How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
When it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the world has mostly focused on violence between the two communities in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. But there is another player in the conflict, one that is becoming increasingly important: Arab citizens of Israel. More and more, Arab Israelis identify with Palestinian nationalism. With their needs and demands increasingly tied to the Palestinian cause, resolving the conflict becomes much more difficult.
Since October 1, a wave of violence has washed over Jerusalem. In tens of incidents, Palestinians have attacked Israeli civilians and soldiers, leaving several Israelis and Palestinians dead. The immediate cause of the sustained violence was the increase in Jewish Israeli activity near the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary beginning with the High Holidays in September and a (false) rumor that Israel was trying to change the status quo in the area by, among other things, building a Jewish temple on top of the mosques there. But tensions had been simmering before September due to a recent spate of settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank. The ongoing occupation, outbreaks of violence between Israel and Hamas—most recently in the summer of 2014—and an increase in anti-Arab rhetoric and attacks in Israel itself have entrenched hostility among Palestinians, while the Palestinian leadership has purposely fanned all of these flames, creating an atmosphere of encouragement for attacks against Jews.
Things heated up still further on October 14, when Arab Israelis held a rally in northern Israel against the government’s policies, and the community’s leaders called for a general strike. The last time the Arab sector protested in such large numbers over religious tensions and Israeli-Palestinian violence was in October 2000. The result of those marches was widespread riots and violence between Arabs and Israeli police and between Arab and Jewish citizens. Over the course of nine days, 13 Arab Israelis were killed.
In its final report, the Or Commission, which was created to investigate the October events, blamed decades of harmful state policy. It noted that “government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory…. The state did not do enough or try hard enough to create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomena.” One of the more commonly cited examples of this inequality is the disparate government allocation of resources to Arab towns compared to Jewish areas.
Such policies partly explain the emergence of a Palestinian identity among Israeli Arabs. In the immediate years after 1948, the local Arab community was traumatized by the war, the imposition of Jewish rule, and the separation from kin in the West Bank and Gaza. Not helping matters was the Jewish majority’s sense of threat, which led to a feeling that Palestinians in Israel were a hostile fifth column. To be sure, these factors aren’t the whole story. After all, the Druze and the Bedouin adapted relatively quickly to the new Israeli state, in part because they already existed as a separate sub-community within the Arab sector.
Changes in self-identification are most notable when Israel is led by a right or center-right government; during periods of fighting between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; and when Arab Israeli political activities, including protests, are delegitimized.The bulk of the Arab community, though, did not or was unable to adapt. The community’s own norms played a role. Its conservatism and unfamiliarity with democratic procedures hampered its active participation in political activities. Meanwhile, Arab politicians and political parties were co-opted by the labor Zionist party, Mapai, which formed “satellite” parties that were ostensibly led by Arab citizens and looked out for the Arab community’s interests, but which in reality took their cues from Mapai. Most of the community was also put under direct military administration until the end of 1966.
By the 1970s and 1980s, a younger generation of Arab citizens was ready to assert their demands in new, independent parties. Their growing strength, in Knesset seats and public support, allowed them to promote these demands more openly in a way previous Arab parties couldn’t. They were increasingly nationalist and anti-Zionist, and by the 1990s and 2000s, they were calling for full equality in Israel—often phrased as a demand for a “state for all Israel’s citizens.” This would, for all intents and purposes, mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
These demands reflected a changing identity among the Arab public. According to public opinion surveys of Israelis by the sociologist Sammy Smooha, the percentage of Israeli Arabs who self-identified as “Arab,” “Israeli Arab,” or “Israeli” fell from 54.7 percent to 39.6 percent between 1976 and 2009. In the same period, the percentage of those identifying as “Israeli Palestinian” or “Palestinian in Israel” leaped from 12.4 percent 42.1 percent, and those identifying as “Palestinian” or “Palestinian Arab” went from 32.9 percent to 11.5 percent in 2002, then climbed again to 17.5 percent in 2009. Similar results have been found in more recent surveys.
Context is important. The changes in self-identification are most notable when Israel is led by a right or center-right government; during periods of fighting between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; and when Arab Israeli political activities, including protests, are delegitimized.
The contemporary situation reflects all of these conditions, including Israeli leaders’ efforts to raise questions about the proper place of Arab citizens in the state. The most egregious was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook post at the end of the 2015 election season, in which he proclaimed that the rule of the right was threatened because Arab citizens were voting in large numbers—as though electoral participation by certain citizens were dangerous and inappropriate. But no political leader has done more to delegitimize Israeli Arabs’ political participation than Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s former minister of foreign affairs. In the past, he’s called for a boycott of Arab businesses whose owners protested Israel’s action in Gaza in 2014, and for cutting off the heads of Arab citizens who, as he put it, “are against us.”
The Israeli government faces a two-front challenge—responding to Arabs inside Israel and dealing with Palestinians outside Israel. This requires separate policies but also a recognition that Palestinian nationalism is important for both communities.
For now, a majority of Arab citizens of Israel are content to remain citizens, although they are unhappy with discrimination and inequality. A nationalist consciousness among Israeli Arabs isn’t a threat to the state. True, some Arab politicians, Knesset members, and intellectuals have hinted at a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and condemned Israeli military action during hostilities with Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza. Some skirt the edges of direct calls for violence against Israelis. But the Arab public tends to disagree with the political and intellectual elites’ focus on overly broad notions of nationalism and on foreign policy. Their more direct concern is their social and economic development and prosperity, and their ability to be treated as equals to Jewish citizens. Palestinian nationalism isn’t, for them, a political program but, rather, a form of communal identity.
But the occupation keeps these issues simmering; it casts Arab citizens of Israel as appendages of Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. Peace on the borders and peace at home are thus linked. And Israel can’t have one without the other.