Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Back to Square One

Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, an Arab citizen, recently set off a controversy when he stood – but did not sing – as the Israeli anthem was played at a court ceremony. For the far right, his silence was an act of betrayal. The chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee, Knesset member David Rotem, demanded his dismissal. Israel’s Palestinian citizens, meanwhile, fêted Joubran – the court’s only Arab – for his subtle defiance of a prominent state symbol. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defended the Justice – in a way. He voiced understanding for why Joubran, as an Arab, would remain silent as his colleagues sang of their “yearning Jewish heart”. But it didn’t seem to occur to Netanyahu that the state’s anthem should also speak to the aspirations of its Palestinian citizens, so they might want to join the chorus.

Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have deteriorated steadily over the past decade. More and more, the Jewish majority views the Palestinian minority as subversive, disloyal, and a demographic threat. Palestinian citizens are politically marginalized, economically underprivileged, ever more unwilling to accept systemic inequality, and ever more willing to confront the status quo. There is no easy or quick fix. In the short term, Israel should take practical steps to defuse tensions with its Arab minority and integrate it into the civic order. In the longer run, the challenge to Israeli Jews and the Palestinian national movement is to come to terms with the basic questions that have yet to be answered more than six decades after 1948, when Israel was established and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced: what is the character of the state of Israel, and what rights should its Arab citizens enjoy?

Since 2000, a series of dramatic events have both poisoned Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and reinvigorated its Palestinian minority. As a consequence, Palestinian citizens began to look outside – to surrounding Arab states and the wider international community – for moral sustenance and political leverage. They have come to emphasise their Palestinian identity and increasingly dissociate themselves from formal Israeli politics. The result has been steadily a declining Arab turnout for national elections and, among those who still bother to vote, a shift from Jewish Zionist to Arab parties.

Israel’s Jewish majority – confronted by an internal minority developing alliances outside the state and seeming to display solidarity with its foes – has grown ever more suspicious of a community it views as a potential fifth column. It has shunned Palestinians, enacted legislation to strengthen the state’s Jewish identity and sought to ban certain Arab parties and parliamentarians. Today, what for most Palestinian citizens is a principled struggle for equal rights is perceived by many Israeli Jews as a dangerous denial of Jewish nationhood. What for most Jews is akin to complicity with their enemies is viewed by Palestinian citizens as an expression of affinity for their brethren.

This is taking place against the backdrop of a peace process in which very little is happening – and what is happening only makes matters worse. It was long believed that the situation of Israel’s Arab citizens is a domestic matter and that dealing with them would further complicate peace talks. Yet, it has become clear that the two issues are intertwined: Israel insists that a peace agreement with the PLO entail some recognition of the state’s Jewish character which, in turn, will affect the status of its Palestinian citizens. The Palestinian national movement cannot afford to ignore the Arab minority’s views on this. Nor can Israel, for any agreement lacking the minority’s support would neither end Palestinian claims nor resolve the dispute over Israel’s identity.

A three-stage process might be a realistic path forward. First, the state of Israel and its Arab citizens should seek to lower tensions, the former by better integrating the Palestinian minority, adopting measures to redress economic and social inequities, and condemning incitement against Arab citizens; the latter by avoiding inflammatory language and recognizing the Jewish connection with the Land of Israel/historic Palestine. Secondly, both Israeli Jews and the Palestinian national movement should clarify – first in intra-communal dialogue and then in discussion with each other – fundamental questions about the nature of the state and the rights of its minority. Under one possible option, Palestinians would recognize Jews as Israel’s national majority with a right to self-determination, while the state would officially recognize Palestinian citizens as a national minority with equal individual as well as specific collective rights. Finally, in the context of a two-state settlement, Israeli Jews and Arabs would iron out which rights and duties each community has, and how to balance them.

A reasonable Jewish-Arab compromise on the nature of the state is unquestionably a long shot. So much could go astray, beginning with the ever decreasing odds of reaching a two-state settlement itself. But after a decade in which both Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab relations have been stuck in reverse, can one seriously imagine there exists an easier, quicker, or more feasible fix?

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