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When the world focuses on the Arab-Israeli crisis today, the plight of the 4.6 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank gets most of the attention. But another pressing question haunts Israeli politics: the status and future of Israel’s own Arab citizens, who number around 1.7 million and make up around 21 percent of its population. Over the past few decades, Arabs in Israel have steadily improved their economic lot and strengthened their civil society, securing a prominent place in the country’s politics in the process. But since 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu began his second term as prime minister, they have also seen their rights erode, as the government has taken a number of steps to disenfranchise them. Israeli policymakers have long defined their state as both Jewish and democratic, but these recent actions have shown that the government now emphasizes the former at the expense of the latter.
This onslaught has triggered a debate among the leaders of the Arab community in Israel over how to respond. One camp wants Arab citizens to deepen their integration into mainstream society and join forces with the Israeli left to push for equality on the national stage. The other urges Arabs to withdraw from national politics altogether, creating autonomous cultural, educational, and political institutions instead. At the moment, Arab political leaders seem to favor the former approach. But the best strategy would be for Arabs to synthesize these competing visions into a unified program: one that calls on the Israeli government to integrate Israel’s Arab citizens into existing political structures even as it demands greater autonomy in such areas as educational and cultural policy. The goal would be a system that grants Jews and Arabs equality in shared institutions and protects the rights of both to shape their own communities.
Israel’s Arab citizens are the descendants of the approximately 150,000 Palestinians who stayed in the country following the expulsion of the majority of their brethren around the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948. Over the two decades that followed, Israel’s remaining Arabs suffered from high rates of poverty and low standards of living, had few opportunities for education, and were governed by martial law, which imposed various restrictions on them, from limitations on domestic and international travel to constraints on setting up new businesses. To prevent the emergence of independent Arab centers of power, the Israeli government also closely supervised the activity of Arab municipal and religious institutions and arrested many Arab activists.
Since 1966, when martial law was lifted, the situation of Arab citizens has improved greatly. Consider education: in 1960, only 60 Arab students were enrolled in Israeli universities; today, there are more than 20,000 Arab university students in the country, two-thirds of whom are female, and around 10,000 Arab Israelis study abroad. Living standards have also risen, as has the status of women, and a strong middle class has emerged.
In 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, 66 of the 112 towns in Israel with more than 5,000 residents had virtually all-Arab populations. And thanks to high birthrates and a young population—half of Israel’s Arab citizens are under the age of 20, whereas only 30 percent of Jewish Israelis are—the Arab Israeli population is likely to keep growing fast, with or without more support from the government. (Some Israeli officials have described the growing Arab population as a threat to the Jewish majority; in fact, since the Jewish population is also growing, it is likely that Arabs will continue to make up only around 20 percent of Israel’s population over the next three decades.)
In short, Arabs in Israel are wealthier, healthier, and more numerous than ever before. Yet by most measures of well-being, they still lag behind their Jewish counterparts. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, the median annual income of Israel’s Arab households was around $27,000; for Jewish households, it was around $47,000, nearly 75 percent higher. The infant mortality rate is more than twice as high among Arabs as it is among Jews. Arabs are also underrepresented in Israel’s bureaucracy and academic institutions, making up less than two percent of the senior faculty in the country’s universities. And Arabs remain deeply segregated from Israel’s Jewish population: 90 percent of Arabs live in almost exclusively Arab towns and villages, and with just a few exceptions, Arab and Jewish children attend separate schools. (Nevertheless, Arabs and Jews remain relatively open to integration: a 2015 survey by the Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha found that more than half of Israel’s Arabs and Jews supported the idea of Arabs living in Jewish-majority neighborhoods.)
What is more, when it comes to government support in such areas as the allocation of land for new construction, financing for cultural institutions, and educational funding, Arabs suffer from ongoing discrimination, despite some recent progress. Arabs make up around 21 percent of Israel’s population, but according to the Mossawa Center, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for Israel’s Arab citizens, Arab communities receive only seven percent of government funds for public transportation and only three percent of the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport’s budget is allocated for Arab cultural institutions; Arab schools are also significantly underresourced. (Toward the end of 2015, the Israeli government approved a five-year economic development program for Israel’s Arab community, worth up to $4 billion, that will increase funding for housing, education, infrastructure, transportation, and women’s employment. Although the plan represents a step in the right direction, the exact amount of funding that will be allocated to each of these areas remains unclear, as does the process by which its implementation will be monitored.) And then there is the fact that Israel defines itself along ethnonationalist lines that exclude the Arab minority—from a national anthem that famously describes the yearning of a Jewish soul for a homeland in Zion to a flag that displays a Star of David. In these ways, the Israeli government has maintained the dominance of the Jewish majority and denied Arabs genuine equality.
