Arabs in Israel: on the move

Laurence Louër
19 April 2007

Two recently published documents emanating from the Arab community of Israel have sought to reopen the debate on the nature of the Israeli state. The first document, named The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, was released by the committee for the Arabs in Israel, which gathers a wide range of Arab political representatives. It demands what the vast majority of Israeli Jews consider unacceptable, that the Arab citizens of Israel be recognised officially as an indigenous national minority entitled, according to international conventions, to collective rights, in particular that of developing its own institutions.

The second document, entitled The Democratic Constitution, was written by a pool of Arab lawyers and jurists from the Adalah (Justice) association. It consists in a constitutional proposal suggesting that Israel drops its Jewish character to be declared a bilingual and multicultural state where Arabs and Jews, as two collective entities, would have equal rights. This would entail, among other things, the abolition of the "law of return" which grants any Jew in the world the right to become an Israeli citizen.

Needless to say, the release of these two documents sparked alarmist comments from Israeli authorities. The head of the interior security services (Shin Bet) saw the documents as confirming that the Arab sector definitely constitutes a "strategic threat" to Israel. The prime-minister's office then sent a letter to a well-known Arabic weekly tied to the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), an Arab political party holding similar views to those expressed in the documents. Ehud Olmert, the letter warned, was ready to fight any group jeopardising the Jewish or democratic character of Israel, even if its activities were strictly legal.

Laurence Louër is research fellow at the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (Ceri) in Paris. She is the author of To Be an Arab in Israel (C Hurst, 2007 and Columbia University Press, 2007)

Israeli Arabs or Palestinian citizens of Israel?

Approximately 20% of Israelis are Arabs, a proportion that is on track to reach over 30% by 2050. This basic fact of the Israeli social fabric has constituted a source of concern for successive Israeli governments; the concern is even more acute today, when a majority of Arabs in Israel proclaim a fully-fledged sense of belonging to the Palestinian people. Quantitative and qualitative studies have shown that the category "Israeli Arabs", for example - commonly used over a long period in Israel to refer to the Arabs - is today rejected as an inappropriate "Zionist category" giving the false impression that the Arabs feel any sense of belonging to Israel that exceeds the merely contingent. Yes we are and want to stay Israeli citizens, says the average Arab, but we are not and cannot be Israelis in a state that defines itself as that of the Jews.

This shift in identity signals the failure of the various Israeli policies aiming to prevent the constitution of any kind of Arab collective action on the basis of a shared national identity. This, in particular, implied the accentuation of the religious and cultural heterogeneity of the Arab society. By various institutional means, Muslims (72% of the Arab population), Christians (9%), Druzes (9%) and Bedouins (10%) were given differentiated status, with the Druze being considered a fully-fledged "nation" (le'om in Hebrew). Another typical policy was to establish clientelist networks between the Arab caciques and some Jewish parties, for which the Arabs used to vote en masse.

Indeed, the shift in self-definition was the result of a widely based mobilisation orchestrated by a set of Arab political parties that, in the mid-1980s, succeeded in penetrating the Knesset and subsequently attracted the majority of the Arab vote, garnering 75% in 2003 and still 70% in 2006. For roughly ten years now, three Arab lists are represented at the Knesset:

  • the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), the main heir of the Israeli Communist Party (which has always recruited almost exclusively among the Arab population)
  • the United Arab List (Raam), whose main component is the Islamic Movement, which draws on the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood
  • the National Democratic Assembly, led by Azmi Bishara, a brilliant and internationally well-known intellectual.

Despite their different political outlooks, all these parties articulate a single main idea: the transformation of Israel into a "state of all its citizens" roughly on the lines defined by the two aforementioned documents.

Also in openDemocracy on Israel's internal politics:

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (25 November 2005)

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy"
(12 January 2006)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Slouching towards Kadima"
(27 March 2006)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel reverses gravity" (30 March 2006)

A process of radicalisation?

In Israel, the Arabs' dramatic shift in political behaviour has been interpreted as a blatant sign of radicalisation, a kind of "contamination" from the Palestinian activists of the West Bank and Gaza, with whom the Arabs in Israel have rebuilt ties following the occupation of these territories by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in June 1967. This is, however, only one part of the picture.

