, the committee's paper calls for full equality in the civic, national and historical spheres, including, inter alia, equal rights of immigration and citizenship quotas - a demand which may imply the elimination of the "Law of Return" that allows Jews to freely immigrate to Israel. Special reference is made to the socioeconomic differences between the Jewish and Arab sectors, particularly with regard to land, urban planning, housing, infrastructure, economic development, social change and education. Demands for equal rights are intertwined with those insisting on the endorsement of the Palestinian historical narrative and recognition of the Arabs in Israel as an indigenous minority. The document calls for an official acknowledgement of the 1948 Nakba ("calamity"; referring to the defeat and displacement of the Palestinians). "Internal refugees" who remained in Israel and whose land was expropriated should be allowed to return to their original lands, and Wakf (religious endowment) property, administered since 1948 by the Israeli government, should revert to the control of the Muslim community. THIRDLY, the paper suggests structural and institutional changes, including self-rule (autonomy) in education, religious and cultural affairs, and the media, in order to guarantee the unrestricted development of the Arab minority's specific collective identity. It also proposes the establishment of an elected, countrywide representative body for the Arabs in Israel. This "vision of the future" marks yet another milestone in the development of national consciousness among Israel's Arab community. Arab Israelis did not come to view the Oslo Accords and the prospects for Palestinian independence in the Territories as a satisfactory expression of their national aspirations. Rather, the Oslo process encouraged them to reconceptualize their national status within Israel proper. They thus began highlighting the inherent contradiction, as they saw it, between the state's identity as a Jewish state and its definition as a liberal democracy. Consequently, they undertook a search for alternative models (autonomy, "state of all its citizens," binational state) and advocated the "reopening of the 1948 files." This process was accelerated by the deepening socioeconomic discrepancies between Jews and Arabs, the result of government neglect and the grave breach of trust between the Arab public and the state in the wake of the violent clashes of October 2000, in which 13 Arab civilians were killed by the police. THE DOCUMENT'S authors intended to spark a dialogue on substantive issues, including how to administer a joint democratic state based on dignity and equality. While this may well occur, the document has already caused an uproar among the Jewish sector, for two reasons: (1) its perceived maximalist nature; and (2) the fact that the paper was adopted by a body representing all political streams of Arab society. Parts of the Jewish public responded vigorously to what they understood as the authors' separatist intentions. Some columnists interpreted the document as "a declaration of war" against the Jewish majority, and branded the Arabs as "enemies of the state." The call for a binational state without the concurrent recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people was perceived as a provocative attempt to delegitimize the Jewish people's right of self-determination. Some also believed that the timing of the publication proved that the local Arab population had joined forces with other sources of existential threats to Israel, such as Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. Indeed, leaders of the Arab public may have erred by merging the calls for a change in the national character of the State of Israel with their claims for civil equality, and by belittling the possibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence within a Jewish and democratic state. The inexorable link in the document between the civil and national demands of the Arab community may discourage those circles within the Jewish public that show understanding for the civil aspects of the document's demands and are fighting discrimination and promoting the integration of Arabs into a more civic-oriented society. The acuteness of the situation was highlighted by the reaction to the document of Israeli right-wing politicians who had already called for land swaps and population transfers. For them, the Arab demand for a binational state allegedly provides "definitive proof" that the Arabs in Israel are no more than a fifth column. ONE THING is certain: expanding the scope of national Arab claims, forgoing the option of a shared civil society, and continued governmental disregard for the needs of the Arab public will engender frustration and agitation in the Arab sector, leading to a situation not unlike the one that preceded the October 2000 events. A new formulation for minority-majority relations in Israel must therefore be devised, in order to both prevent a threat to the Jewish public and promote the trust of the Arab public. Special efforts must be dedicated to developing an integrated model based on equality and tolerance, mutual respect and dignity, and recognition of the legitimacy and right of collective existence of both national groups. A dialogue which takes into account the perspectives of both groups is more likely to be endorsed by the centrist-liberal camp of the Jewish public, as well as by the many Arab citizens who see themselves as an integral part of the state in its current form. Although this new social contract may not lead to the solution of the national identity dilemma of the Arabs in Israel, it could well alleviate tensions and promote a pragmatic, non-violent search for understanding, buying crucial time until a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached. The writer is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation. This essay was first published in Tel Aviv Notes.