By Ray Hanania
As a child, my father told me that, if I want to change something, the most effective way to do so is from the inside. I was reminded of that memory as Israelis returned to the polls on Tuesday in a bid to break the electoral deadlock that has gripped the country for the past two years. This week’s election was the country’s fourth attempt to elect a strong, decisive leadership since April 2019.
A key constituency is the Palestinian citizens of Israeli, who make up about 20 percent of the population. If the Arab voters turn out in large numbers, they can significantly influence the formation of a government and make the issue of human rights a national priority.
This is where occupied East Jerusalem comes in. Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem following the June War of 1967, which it started but disguised as an Arab provocation using its news media muscle and alliance with the US. Despite Israel’s ethnic cleansing of and restrictions on non-Jews, specifically Christian and Muslim Palestinians, more than 60 percent of East Jerusalem’s population (more than 350,000) today is Arab. But most Palestinians can’t vote in Israel’s national elections because they don’t have citizenship. Instead, they retain their Palestinian citizenship, which allows them to vote in local Jerusalem elections and in Palestinian elections in the West Bank.
Instead of being on the inside, where they can make a difference, many Palestinians in East Jerusalem remain on the outside out of pride and anger-fueled prejudice. To many of them, taking Israeli citizenship would be an insult to their dignity, although frankly I can’t see how it could be more insulting than living as an occupied people with so few rights on their own land.
Israeli citizenship won’t guarantee their civil rights or their human rights immediately. But it brings them closer to reality over delusion. East Jerusalem has been controlled by Israel’s iron fist for more than a half century now. I understand the resistance of our parents and grandparents to recognizing Israel, but the younger generations need to recognize the reality of their lives and deal with the situation directly.
Some Palestinians have applied for Israeli citizenship, but only a relatively small number. Between 2001 and 2010, only 7,000 Palestinians crossed over from being occupied to being a citizen. Imagine if all 350,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem added their names to the Israeli election rosters — they would empower the Arab vote and likely change the outcome.
Israel is a divided nation on many levels. The Jewish population is divided between the religious and the non-religious, as well as between liberal and conservative. When you put these layers together, it partly explains why right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to hold on to office, but only as part of a coalition with a very narrow majority. It would not take much to push Netanyahu out and begin the process of change, moving Israel from the far right back to the left, where it was once ruled under Labor domination.
That seems like a dream, even fatalistic to many older Palestinians, who believe there is no difference between the Israeli right and left when it comes to the suppression of Palestinian rights. To be honest, it is actually more about an Israeli fear of Palestinian rights. They know that, if the Palestinians were ever to come together, they could change the face of both Israel and Palestine.
One theory I believe is that most Israelis really don’t want a peace accord with the Palestinians. They want perpetual conflict because that ensures one thing: Jewish Israeli supremacy over the Palestinians. If there were peace, Palestinian society would flourish, and many Jewish Israelis fear that a free and flourishing Palestinian population might take over Israel. And maybe even elect a non-Jewish prime minister.
However, rather than embracing small steps toward a state, Palestinians have tended to demand “all or nothing.” They want it now, right away. But that can’t happen. The Israelis, on the other hand, have historically been willing to take whatever they can get, knowing that what they take will slowly and steadily expand.
There does not seem to be any Palestinian with that vision for the future, yet that is what is required to undermine Israel’s apartheid system. Palestinians becoming citizens and then changing Israel slowly and steadily from the inside would be significant.
Writing this before the election outcome is known, I can’t predict what will happen, but I am sure of two things: One, the result will again be close and indecisive; and, two, a strong turnout by Palestinian citizens would allow the Arabs to impact that outcome significantly. If the Arab vote drops, their influence drops with it.
If Palestinians were strategic and smart, and had a little bit of that Israeli long-term cognition, they could change Israel far quicker from the inside than they ever will by trying to change it as outsiders.