Indeed, the so-called "Palestinisation" of the Arab citizens of Israel is intimately linked with the transformation of the Israeli political scene, one that has brought the Arab parties a new political leverage. In the mid-1980s, the Israeli political landscape became bipolarised between a right and a left camp, led respectively by the Likud bloc and the Labour Party. The two big parties were separated only by a handful of votes; as a result, in order to build governmental coalitions, they had to gain the support of previously marginal political groups, in particular the ultra-orthodox Jews, the extreme right and the Arab parties. The Arab parties became the cumbersome allies of Labour, which could not anymore hope to win power without their support.

The new bargaining power of the Arab parties came to a peak in 1992 when the coalition headed by Yitzhak Rabin was dependent on their support for its very survival. In exchange, the Arab parties negotiated a series of measures aimed at improving the living conditions of the Arab population; among these was the abolition of a law reserving some child allowances to families in which at least one member did his military service (which thus excluded the Arabs, who are exempted from this obligation).

In reality, Arab voters shifted from their old clientilist habits towards a nationalist vote not so much because the nationalist discourse, as such, had suddenly become more attractive to them. Rather, it was because for the first time they had the possibility of combining a protest vote and a useful vote: that is, of claiming their Palestinian identity and protesting against their unequal status, while at the same time participating in Israel's political decision-making. There was an additional factor: the style of Labour campaigns among the Arab population, which borrowed from the rhetoric of the Arab parties, gave the impression that at least part of the agenda of the latter was beginning to become legitimate for Labour leaders.

The end of a cycle

This process could be interpreted as a positive signal of the capacity of Israeli democracy to integrate its Arab citizens. The problem is that Israeli Jews mostly understood it as a sign that they were losing the control of their fate in their state. Likud accused Labour of being unable to obtain a Jewish majority. Labour felt that it was becoming the hostage of what, in reality, it continued to see as Arab radicals it had flattered only out of electoral necessity (and this calculation has decreasingly worked even in its own terms; by the March 2006 election it was able to garner only 12% of the Arab vote).

Ehud Barak's approach is a significant part of this story. Although he had been elected prime minister in May 1999 with 95% of the Arab vote, he turned his back on his Arab constituency; contrary to what many had hoped, he appointed no Arab minister and did not take steps to reward the Arab community in other ways. This sparked anger and frustration among the Arabs who, after much enthusiasm, felt they had been trapped in a fool's game.

It is in this context that the events of October 2000 erupted. Thousands of Arabs took to the streets to protest against the killing of their "Palestinian brothers" by the Israeli army in front of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, an event that signalled the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada. The demonstrations were the biggest and most violent ever held by the Arabs. So was the repression by the police, who killed thirteen demonstrators. The October events, sparked by the Arabs' brutal disillusion, more broadly sanctioned the end of a cycle in Arab-Jewish relations. Indeed, the problem is not so much that the Arabs launched Molotov cocktails at the police and blocked the roads of Galilee. It is that they many had reached the conclusion that they actually had no political means to advance their claims democratically.

In the context of the broad reshaping of the Israeli political landscape that took place between 2001 with the election of Ariel Sharon and the creation of Kadima in November 2005, the Arabs have lost their leverage. Arab parties, remain the democratically elected representatives of the majority of the Arab population, are increasingly stigmatised as radicals, even as attempts are made to prevent them from participating in the electoral process. In reality, the Israeli government is returning to the old way of managing the Arab population. In January 2007, it promoted as the first Arab minister - belatedly handed the portfolio of science, culture and sport - Ghaleb Majadele, an old Arab militant of Labour. This can be seen as very much a residual gesture, and very far from the true dialogue with the Arab parties that is required.

The most dangerous outcome of this political evolution might well be to prove right the true radicals - those who have long warned that Israel is structurally unable and unwilling to make its Arab citizens also legitimate political partners. A phenomenon of great concern in this respect is the growing reach of the wing of the Islamic Movement which boycotts the Knesset elections; its leader, Sheikh Ra'id Salah seems to become more popular each time he is targeted by the security services. In other words, the problem is not that Arab Knesset members articulate, sometimes in a rhetorically aggressive way, discourses Israeli Jews do not want to hear. It is to ensure that Arabs have true political means to express freely what they think, and do not reach the conclusion that Israeli democracy is not worth their engagement.

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