The nearly seven decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to overshadow the brewing conflict between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel. There is overwhelming evidence that successive Israeli governments failed to reconcile between maintaining the Jewish national identity of the state and a democracy that also connotes equality, the two principles on which the state was founded.
Israeli governments, with the strong support of the private sector, can and indeed must fully integrate the Arab citizens into the socio-economic and political streams of the country. Failing to do so will inescapably move Israel toward becoming an apartheid state (however distasteful such a term may be) and turn the Israeli Arabs into sworn enemies rather than loyal and contributive citizens.
The ongoing discriminatory practices have deepened the Israeli Arabs’ sense of alienation and they continue to foster collective resentment against the establishment as well as against a large segment of the Israeli Jews for their acquiescence, if not their outright participation in these practices.
Repeated pledges by the government to improve the lives of Israeli Arabs amounted to nothing more than a propaganda tool to create the perception that it is taking measures to alleviate the problem when in fact the opposite is true.
To be sure, successive Israeli governments and many Israeli Jews view the indigenous Arabs as a security threat. The current government under Netanyahu has introduced scores of discriminatory and racist laws in the Knesset, designed to segregate Israeli Arabs from their Jewish counterparts.
These laws include the Nakba Bill, which forbids Israeli Arabs from commemorating what they term the “Catastrophe” of 1948, the Loyalty Oath, and the Basic Law stipulating that “Israel [is] the Nation State of the Jewish People,” which by its own definition suggests that the Israeli Arabs are not part of the state.
Another reprehensible law, the “Citizenship and Entry Law into Israel,” which restricts immigration into Israel under family reunification, was recently extended by the Knesset and worded as a temporary order. In addition, the government continues to practice job discrimination by inhibiting appointments to government posts, and provides unequal financing for public projects in Jewish versus Arab areas.
To prevent the Arabs from ‘becoming a majority’ and maintain the Jewish national identity of the state, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed in 2004 a brazen plan that called for Israel to retain areas in the West Bank in exchange for giving the Palestinian Authority populous Israeli Arab areas within Israel.
Whereas a recent report by the Central Bureau of Statistics suggests that by 2035 the Israeli population will grow to 11.4 million with the Arab population reaching 2.6 million, Israeli officials are creating the perception that there is a “dangerous demographic shift” in favor of Israeli Arabs, even though the proportion between Israeli Jews and Arabs will remain roughly the same in 2035.
This is another absurd manifestation of how right-wing Israeli leaders are incapable of contemplating even the possibility that Jews and Arabs can live and prosper together, and readily resort to ethnic cleansing from which historically the Jews have tragically suffered.
Nurturing the loyalty of Israeli Arabs to the state takes more than false assertions by the Israeli government or some “righteous” individuals who insist that there is no discrimination against Israeli Arabs.
Although the government claim that many Israeli Arabs attend top universities in the country and thousands work hand in hand with their Jewish counterparts is true, it is still nothing but a facade to obscure the reality of systematic discrimination.
Both the government and especially the private sector must work together to ameliorate this endemic problem with all the danger that would entail if not acted upon, as time is of the essence.
The role of the government:
The government must recognize the Israeli Arabs as a national minority with full and equal rights under the law, which must extend to all areas where the government has control, including political appointments. It must also reverse all discriminatory laws and introduce no new laws that distinguish between the Jewish majority and other ethnic national minorities.
Although ideally Israeli Arabs should also serve their country in the military, this may be a stretch at this juncture as neither Israeli Jews nor the government will sanction the induction of a large influx of Israeli Arabs into the military.
This does not mean that the government should not require young Israeli Arabs to serve by performing community service, which will greatly enhance the process of integration and the development of trust between the two communities.
The government must also make every effort to settle the many claims by Israeli Arabs regarding confiscation of properties by compensating the legitimate claimants, many of whom feel displaced, as if they are refugees in their homeland.
The mutual affinity between Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians in the occupied territories has a direct affect on the plight of each other. As long as the Israeli Arabs continue to suffer from socio-economic and political discrimination, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes ever more elusive.
Conversely, even if the Israeli Arabs are fully integrated and enjoy full civil rights, as long as the occupation persists they will remain torn between their expected loyalty to the state and kinship to their brethren.
In this regard, Israeli security forces in the West Bank must demonstrate zero tolerance to settlers’ attacks on the Palestinians, as this directly affects how the Israeli Arabs perceive the future prospect of Israel-Palestinian coexistence and its long-term effect on the nature and quality of their own existence and loyalty to the state.
The role of the private sector:
Civil society, educational institutions and NGOs should play a greater role to further promote an open dialogue to allow Israeli Arabs to voice their frustration and for these institutions to join in collective efforts to help them integrate into society.
They should also support cohabitation between Jews and Arabs, à la Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), “fight” for government subsidies, and seek investors and developers to build new housing units in mixed areas. Such efforts will improve the socio-economic conditions of these areas, mitigate conflicts, and promote amity instead of hostility.
Orthodox Israelis are “invading” mixed communities by buying and converting rundown Arab areas in cities such as Jaffa, Acre and Lod. They openly confess that their intention is displacing Israeli Arabs instead of encouraging peaceful and cooperative cohabitation.
The appalling call, by rabbis no less, to refuse renting or selling properties to Israeli Arabs is yet another despicable effort to change the demographics in these communities, which will eventually lead to social unrest if not outright violent confrontation.
Finally, the private sector ought to play an active role by providing the Israeli Arabs with business opportunities to facilitate their integration to become active contributors to Israel’s growth and successes while fostering a sense of ownership.
All Israelis and the government must come to terms with the reality of the Israeli Arabs. They exist and will stay where they are short of a forced expulsion, which is unthinkable even by the most ardent lunatic right-wing Israeli.
The Israeli public, more so than their misguided political leaders, must wake up to this fateful reality and decide what kind of future to chart for themselves and for future generations.
They can choose a course marred with discriminatory practices that sacrifice democracy and gradually push the country into becoming an apartheid state with all that will imply, or strive for peaceful and cooperative coexistence.
By choosing the latter, both sides can grow, prosper, and make Israel a true democracy without risking its national identity. This will eliminate the danger from within and also facilitate the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for
Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and
Middle Eastern studies.
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