Arabs in Israel thus confront a frustrating confluence of factors: on the one hand, they enjoy a rising socioeconomic position; on the other, they face a government that in many respects has prevented them from achieving true equality. How they respond to this frustrating dynamic, and how the Israeli government reacts, will have an enormous impact on the future of Israeli society, politics, and security.
Arabs in Israel are not politically monolithic, and their goals vary. Their civic organizations, political activists, and public intellectuals offer competing visions for both the community’s internal development and its relationship with the state.
Broadly speaking, however, their agendas tend to fall into one of two frameworks, each based on a different understanding of Arab Israelis’ split identity. The first—call it a “discourse of difference”—suggests that Arabs’ ethnocultural identity, rather than their Israeli citizenship, should be the starting point of their demands for change. By this logic, the Israeli government should empower Arabs to autonomously govern their own communities, by, for example, encouraging Arab officials to reform the curricula of Arab schools. The second—a “discourse of recognition”—takes Israeli citizenship, rather than Arab identity, as its starting point. This framework suggests that equality will be achieved when the state recognizes Arabs as equal Israeli citizens and equitably integrates them into existing institutions.
By most measures of well-being, Israel's Arab citizens still lag behind their Jewish counterparts.
For now, the latter approach seems to be dominant among Arabs in Israel. But even across this divide, there are a number of areas of consensus. Arabs of all political tendencies tend to condemn the government’s current policies as segregationist and discriminatory; many also contend that the government’s professed commitments to democracy and to the Jewish character of the state are irreconcilable. Nor are these the only points on which most Arabs agree: around 71 percent of Arabs in Israel support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a 2015 survey, and only 18 percent reject the coexistence of Arabs and Jews in Israel.
The various strains of Arab political thought were brought together in December 2006, when a group of Arab activists and intellectuals published a declaration, The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, that sought to define Arabs’ relationship with the state and their hopes for the country’s future. The document, which I co-authored, called on the Israeli government to recognize its responsibility for the expulsion of Palestinians around the time of Israeli independence and to consider paying reparations to the descendants of the displaced; to grant Arab citizens greater autonomy in managing their cultural, religious, and educational affairs; to enshrine Arabs’ rights to full equality; and, perhaps most striking, to legally define Israel as a homeland for both Arabs and Jews—a direct challenge to the historically Jewish character of the state.
Ratified by the National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel (a body that represents all of Israel’s Arabs), the document was embraced by the Arab public: a poll I conducted in 2008 with the sociologist Nohad Ali found that, despite their many differences, more than 80 percent of Arab Israelis supported its main proposals. In the years since its release, politicians representing some of Israel’s major Arab political parties have repeatedly called on the government to act on its demands. But Jewish leaders in the Israeli government, media, and academia have largely opposed the document. The board of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, produced a statement in January 2007 arguing that the Future Vision report, as well as two other documents released by Arab activists in 2006, “den[ied] the very nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and declaring that the institute “reject[ed] this denial and its implication that there is an inescapable contradiction between the state’s Jewish and democratic nature.”
Arab-Jewish relations got even worse in the years after 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the premiership. Since then, the Israeli government has taken numerous steps to further hold back Arab citizens, from rules that limit the rights of Arabs to live in certain Jewish villages to a law that restricts the ability of Palestinians in the West Bank to obtain Israeli citizenship if they marry an Arab citizen of Israel. (Foreign Jews of any nationality, meanwhile, can become Israeli citizens without establishing family ties to Israelis.) In the Negev desert, home to most of Israel’s Bedouins, the government has introduced projects that aim to cement Jewish control of the land, by, for example, demolishing unrecognized Bedouin settlements and establishing planned Jewish towns in their place. More generally, the Netanyahu government has stepped up the official rhetoric affirming the need to strengthen the Jewish character of the state.
In March 2014, the Knesset passed a law raising the threshold for representation in the legislature from two percent to 3.25 percent of the popular vote. The move threatened to strip the four so-called Arab parties—Balad, Hadash, Ta’al, and the Islamic Movement in Israel’s southern branch—of their seats in the election of 2015. It was a reminder that the Israeli government’s anti-Arab policies derive as much from the calculation on the part of the Netanyahu government that weakening the political position of Arabs might keep left-wing parties from regaining power as from the prejudices of some Israeli officials.
