Both sides are to blame

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Israeli politics are becoming increasingly right-wing and nationalist. Israel’s Arab citizens, along with its human rights community and democratic society in general, are the victims of the resultant legislation.

A significant portion of the reactionary right’s legislative initiatives is directed squarely against Arabs: penalties for using state funds to commemorate the Nekba of 1948, empowerment of small Jewish communities to prevent Arabs from moving in, and loyalty oaths, for starters. Then there are laws that are designed to restrict and constrain the activities of civil rights organizations that at times represent and advance the socio-economic agenda of Palestinian citizens of Israel and defend their rights before the High Court of Justice.

The list is long, and to be fair it includes objectionable laws that have been rejected by a Knesset majority or shelved by an embarrassed Netanyahu government. On the other hand, so powerful is the electoral pull of Israel’s reactionary nationalist camp that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s "Atzmaut" faction votes for some of its initiatives and a few "moderate" legislators from the centrist Kadima party pander to it. For example, Avi Dichter of Kadima, a former head of the General Security Service and minister of internal security, has proposed legislation giving primacy to Israel’s Jewish nature over its democratic nature and cancelling the status of Arabic as a national language equal in status to Hebrew.

Where are these racist and anti-democratic laws coming from? Perhaps surprisingly, one key factor in moving Israeli politics to the right is the peace process–both its successes and its failures–and its effect on Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Obviously, acts that have helped thwart the process like suicide bombings and settlement spread have alienated Jews and Arabs, including Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the Arab response of unprovoked rocket attacks on Israeli civilians contributed as well to the enmity–particularly in the 2006 Second Lebanon War when Jews observed that many Israeli Arabs cheered Hizballah’s rocket attacks.

Some 20 percent of the Israeli public, whose origins trace to the former Soviet Union and whose ideological roots lead them to believe that Israel is in any case too small and contains too many Arabs, have increasingly supported a political party, Yisrael Beitenu, that embraces a quasi-racist platform toward Israeli Arabs and is a key member of the current governing coalition. Israel’s Arab political parties, for their part, have steadily supported the Palestinian position and at least one Israeli Arab politician has regularly advised the Palestine Liberation Organization in its negotiations with Israel. Israeli Arab Islamists who have "adopted" the mosques on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif regularly accuse Israel of seeking to take over the Mount and obliterate the mosques.

One consequence of all this is that many Israeli Jews no longer distinguish between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian citizens of Israel in terms of their attitude toward Israel.

Then there is the issue of a specific Israeli Arab complaint about the peace process itself. Initially, when the Oslo process began nearly 20 years ago, the Israeli Arab leadership offered itself as a "bridge" to peace between Israel and the PLO. But as it became increasingly clear that the PLO accepts Israel’s demand that it represent only Palestinians outside of Israel and that Israel’s vision of a two-state solution means that Israel will remain a Jewish state as constituted by the United Nations in 1947, the Palestinian leadership in Israel reacted.

It began to insist that Israel’s Arabs also enjoy the right to self-determination, at least to the extent that Israel must grant them national rights. It advocated that Israel become, in effect, a bi-national state rather than a Zionist Jewish state with an enfranchised Arab minority. In this regard it seems not to matter whether a two-state solution is achieved or not: the very notion of Palestinian national independence or even autonomy next door in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has kindled an Israeli Arab demand that the Israeli Jewish majority cannot accept.

It is this perception of the Israeli Arab vision–that a two-state solution should mean a Palestinian state alongside a bi-national Jewish-Arab state–that, more than any other factor, has caused the Israeli Jewish majority to initiate reactionary legislation. That reaction is not justified; there are plenty of avenues of dialogue and interaction, not to mention greater socio-economic integration, that are more suitable for countering this Palestinian nationalist trend among the Arabs of Israel. This is particularly so in light of consistent polling results that demonstrate year after year that the Israeli Arab rank-and-file is not nearly as extreme as its intellectual and political leadership: that it seeks primarily to share in Israeli prosperity and to integrate into Israeli society.

Sadly, without more enlightened leadership on both sides of the internal Israeli Jewish-Arab divide, the current spiral of reaction seems destined to continue. It will only alienate the two communities yet further, render a two-state solution even more difficult to achieve, and isolate Israel from the region and the international community.

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Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of Bitter Lemons.

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