Arab Society in Israel at a Crossroad


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | May 3, 2020

posters in Arabic
Photo: Zaher332 | CC BY-SA 4.0


The past year is emerging as one of the most important periods shaping the history of the Arab public in Israel. During a relatively short period, this public has undergone a change in conduct, particularly in regard to its relationships with governing institutions, both due to external developments, and in the wake of maturation of certain fundamental internal processes over a number of years.



In the Background: Two Core Developments


The first development: Three rounds of elections in the past year were accompanied by unprecedented electoral gains for the Arab sector of the electorate (15 seats in the Knesset won by a coalition of three Arab Parties.( Running on a united ticket, the Joint List was transformed into the third largest faction in the Knesset. This outcome, positioned the Arab parties for the first time as a key player in Israeli politics. Climaxing this trend, the Joint List's recommended to the President (including the BALAD party) that Kachol-Lavan's leader, Benny Gantz should be invited first to try and form a government.


The second development: The Coronavirus crisis. The crisis has shaped and sharpened the desire of Israel's Arab citizenry to integrate, to be part and parcel of the state's endeavors to combat the virus reflected in the significant role in collective endeavors played by Arab medical professionals, for example; widespread compliance with health directives on the part of the civilian population in Arab communities; and unprecedented collaboration of local Arab leaders with all the machinery of government - including with security forces. 


New political opportunities and the Coronavirus crisis almost dove-tailed one another. This introduced a complex 'catch-22' situation into the civic experience of Israeli Arabs. Most of the Arab public aspires to deepen their overall integration into the mainstream of Israeli daily life, particularly in the civic domain. However, to date, this trend has not extended to the political domain where despite closer relations with certain Zionist parties over the past year, the party that represents the Arab public is viewed with antipathy by a sizable portion of the Jewish public due to the Joint List's anti-Zionist political and ideological stance.[1]


The sense of being 'trapped' between two possible worlds and two sets of aspirations, stems among other things from the fact that most of the Zionist parties have not 'welcomed' Arab citizens to join their ranks (since no Arab candidates on the Jewish party lists were ranked in a realistic position to actually be elected), while the Joint List continues to cling to its longstanding Oppositionist position - serving at most as a "preventive bloc" from the back benches while avoiding full integrations into the workings of government.


Against this backdrop, a clear gap is emerging between the political plane where there are fundamental difficulties to taking genuine Jewish-Arab cooperation forward, and the civic plane where the Arab public is able to give expression to its yearning to integrate into the mainstream Jewish society. This state of affairs demonstrates the growing desire of the Arab public in Israel to give priority to solving civic problems, before political and ideological issues. In practice, the public's leanings have, in essence, taken the lead from Arab politicians, putting pressure on the political leadership, even shaping the latter's actions. Thus, on the eve of April 2019 elections, public opinion polls showed that the public ranked civic problems (first and foremost dealing with crime and violence in the Arab sector) as a priority; this was accompanied by a sense that Arab parliamentarians invest too much time on political matters, particularly those in the Palestinian arena. The public mood reflected in the polls was internalized by Arab politicians who embarked on closing ranks in a joint party list (in September 2019 elections); emphasis on the civic domain in defining the party's objectives; and unprecedented collaboration with Zionist parties.


However, at the close of a full year of impressive political gains, the Arab pubic now finds itself sidelined by establishment of a Jewish national unity government, sparking plummeting expectations and raising questions whether Israel's Arab citizenry can increase their political clout through electoral gains. As a result of the above, the Arab public is gradually coming to realize that it is difficult to ride two horses at the same time: both to be represented politically by a body whose ideological doctrine denunciates Zionism and desires to change the fundamental underlying identity of Israel as a polity (at times, parallel to voicing support of elements defined as enemies of the state) and in the same breath to promote and pursue fruitful cooperation with Jewish society.


The cooperation that developed over the past year in the political domain is not evidence that one can overcome these obstacles. Rather, it testifies to the limitations of such a foundation. In practice, cooperation rested on a very narrow base: joining forces for a specific point and apparently also for a limited time against a shared political rival (Prime Minister Natanyahu) and the fight against the Coronavirus. should these focal points for collaboration dissipate, the underlying problems of the political doctrine of the Joint List's parties will resurface prominently - a scenario that both sides prefer to put aside for the present. It is likely they will break out with full force - if and when deliberation of changes in the identity, the symbols or the narrative of the State of Israel come to the fore, or in the event of conflict between Israel and one of its enemies (cases where the majority of Arab Knesset members habitually criticize Israel's conduct harshly during operations in Gaza Strip or in Lebanon).


In other words, it is clear that past patterns where preference was given to ideology and political matters designed to challenge the prevailing social order and create a new order - "a state for all its citizens" in lieu of a Jewish nation-state - accompanied by an deep underlying aversion from interactions with the ruling establishment (all the more so, its security bodies) has reached a dead end. Parallel to this, the possibility for taking integration forward has been thrown into sharp relief - integration in all aspects of life, where Arabs would carve a place for themselves as a proud national minority that does not seek to upturn Israeli life as it exists with revisions that would be contradictory to the aspirations of the majority.


In light of these conclusions, Arab society as a whole and Arab politicians in particular, now stand at a crossroads. In the wake of establishment of a national unity government, against the backdrop of a deep sense of rejection among a large portion of Israel's Arab citizens, in reality, there is a serious danger that the impulse to 'retreat back into isolation' will gain the upper hand. Disappointment with the attempt to integrate is liable to lead a portion of the Arab public to curtail their contacts with the government, and put a damper on attempts to mainstream their political and public endeavors. Over time, this is liable to deepen tensions between Jewish and Arab society in Israel that could even find expression is the outbreak of violence.


Another possibility is integration, while jettisoning some of the ideology and patterns of response that have typified Arab politics in Israel for most of the years since establishment of the State. This could be expressed in a variety of ways: Deepings integration within Zionist parties (a process that requires the Jewish parties to swing open their gates and fight for granting full equal civil rights to the Arab public); establishment of new joint political frameworks for Jews and Arabs focusing on shared civic concerns; or reshaping the doctrine of Arab parties in a way that will accommodate to realities, in place of alienation from the Jewish state and aspiration to undermine its founding principles.


In the public realm, it is important to forward integration through promotion of a (compulsory) community-based national service framework for draft-age Arab youth, parallel to military service. Such a vision of integration does not in any way 'castrate' the self-ascription or self-esteem of Arab citizens; rather it adjusts their aspirations to reality, squarely facing and coming to terms with the foundations of the majority culture in Israel.


On the other hand, there is the possibility of 'a parting of ways' as reflected in Trump's 'Deal of the Century" - a plan that has been met with almost wall-to-wall opposition among Arab inhabitants (particularly Arab citizens in the "Triangle" region of Israel, who under the plan would become part of a future Palestinian state - a plan also opposed by a large number of Jews in the country). In order to totally reject this concept, both Arab and Jewish society in Israel need to explain-justify what in fact ties them together as a country, beyond Historic fate. In this regard, it is most imperative to forge frameworks that will afford Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel a shared coexistence hallmarked by fruitful cooperation




[1] champions dismantling the structures - symbolic and substantive - that define Israel as the Democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, in favor of a 'state of all its citizens'.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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