A profoundly disturbing document

Several weeks ago, a "vision" document regarding the future status of Palestinian citizens of Israel was published by the National Committee of the Heads of Arab Local Councils and endorsed by the Supreme Follow-up Committee of the Arabs in Israel–two very broad bodies that represent most political streams of Arab society. It was written by some 40 Israeli Arab academics. Due to the broad spectrum of Israeli Arab opinion it represents, it must be understood as an extremely representative and influential document.

For nearly all Israeli Jews it is also a profoundly disturbing document. Yet this should not come as a surprise. After nearly 60 years of neglect, prejudice and poor treatment on the part of the Israeli establishment, and despite repeated violent incidents and policy-oriented research efforts that sounded a sharp warning, the Arabs of Israel are declaring their demand for a full-fledged bi-national state ("consociational democracy") that would give Arabs a veto over Israel’s Jewish content and symbols.

That Israel’s Arabs demand equal land and education rights is of course fully justified. But this document goes much further. Most disturbing of all–and here the years of neglect cannot be blamed–the document can be understood to bring its authors into line with those in the Arab and Islamic world who refuse to accept the existence of a Jewish people at all, much less one with legitimate roots in the Middle East.

The future vision document rejects the principle of a democratic Jewish state that lies at the heart of the Oslo solution of two states for two peoples. It positions the Israeli Arab community as very much a part of the broader Palestinian problem. Indeed, it is clear that the Oslo process of discussing Palestinian political independence in the West Bank and Gaza has radicalized the views of the Israeli Arabs. Those views are now liable not only to strengthen right wing Israelis like Minister of Strategic Issues Avigdor Lieberman who argue that Israeli Arabs can never be loyal Israeli citizens. By belittling the possibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence in a Zionist state, they also discourage or discredit the many Israeli Jews who struggle against discrimination and in favor of greater Arab integration into Israeli civil society.

The Arab vision document makes three kinds of demands. First are those that are completely logical and worthy of broad support: equality of budgets in government offices, improvement of Arab women’s status, etc. Second are demands, such as an Arab university, that would seem logical and reasonable if only, in light of the third category of demands, they did not engender fears lest they be abused to incite against the Israeli state.

That third category comprises demands and assertions that contradict the essence of the Israeli state:

  • The Arab narrative of colonial western conquest and expulsion by Jewish foreigners is recognized to the total exclusion of the Jewish narrative, and official Israel is called upon to acknowledge its responsibility for an "historical injustice";
  • Israeli Arabs are the only "indigenous people of the homeland" and require international protection;
  • the 16 percent of Israelis who are Arabs (not including the Arabs of East Jerusalem) will be granted the same national rights as the Jewish majority, with veto power on key issues;
  • "Israel should acknowledge the right of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel of social, religious, cultural and national [my emphasis] continuity. . . and. . . open and free relations. . . with the rest of the Palestinian people"–a demand that in the eyes of many Israelis positions the Israeli Arab community as a fifth column continuing to undermine Israel even beyond a two-state solution.

Nowhere is the existence of the Jewish people mentioned or acknowledged; Jews are deemed a mere religious majority with colonialist roots that is generously granted the right of national self-determination by the Arabs but must now share the country at the symbolic level (definition of the state, flag, anthem, etc.) on a 50-50 basis, Belgian-style. In the aftermath of publication of this report the Israeli mainstream can legitimately fear that granting collective autonomy to Israeli Arabs on some very legitimate issues, like education, might lead to ever more sweeping demands that eventually strip the state of its Zionist, Jewish nature. Even an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty based on a two-state solution can no longer be expected to alleviate Arab-Jewish tensions in Israel.

To sum up, "The future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel" is a negative watershed in Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel. This can only work to the detriment of Israel-Arab relations at the broader regional level. The government of Israel should act immediately to engage the authors and sponsors of the document in a sweeping national dialogue. But in parallel the Israeli Jewish mainstream, and particularly those who have worked hard to lobby for better treatment of Israel’s Arab minority, must now send a clear signal to the authors of this document that it rejects their extreme demands.