Largely to prevent their exclusion from the Knesset, the Arab parties banded together in January 2015 to create the Joint List, a big-tent political party that ran on a single ticket in the election held that March. On election day, Netanyahu sought to boost Jewish turnout by making the racially charged claim that Arab voters were “streaming in droves to polling stations.” The Joint List was remarkably successful nevertheless. Some 82 percent of Israel’s Arab voters cast a ballot in support of it. With 13 seats, it emerged as the third-largest political party in the Knesset after Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the center-left Zionist Union. Even more impressive, the Joint List managed to increase turnout among Arab voters by seven percentage points, from 56.5 percent in the 2013 election to 63.5 percent in 2015. This surge suggests that Arabs in Israel have become more confident that their elected representatives can overcome their differences and act as an effective united force in the Israeli establishment—in short, that national politics offer a path toward change. At least when it comes to parliamentary representation, right-wing efforts to impede the progress of the country’s Arabs have not succeeded.
Regardless of the state’s choices, Arabs in Israel can still shape their own fate.
Rather than accept this show of strength, Netanyahu’s coalition responded with further measures meant to weaken Arabs’ political position. In November 2015, his government outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, an Islamist organization that has rallied a substantial portion of the Arab community around opposition to what it describes as Jewish threats to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. And in February of this year, after three Arab parliamentarians visited the families of Palestinians who were killed after attacking Israelis, Jewish lawmakers introduced a so-called suspension bill that would allow a three-fourths majority of the Knesset to eject any representative deemed to have denied the Jewish character of the state or incited violence. The Arab population views the proposed law as a direct attempt to sideline their representatives on the national stage. “Despite the delegitimization campaign against us and the raising of the electoral threshold, we decided to remain part of Israeli politics,” Ayman Odeh, an Arab parliamentarian who heads the Joint List, said during a debate on the proposed rule in the Knesset in February. “Yet we continue to be harassed.”
These developments have intensified the search for a new approach among Arab elites. Two main alternatives have emerged. The first, headed by Odeh, argues that Arab Israelis should work with the Israeli left to unseat the Netanyahu government and replace it with a center-left coalition that is willing to resume the peace talks with the Palestinians and consider major steps to advance the equality and integration of Arab citizens. The second, led by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, as well as those Knesset members on the Joint List who represent Balad, opposes forming a coalition with the Israeli left. Both camps support the creation of a separate political body to represent Arab citizens, but whereas the former believes that such a body should supplement Arab voters’ current representation in the Knesset, the latter believes it should replace it.
These competing platforms have split the Arab public. In the 2015 survey conducted by the sociologist Smooha, 76 percent of Arab Israelis polled supported the Joint List’s cooperation with Jewish parties in the Knesset. But 33 percent of Arab respondents voiced support for a boycott of Knesset elections; 19 percent supported the use of any means, including violence, to secure equal rights; and 54 percent said that a domestic intifada would be justified if the situation of Arabs does not substantially improve.
The future of the Arabs in Israel depends in part on their ability to overcome these internal divisions, which have hindered the ability of the Arab leadership to achieve progress. Disagreement among Arab leaders as to whether a directly elected Arab political institution should replace or supplement Arabs’ representation in the Knesset, for example, has so far left the Arab population without an elected body of its own. In fact, it should be possible to synthesize these competing visions into a unified program that pushes for equal representation in existing institutions and greater autonomy when it comes to educational and cultural policy. No matter what shape such a platform takes, however, it should commit Arab activists to nonviolence, and it should clearly demand that the Israeli government abolish discrimination in the allocation of state resources. Finally, since broad support for Arabs’ demands for change will make them more effective, Arabs should invite Jews in Israel, Jewish organizations outside the country, Arabs and Palestinians in the region, and others in the international community that are sympathetic to their cause to endorse the platform.
But in many ways, the future of the Arabs in Israel hinges on developments over which they have little control. The first is how the Netanyahu government and its successors manage Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: whereas open violence between Israel and the Palestinians tends to exacerbate anti-Arab sentiment among Israel’s Jewish majority, a solution to the conflict could set the stage for reconciliation among Arabs and Jews in Israel. The second, of course, is how the Israeli government treats its own Arab citizens. Regardless of the state’s choices, however, Arabs in Israel can still shape their own fate—but that will require settling on a unified political program.