If the tens of thousands of mostly Serb residents of northern Kosovo were asked whether they would like to see their region annexed to and become an integral part of Serbia or would prefer to remain part of Kosovo, there is little doubt that a huge majority of them would vote for joining the Serbian homeland instead of co-existing with the Albanian majority in the unitary state of Kosovo, and that the Serbian people would enthusiastically support the idea of annexing northern Kosovo to their state.
In fact, irredentism, the drive to annex territories and people governed by another state on the grounds of common national, ethnic, or religious ties even if means redrawing existing borders, has been a powerful force in world politics, with the most historically explosive case being the annexation of the German-speaking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in 1938.
So how does one explain the rejection by the majority of Israel’s Arab minority, as well as by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, of the proposal that some of the county’s Arab towns and villages near the border of the future Palestinian state be handed over to Palestine in exchange for parts of the West Bank where Jewish settlers live?
The plan applies to about 200,000 Israeli Arabs who live in the towns and villages along the 1967 cease-fire line (Green Line) between Jerusalem and Ramallah, also known as the Triangle.
While it is true that the proposal of land and population swaps with the PA has been advanced by one of Israel’s leading ultra-nationalist figures, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, it should not be dismissed as a merely reflection of a radical right wing agenda.
Lieberman, after all, has not called for the forced transfer or expulsion of Arabs out of Israel and he based it on the expectation that it would be part of a deal with the government of Palestine and not a unilateral move on the part of Israel.
Moreover, Arab citizens of Israel have been complaining for years that they feel they are treated as second-class citizens by a state that defines itself as Jewish and has national symbols, including the flag and the national anthem, that give expression to that unique form of identity that merges nationalist, religious, ethnic, and linguistic components, in the same way that Arab nationalism and to some extent the Muslim religion are central to the identity of the Palestinian people.
Indeed, Arab Israeli public figures, including a member of the Supreme Court and the Knesset (parliament) admitted that they do not sing the Israeli national anthem (“Hatikvah”) that recalls the historical longing of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, and according to opinion polls, 22 percent of Israeli Arabs define themselves strictly as Palestinians; 45 percent identify themselves as Palestinian Israelis; and only 32 percent defined themselves as Israeli Arabs.
But then the result of a poll conducted by the Dialogue also indicated that 79 percent of Israeli Arabs are satisfied with their life as citizens of Israel, and that 53 percent of them oppose any proposal for a land-swap between Israel and Palestine, with about 65 percent indicating that they reject the idea a new Palestinian state annexing their towns and villages in Israel (with the strongest opposition expressed by the Arab residents of the Triangle).
The city of Umm al-Fahm, which is located in the Triangle, published a statement after a meeting of the city council calling on PA negotiators to disregard Lieberman’s offer, underscoring that while Israeli Arabs consider themselves part of the Palestinian nation, they “are unwilling to act as pawns in the service of Lieberman and the Israeli right.” A
One Israeli-Arab resident of Umm al-Fahm interviewed this month on Israel’s Channel 10 television channel explained that “I don’t want to be under [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas’ or the Palestinians’ rule. I want to stay here under Israeli rule,” explaining that he considered himself to be “a Palestinian, but also an Israeli.” An Arab woman shopping in a mall interviewed by Channel 10 said, “We love Israel. We love living in Israel. Our whole life is in Israel. We don’t want to live with the Palestinians and have nothing in Palestine.”
Lieberman has insisted that without territorial and population swaps, he does not intend to support any deal reached between the Israelis and Palestinians that could emerge out of the current negotiations conducted under American diplomatic auspices.
But it is also important to recall that similar population swaps were already proposed in previous peace negotiations and were dismissed by both Palestinians and Israelis as impractical, since Arab Israeli citizens could appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court if and when such a plan would be approved by the Israeli government and the court could support their petition, and at the minimum, would probably debate it for months if not years.
But the hostile response by so many Israeli Arabs to the idea of being annexed by a future Palestinian state and their determination to remain an integral part of the State of Israel despite the political and economic problems involved in their integration into a Jewish State whose national identity they do not share, may be a sign that they prefer the relative political and economic freedom they enjoy in a western society like Israel over a future in what even under the best case scenario would be an Arab state with third-world living standards and emergent democratic institutions.
“We are proud of our Arab-Palestinian identity but we are citizens of Israel, where we work here, and here we will die,” said Maazan Gaanim, the mayor of the Arab town of Sahnin in the Galilee in a recent interview with Haaretz. “Talk with us about social justice and building trust instead of [land swaps]. I bet you that not even one Arab Israeli is planning to move [to Palestine].”
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Nilfanion. CC BY 2.0.