"Fighting for the experiment”:
Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel, 2021-2022
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | July, 2022
The question of the “experiment” is at the core of the political, public and media discourse in Israel in recent weeks. That is, an analysis of the current government’s expectancy and extent of failure or success, since it was based on an unprecedented collaboration between rivals across the political spectrum all rallying round shared interests, most of which were civilian-public ones, while setting aside or bridging the deep ravines between them, particularly those pertaining to national identity and religious affairs.
The main axis of the “experiment” is associated with Jewish-Arab relations, and embodied in the unprecedented integration of an Arab party (The United Arab List, also known as Ra’am, headed by Mansour Abbas) into a ruling Israeli coalition. This novel development challenged the old dogma whereby Arab parties in Israeli politics would remain on the fence, and prioritized the problems of the Arab citizen over political issues, particularly in the Palestinian context, that often spurred tension vis-à-vis the State of Israel and Jewish population.
In recent weeks – and especially when the coalition struggled to function following the crisis of the Judea and Samaria (West Bank) Regulation Law – a poignant discussion has evolved among both the Arab and Jewish public to determine the score of this experiment. It is a game summary that is still underway: The findings – much like the establishment of the current government itself – are not widely agreed upon, and are certainly not in consensus; whereas their political or media analyses often reflect the interests of those conducting them.
On the positive side of the scales are accomplishments such as relative reducing crime, violence in Arab society; increasing Arab citizens’ weight in the decision-making process; and allocating larger budgets to several civil issues. In contrast, severe friction has evolved on several occasions between the Arab and Jewish populations and the state establishments over the past 12 months: the Negev riots; the last terror wave involving Israeli citizens, among others; the tension on Temple Mount leading to Ra’am freezing its membership in the coalition; and finally, the dispute over the Judea and Samaria Regulation Law that marked the end of the road for the government.
One might, therefore, say that the mere establishment of the government and its successful functioning for a period of one year, during which Jews and Arabs had collaborated politically and publicly, may be viewed as a success. However, the pretension to rise above political, religious, and ideological disagreements turned out to be a failure, as the key upheavals that ultimately ended the government’s term in office had emanated from these disputed subjects. Once they came knocking on the government’s door, they highlighted and honed the rift, demonstrating that there were fundamental core issues in Israel about which a consensus cannot be established.
This past year has seen contrasting trends as well as forwards and backwards dialectics. While the Arabs had partaken in decision making in Israel for the first time, and the point of contact between the two societies as reflected in the public, economic, media and cultural spheres, had broadened, mutual alienation is increasing: The Jewish population is gravely concerned about another violent outbreak by elements in the Arab public, similar to the events that took place in May 2021; and, among the Arab public, there is a sense of rejection, and particularly some concern that the Ra’am experiment was a one-time event, for it would be unlikely for another Arab party to integrate into an Israeli government.
A Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) survey dated May 2022
The charged reality and contrasting trends are embodied in a series of public opinion polls carried out this year, from which several key findings emerge: A significant gap between the Arab public’s aspirations to live in shared spaces with Jews and the latter’s objection to the very same notion; the majority of the Arab public holding the State of Israel accountable for soaring crime and violence in Arab society, unlike the majority of the Jewish population that blames Arab society for it; and a shared concern in both populations over another violent outbreak similar to that of May 2021 (during Operation "Guardian of Walls"), and fiercer.
Jewish-Arab relations have experienced a profound transformation over the last 12 months, and it is unlikely that they could be reversed and brought back to where they were a year ago. Despite poignant criticism of Ra’am voiced by elements in Arab society, particularly with regard to the claim that the party has bent its ideological principles to political ends, Abbas’ way is still being perceived as the only realistic course of action, as well as means by which to solve problems and realize broad desires to deepen the integration.
Other alternatives are continuing to sit on the fence, as the "Joint List" suggests, while avoiding integrating into the regime as a matter of principle, and insisting on the non-nation state (Civic Nationalism) agenda that most of the Jewish public rejects; or the self-made community (Al-Mujtama`a al-I`sami) vision led by the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, at the heart of which is the call for separatism and reduced contact with state establishments and Jewish society.
If the “experiment” should be cemented as a failure in Arab public discourse, it may lead to an aggravating series of upheavals that would project on strategic Israeli reality: A significant drop in Arab voter turnout (in the last elections, a particularly low rate of 44% was recorded), thereby leading to less representation and ability to impact decision making; and, as time will go by, the ties between the two societies will weaken, and charged relations could evolve and erupt violently.
This past year requires lessons to be learned by both the Arab and Jewish public in order to develop a stable reality in Israel, and avoid the disastrous scenarios described. First, the two populations must realize that they have entered a historical and crucial phase in their relations, and that their choices and conduct will determine whether an escalation will evolve across the board, or whether the relations between them will soar and be more positively reshaped. This issue must be a priority in the upcoming elections discourse, and it is essential for political candidates to clarify their positions on the subject.
The Arab public is required to recognize that continuing to wave ideological slogans of an uncompromising nature not only does not help solve its problems, but deepens its alienation from most of Jewish society (an insight developed by Abbas into a pragmatic policy for which he is now the target of harsh criticism by both Jews and Arabs).
The Jewish public, especially the Likud and religious Zionism, who may head the next government, must have a profound understanding of the severe implications expected should “the coalition gates shut”, leaving the Arab parties out. They must further acknowledge the fact that it would be of no use to keep looking for “political unicorns” in the form of pro-Zionist Arabs, but instead collaborate with those who are willing to make unprecedented practical and ideological compromises, while “framing” a vision and long-term goals to formulate a solution for the issues from which both societies are suffering “here and now”.
Political leaders from both societies will be required to rise above it, show profound understanding of in-depth currents and realize this is a fateful hour that presents opportunities while posing risks. The Jewish-Arab “experiment” is part success part failure. If it is to be defined as a failure by all, it would not only affect the narrow political dimension, but could seep into the public sphere and impact Israel’s domestic stability.
The entire discussion shows that, despite Israel’s military, technological and economic resilience, it suffers from fundamental domestic issues that must be addressed poignantly and cautiously lest they erupt and destabilize Israel’s national resilience, perhaps even in the near future.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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