Positive ideas, negative intentions

Is Lieberman's proposal to make foreign service contingent on national service a plan to exclude Arabs?

avigdor lieberman growling (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
avigdor lieberman growling
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently articulated his intention to make employment in the Foreign Ministry contingent upon army or national service. The truth of the matter is Israeli Arabs should be subjected to compulsory military or civil service but Lieberman's rationale is fundamentally wrong. Since his rise to power, the FM has employed the use of exclusionary political strategies to ostracize the Arab community and garner support among right-leaning elements of the Israeli mainstream. The idea of a bottom-up integration of Arab citizens into the military or national service is positive at its core, but Lieberman suggests it as a prerequisite to societal absolutes. In other words, just as he tried to make "citizenship conditional upon loyalty," he is now trying to make "employment in public service conditional upon army or national service." Israeli Arabs, comprising 20 percent of the total population, would find themselves in a truly advantageous situation as a national minority if they somehow found the logic to serve the state in a military or national service capacity. But this impetus will never derive from politicians like Lieberman. His track record of loyalty oaths, Nakba bills, Arab party banning and exclusionary policy illustrates his backward agenda which damages any proposal he may have, even if it is associated with a good idea. If a universal draft for Arabs is to hold water, it must be supported by the Arab political leadership, as well as those representing peace, reconciliation and rapprochement from the Jewish center and left - for the purpose of creating a more cohesive and integrated society. The benefit of national service, aside from the positive impact it has on society as a whole, is the unification of Arabs and Jews on a social level, providing them with a common experience and narrative they are so visibly lacking today. FOR THOSE who would argue that the security apparatus is not ready to take on the economic or existential risk of incorporating Arabs into its system, one must understand that these developments do not occur overnight, nor will they be welcomed by either party. The rewards, however, would be limitless. The amount of resources and cost the army would incur to integrate the Arab population is incomparable to the economic surge the country would see with a satisfied minority ready to participate in society after said service. Companies and businesses that used the "service card" as a code for backdoor discrimination would be backed against the wall and forced to acquiesce. The Arab population in civil service would begin to rise, increasing from its current 6% rate to the proportional 20%. Beyond that however, a fundamental change in the attitudes of Arabs vis-à-vis the state and vice versa would be inevitable. Any new immigrant who performed even the most basic army function can attest to the fact that his service was necessary to his overall integration process into Israeli society. Just as this new immigrant can claim membership in the "army club" by driving a truck for six months, so too can the Arab citizen be a part of the same club by answering the call to public duty. The future welfare of Israel hangs in the balance, as Arab citizens are destined to serve as future ambassadors and as a bridge to the surrounding Arab world. Ultimately, the playing field would equalize and the bond that would ensue among all members of society would create a new and better Israel. SUFFICE IT to say that such a drastic social change would be slow. The first stage would be limited to national service, the second to policing and the third to the larger army framework. Regarding the first stage, devoting time to helping humanity through national service interferes with no particular ideology, and can be respected by anyone whether Arab or Jewish. Once this hurdle is overcome, the next stage would be to assign Arabs to policing units in Arab localities throughout Israel. Many Arabs already volunteer for this service, so gradually making such an initiative official and compulsory would perhaps even provide an excuse for participation. Not only will this elevate them to a position of authority, thus empowering them on a community level, but it will also allow them to feel the connection with their fellow Jewish citizens who are also compelled to serve in a similar capacity. Lastly, when a generation of Arabs has served in the police force within their own communities, years down the road it might even be possible to discuss their participation in defending these same communities against an external enemy. The idea is not unheard of, as some Arabs already serve in the IDF and those that have ideological opposition to serving would still be able to opt for national service. From a practical perspective, there are only two ways to bring about the implementation of this reform. The first is to punish those Arabs who refuse (presumably the bulk of the population). Social services, employment and perhaps even citizenship would become conditional upon service. Sound familiar? Enforcing compulsory service on Arabs in this manner is in accordance with Lieberman and his ilk, and the Right's policy of exclusion. So that leaves only the second option which entails the inclusion of the Arab political leadership. This may even come at the cost of aspects of Israel's "Jewishness," but looking at the Rabin years as historical proof of unprecedented cooperation, we can see that engaging the Arab leadership with dialogue and political inclusion is not beyond the realm of possibility. If the Arab leadership could be convinced of the merit of service, the path to a shared future would be imminent. At a point when Israel is no longer viewed by the Arab society in such a negative light, perhaps it might be realistic to suggest cooperation on such a high level. But the current policy of exclusion is not the way and must be replaced with one of coexistence and inclusion of the Arab public, coupled with the revival of the peace process. Thanks to Lieberman, however, these aspirations are a remote possibility. The writer holds an MA in Israel politics and society and works for a coexistence organization in Jerusalem.