Israel should take urgent steps to integrate its Arab minority into the country’s civic order, but Israeli Jews and the Palestinian national movement need also to agree on the character of the State of Israel and the rights its Arab citizens should enjoy.
Back to Basics: Israel’s Arab Minority and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the latest Crisis Group report, examines the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, emphasising that beyond immediate government measures, Jews and Arabs must answer profound questions for a sustainable two-state solution.
Since 2000, the collapse of the peace process and ensuing uprising have led the Arab minority, alienated at home, to look outside for support and political leverage. It has emphasised its Palestinian identity and increasingly dissociated itself from Israeli politics. For its part, Israel’s Jewish majority has grown more suspicious of a community it views as a potential fifth column, a demographic threat and a segment of society hostile to its very existence.
“Israel’s Arab citizens are a Palestinian national minority in a Jewish state locked in conflict with its Arab neighbours”, says Robert Blecher, Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project Director. “But so too are they an Israeli minority in a state that prizes democracy. They undoubtedly feel Palestinian, but many are deeply familiar with Jewish society, and they take their Israeli citizenship seriously”.
It was long believed that the situation of Israel’s Arab citizens is a domestic matter and that dealing with them would further complicate peace talks. Yet, it has become clear that the two issues are intertwined: Israel insists that a peace agreement with the PLO entail some recognition of the state’s Jewish character which, in turn, will affect the status of its Palestinian citizens. The Palestinian national movement cannot afford to ignore the Arab minority’s views on this and nor can Israel, for any agreement lacking the minority’s support would neither meaningfully end Palestinian claims nor resolve the dispute over Israel’s identity.
A three-stage process might be a realistic path forward. First, the state of Israel and its Arab citizens should seek to lower tensions, the former by better integrating the Palestinian minority, adopting measures to redress economic and social inequities and condemning incitement against Arab citizens; the latter by avoiding inflammatory language, rebuking denial of Jewish history and recognising the Jewish connection with the Land of Israel/historic Palestine. Secondly, both Israeli Jews and the Palestinian national movement should clarify – first in intra-communal dialogue and then in discussion with each other – fundamental questions about the nature of the state and the rights of its minority. Under one possible option, Palestinians would recognise Jews as Israel’s national majority with a right to self-determination, while the state would officially recognise Palestinian citizens as a national minority with equal individual as well as specific collective rights. Finally, in the context of a two-state settlement, Israeli Jews and Arabs would iron out which rights and duties each community has and how to balance them.
“So much could go astray, beginning with the two-state settlement itself”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “But after a decade in which both Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab relations have been stuck in reverse, it is hard to imagine an easier, quicker or more viable fix”.