In 2003 at the height of the Second Intifada, I tagged along with a group of American Conservative Rabbis who went to Israel to show solidarity with the Jewish state. We were brought to the King David Hotel to hear from then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, and the event was covered by Israeli television. During the Q&A, I asked Mr. Peres if there was a fifth column brewing in Israel among Israeli Arab citizens, “fifth column” being a term used for citizens who sympathize and support an external enemy.
Peres looked at me with an angry stare, and I will never forget what he said to me. “I do not like that expression. I do not like that term.” He then proceeded to march off the stage.
The point in telling this story is that for generations, Israeli leaders have not been willing to contemplate the possibility of a painful truth of what Palestinian Citizens of Israel (PCI) truly believe about living as citizens in the State of Israel. Suppose that the most Israel can offer PCIs (Israeli Arabs) – full rights, recognition of their Arab identity and economic empowerment, while simultaneously accepting the responsibilities of living as minority citizens in a Jewish state – doesn’t meet the minimum they can accept, namely the eradication of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel?
Too many PCIs and anti-Israel activists believe Judaism is only a religion, not a legitimate national movement of a people or a civilization. Despite having freedom of speech, religion and the press, and elected Muslim members in the Knesset, and being freer than any other Arabs in the region, Israel to them will never be a democracy so long as it retains the Jewish nature of the state and the Jewish right of return for Jews living in the Diaspora.
In 2018 I wrote an article titled, “What Do Palestinian Citizens of Israel Want?” This was based on a MEPIN/Keshet seminar I helped organize in which we met with Arab academics and school children and Israeli Arab mayors, and visited Arab colleges, teachers and human rights organizations. That was just the beginning. To deny that PCIs have faced discrimination in allocating government funding, infrastructure and employment opportunities would be to deny reality. As Yossi Klein Halevi said, “Palestinian Israelis have a profound sense of dislocation, humiliation and grievance going back to 1948. Palestinian Israelis are conflicted, as the country they reside in is at war” with their brothers over the Green Line.
But then I asked Palestinian Israelis, if all the economic inequities were magically erased, would they then accept living in a Jewish state assuming the responsibilities of minority citizens? None said yes, proving this is an existential, not an economic issue. They do not believe Israel ever had a right to be created on land that was once Islamic or was their ancestral home.
THE CURRENT Gaza war between Israel and Hamas may not differ from the three previous military actions (2008, 2012 and 2014) between Israel and the terrorists in Gaza. Israel will not risk the lives of its soldiers or innocent civilians embedded within Hamas military assets in an attempt to replace Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and then having to take charge of civil services for the Gazan people. It will “mow the grass” and hopefully buy a few years of deterrence.
What is different about this war is that the Palestinian Arab street in the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel are openly cheering on Hamas. Hamas told PCIs to “rise up” against “our enemy and yours.” And a not too insignificant number of Israeli Arab citizens responded by lynching Jews, burning synagogues and fomenting pogroms. This is of existential importance, especially when 21% of your population empathizes with an enemy who wants to end your existence. Far-right Jewish nationalists attacking Arabs in retaliation have fanned the flames of violence. They also need to be condemned and incarcerated – one standard of justice and the rule of law for all.
So does Israel have a civil war on its hands? Are the Abraham Accords in danger of collapsing because of the allegation that Israeli security entered al-Aqsa Mosque for no reason? Can’t the world see that Hamas has exploited a land dispute involving just a few Arab families to weaken the Palestinian Authority and prevent a groundbreaking possibility of an Israeli Arab party joining a coalition as a full stakeholder?
So, where do we go from here?
Palestinian Israelis complain about job discrimination because employers favor Israelis who served in the military. But when presented with the option of compulsory non-military civil service to match fellow Jewish citizens, leveling the playing field for employment opportunities, they overwhelmingly reject that option. There is almost no acknowledgment that they, too, have the responsibilities of citizenship.
You can’t complain you aren’t getting your fair share when you refuse to do compulsory civil service to match the time young Jewish citizens give to the nation. Palestinian Israelis refuse to acknowledge the dilemma they put Jewish Israelis in when they choose to align themselves with the enemies of the Jewish state.
Israeli Arab politicians elected to the Knesset, except for Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party – who seemingly prioritized the PCIs he represents and who wants to work with the Israeli government – have bordered on treason for years. Mansour Abbas’s pragmatism is a significant reason that Hamas wanted to fight a war at this time, lest Arab citizens in Israel look towards a new path that could reconcile them with the Jewish majority.
The Middle East is in flux, and Israel may be facing one of the most critical tipping points in its history. How Israel deals with its Arab minority over the coming years may rival in importance the threat of 150,000 Hezbollah missiles and Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities. As Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said, the internal Jewish-Arab violence is “no less dangerous than the Hamas rockets.... We must not win the Gaza battle and lose at home.”
Dr. Eric Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for The Jerusalem Report. His work has appeared in The Hill, RealClearWorld, National Interest, JNS, i24, Rudow (Iraq), JTA, Algemeiner, Israel Hayom, and Defense News.