“Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights,” Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted in his recent speech to the United States Congress. Lest the point be lost on his audience, Netanyahu emphatically reiterated it: “Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of 1% are truly free, and they are all citizens of Israel!”
Netanyahu’s statements are correct, but also misleading. The vast majority of Arabs in the Middle East do not enjoy what we in the West consider genuine freedom and democracy, and compared to them, Arab citizens of Israel are indeed much better off.
However, the situation of this Arab minority is a lot more complicated and problematic than the one presented by Netanyahu. It is far from ideal and in many respects it is worsening. Indeed, the position of Arabs within Israeli society threatens to become a major problem for Israel, putting Arab-Jewish coexistence, political stability and even democracy itself at risk.
First off, though, it should be said that Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy many democratic rights. They vote for and are elected to the Knesset, serve as mayors of their towns, freely express their views in private and in public, assemble and demonstrate, teach in their own language, and practice their religion (mostly Sunni Islam). All in all, Arab citizens have been given the standard, “Western” democratic rights in Israel, just as Israeli Jews have. The fact that Arabs have these rights in Israel despite Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Arab world makes this even more noteworthy (contrast this, for instance, with the United States’s disgraceful treatment of its Japanese citizens during World War II).
But Israel’s Arab citizens are also, in many ways, second-class citizens. They have always been and still are economically and politically inferior to Jewish citizens of Israel. From Israel’s establishment until today, the Arab minority has been persistently discriminated against and neglected by the state (a fact that was recognized by the Orr Commission, an Israeli government-appointed body headed by former Supreme Court judge Theodore Orr). Official Israeli sources such as the Central Bureau of Statistics have reported for many years on the inferior socio-economic conditions of the Arabs in areas such as education, housing, health, welfare and employment. More than 50% of Arabs in Israel are living in poverty.
Over the last few years, the gaps between Arabs and Jews have actually increased.
To make matters worse, Arab citizens still have to contend with land confiscations, home demolitions, underfunded municipalities and discriminatory legislation. The divide between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel remains the deepest and most problematic cleavage within the country. While other domestic divisions (such as those between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim or between religious and secular Jews) have narrowed or been carefully managed, the Jewish-Arab division has actually deepened, especially in recent years. Radical political views have gained ground among Arabs and Jews in Israel, and extremists within both communities have fanned the flames of hatred. Although most Arabs and Jews in Israel are still politically moderate and favor co-existence (as a recent survey conducted by Haifa University professor Sammy Smooha shows), the current political dynamics within both communities — with the Arab minority becoming more politically assertive and nationalistic, and Israeli Jews becoming less tolerant and more right-wing — point toward growing conflict.
There is a real and growing fear within the Arab minority that their rights are under attack and in serious jeopardy. Many Arab citizens in Israel worry about severe infringements on their civil rights, the revocation of their citizenship, and even expulsion from the state (in the context of a territorial exchange with a future Palestinian state). These anxieties have been stoked by the introduction in the Knesset of a number of anti-Arab bills and by the inflammatory rhetoric of prominent right-wing Jewish politicians. Nor are these fears misplaced. A third of Israeli Jews now support revoking the voting rights of Arab citizens.
We believe that unless immediate, serious and dramatic action is taken to improve the situation of the Arab minority and majority-minority relations, great dangers are in store for Israel. It is no exaggeration to say that domestic stability, Israeli democracy and future Israeli-Palestinian peace could all be undermined by a continued deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. For those who care about the future of Israel, as we do, it is time to sound the alarm, and take appropriate action.
What, then, should Israel do? First, it must significantly raise the socio-economic status of its Arab citizens through affirmative-action programs and long-term development plans targeting the Arab community. Second, it must protect their individual rights by the adoption of an aggressive anti-discriminatory policy. Third, it should enhance their political representation by formally recognizing the Arab minority’s representative institutions and ensuring their inclusion in the state’s decision-making processes. Finally, it should recognize the Arab community as a national minority with collective rights, including providing them with some cultural autonomy (for example, in education). Maintaining their individual rights as citizens of Israel is not enough. Since they are a distinct, sizable and indigenous minority, Arabs should also enjoy collective rights, as national minorities do in many Western democracies (such as Spain, Canada, and the United Kingdom). The bottom line is that Israel needs to become much more accommodating and inclusive.
These proposals, though far-reaching, will not endanger Israel’s “Jewishness.” On the contrary, an Israel in which the Arab minority enjoys individual and collective rights and greater equality with the Jewish majority will be more stable, more legitimate and more secure. It will also more truly reflect age-old Jewish values. Israel can remain the homeland of the Jewish people and also accommodate the needs and aspirations of its Arab citizens. On the other hand, continuing to ignore these needs and aspirations is likely to create a much bigger threat to the future of the Jewish state.
Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman are the co-authors of the recently published “Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within” (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Peleg is the Charles A. Dana Professor at Lafayette College and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).