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.
LEFT OUT AND MOVING UP
Israel’s Arab citizens are the descendants of the approximately 150,000 Palestinians who stayed in the country following the expulsion 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.
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