Overstating Israel’s ‘internal Arab problem’

It is important to ensure that the existing institutionalized channels for Arab political mobilization remain open.

Israeli Arabs at protest in Jaffa R 390 (photo credit:  REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Israeli Arabs at protest in Jaffa R 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
In recent months, analysts from diverse ideological persuasions and political stripes have been sounding the alarm bells about Israel’s “internal Palestinian problem.”
On the one hand, it is claimed that if Israel does not accede to the political demands of the Arab minority and does not recognize it as a national and indigenous minority with extensive collective rights, Israel’s domestic stability and very democratic character will be undermined.
On the other side, some politicians and academics have been vociferously arguing that the Arabs in Israel constitute a fifth column and need to be dealt with as a security threat.
Although these two perspectives emanate from the two polar ends of the political spectrum, they share one key assumption: If Israel does not take dramatic and immediate action to address its “internal Arab problem,” great dangers are in store.
This alarmist approach is not only unjustified, it risks further polarizing an already highly emotion-laden public debate that more than anything right now requires sober levelheadedness.
To be sure, there are reasons to be seriously concerned. The intensity of the Jewish-Arab cleavage is continuously escalating. Mutual mistrust is high. The Arab minority has always suffered from persistent discrimination in allocation of resources and access to services. According to reports by the NGO Sikkuy, following a period of positive trends in the 1990s, gaps along several important socioeconomic indicators have arisen over the past decade.
Furthermore, Arabs have never been allowed to integrate culturally, socioeconomically, or politically. Surveys reveal that many Israeli Jews believe that Arab civil and political rights ought to be more limited than those of Jews. Recent years have also seen a sharp rise in rhetoric and legislation initiatives that target the Arab minority.
On the Arab side, Palestinian nationalism has come to the forefront of political mobilization in Israel. Arab political parties, NGOs and intellectuals are increasingly demanding state recognition of them as an indigenous and national minority with corresponding collective rights.
Moreover, they identify the Jewish identity of the state as the root cause of their plight and claim that the just way to address their disadvantage is through formally turning Israel into a bi-national state with proportional representation for Jews and Arabs in state institutions, coupled with proportional allocation of resources.
They further insist on changing state symbols, extensive institutional autonomy, language protection, and the right to control over their economic resources, education system and other social and cultural institutions.
Furthermore, adopting the Palestinian narrative of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, they demand freedom to maintain ties with Palestinians and Arabs elsewhere, including the freedom to travel to Arab countries that are in conflict with Israel. This approach has been most openly expressed in the Future Vision document and Haifa Declaration that were published several years ago.
Although there is little doubt that the Jewish-Arab cleavage is widening, a broader perspective reveals that all is not bleak. In the midst of the overheated debate, the most basic facts are sometimes forgotten. Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the benefit of many democratic civic rights, including the right to vote and get elected to the Knesset, access to an activist court system, and protection of freedom of speech, association and protest. They also benefit from some collective rights, including being able to teach in their own language and practice their own religion. Furthermore, the past decade saw Arabs appointed to cabinet posts, the Supreme Court and the highest level of the bureaucracy.
For its part, Arab politics is usually conducted through institutionalized channels: political parties, NGOs, litigation to courts, lobbying and Arabic media outlets. Political violence is very rare (that Israeli society is still traumatized by the events of October 2000 is an indication of the extent to which political violence is unusual and unacceptable) and this should not be taken for granted. Many societies that are as deeply divided as Israel along national, ethnic, or sectarian lines are fraught with inter-group violence.
All in all, Arabs do politics in Israel just like other segments in Israeli society, including religious groups, immigrants, settlers, secularist liberals and others. They take advantage of the avenues provided by Israeli democracy just like many others in Israel. The fact that the political manifestations of the internal strife are channeled mainly through the conventional institutional conduits despite the protracted regional conflict makes it all the more noteworthy.
To be sure, the call for calm should not be interpreted as a prescription for complacency. It is essential to remember that there are no silver-bullet solutions to ethnic conflict.
Some of the Arab demands should be more easily addressed than others.
Working toward ending social and economic discrimination and for equality in access to state services and distribution of resources is of paramount importance.
Palestinian national demands within Israel will be more difficult to accommodate particularly as the regional conflict persists and many Israeli Jews feel an existential threat.
Nevertheless, Palestinian national demands within Israel, as unsettling as they may be to many Zionist Jews, should be differentiated from Arab organizational patterns of political mobilization, which are typical of Israeli democracy.
Ultimately, it is important for Israel to ensure that the existing institutionalized channels for Arab political mobilization remain open and not to try to limit the capacity of Arab organizations to mobilize freely (the decision taken earlier this month by the Knesset Ethics Committee to retract Arab MK Ahmad Tibi’s (United-Arab List – Ta’al) right to make one-minute speeches in the Knesset for a month is part of this effort). Thus far, Israel’s democratic institutions have managed to contain the internal conflict and it would be prudent not to shake the delicate balance.
The writer is the author of the recently published Palestinian Ethno-nationalism in Israel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). He is an associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University of Kingston, Canada.