Paul Pillar

The Other Israelis

Most Palestinian Arabs face Israel as residents of the occupied West Bank or the partially blockaded Gaza Strip, or as refugees in surrounding Arab countries. But then there are the Arabs of Israel itself, who constitute about 20 percent of the country's population. Once the Israeli Arabs were looked to as a potential bridge, between other Israelis and other Palestinian Arabs, whose existence might facilitate an eventual settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not any more, and some of the reasons show through in a just-released survey conducted by Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa in conjunction with the Israel Democracy Institute. The poll was one of a series done over the past several years to tap attitudes of both Arab and Jewish Israelis about relations between the two communities and about the place of Arabs in Israel.

The dominant attitude of most Israeli Arabs is one of alienation. Seventy percent of the Arab respondents say that the government treats them as second-class citizens or as hostile citizens who did not deserve equality. A majority feel “estranged and rejected.” Two-thirds fear a population transfer, and more than three-fourths fear “grave violation of their basic rights.” Only 12 percent of Israeli Arabs consider Israeli citizenship to be their most important identity, as opposed to their religion or ethnicity. This represents a sharp drop during the past decade, and the opposite of a trend during the same period among Israeli Jews, who were asked a similar question. Fifty-nine percent of Israeli Arabs say that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be justified in starting a third Intifada “if the political stalemate continues.”

The survey's findings regarding Jewish Israeli attitudes were more of a mixed bag but reflect some of the same wide gulf between the two communities. More than two-thirds believe that anyone who self-identifies as “a Palestinian Arab in Israel” cannot be loyal to the state and its laws. Twenty-eight percent favor denying Arabs the right to vote in elections for the Knesset. Sixty-five percent would choose the Jewish character of Israel over its democratic character to the extent the two come in conflict.

There are nonetheless signs that if prevailing Israeli policies and priorities were to change, a better relationship between the two communities might be possible. Despite the alienation, the Arabs' responses suggest realism about their situation. Majorities of Arab respondents said they were reconciled to living in a state with a Jewish majority and a Hebrew culture, and a majority said they would rather remain in Israel than live in any other country. As for Jewish attitudes, Smooha perceives evidence of movement toward centrist views, and with that an absence of any broad trend of even harder attitudes toward Arab citizens. But, he says, a “vocal radical Jewish right” has emerged and has “succeeded in reinforcing the alienation of the Arab minority and in engendering growing fear of collapse of democracy among the elites of the center and the left.”

Unfortunately it is that destructive element in Israeli politics that has been driving Israeli policy, including driving it in directions that make the second-class status of Arab Israeli citizens even worse. Mitchell Plitnick, in raising broader questions about what sorts of values are reflected in Israeli policies toward all the Palestinians, notes that the Knesset has taken the first step toward passing legislation that would evict tens of thousands of Israeli Bedouin—who are some of the Arab citizens of Israel—from land in the Negev where they have lived for generations, since well before Israel's establishment. A proposed use of the land is the construction of new Jewish communities, thereby mirroring what has happened repeatedly in the occupied West Bank. As Plitnick suggests, whatever values underlie such policies, in which a country shoves aside even its own citizens solely because of their ethnicity and to favor a different ethnic group, are not values shared with America.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/מוחמד אבו אלהיגא - שוקו. CC BY-SA 3.0.