Arabs and Jews in Israel

EAST MEREDITH, NY - As Arab-Jewish ties in Israel fluctuate they mirror larger regional tensions. The raid on the Gaza flotilla may impact Israel's external relations with Turkey but they are also likely to introduce new significant unknowns into the already complicated relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel.

Overcoming discrimination, the Palestinian citizens of Israel have managed to live in relative peace with their Jewish co-citizens. Although the Arab community is largely separate-living in Arab towns and cities-they share many aspects of their lives with their neighbours.
But attitudes are changing with mounting tensions in the region. A recent study led by Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa revealed that relations between the 1.5 million Arab Israelis and the five million Jews in Israel have worsened over the past decade. No doubt, the events of the past week have rendered the situation described in the report even worse. Reports that Sheikh Ra'ad Saleh, head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, was among the injured, were thankfully mistaken, but these events certainly do not bode well for inter-communal relations in the near future.

Israeli Arabs have generally remained subdued and moderate throughout the years; they have enjoyed the benefits of a constrained democracy and advanced economy, but they suffer serious discrimination in housing, access to resources and political representation.

Yet comparing current sentiments of Israel's Arab minorities to those of 2003, the University of Haifa study revealed that those Arabs who are "unwilling to have a Jewish friend" nearly doubled, from 16 to 29 percent. Sixty-two percent "feared an eventual transfer of Arab communities near the Green Line to Palestinian Authority control, compared to 56 percent in 2003"; those "willing to move to a future Palestinian state rose from 14 to 24 percent". Two out of three Arab Israeli citizens believe in a two-state solution, compared to nine out of ten, seven years ago. However, according to that report, good news still exists: there is still a solid foundation for coexistence with a majority of Jews and Arabs committed to co-existence, wishing to remain in Israel and believing in equality for Arabs and Jews.

The realities of Israeli Arabs as depicted in this study have significant implications for Israel's future stability as well as the Palestinian aspirations for statehood. For Israel, the implication of worsening Jewish-Arab-ties should result in renewed efforts toward ethnic tolerance. The fear of ethnic cleansing among the Arabs of Israel is real and growing. The current Israeli government is reinforcing this fear implicitly by requiring this vulnerable community to become even more compliant, with recent discussions of the need for a loyalty oath. Furthermore, Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has introduced legislation, clearly targeting the Arab community, which if passed would "revoke citizenship or permanent status from any person convicted of terrorist activity or of espionage on behalf of a terrorist organization". Is there a legitimate reason to apply more pressure on the most moderate Arab community in the Middle East? Such moves will only generate radicals. Israel needs more allies, not adversaries.

There are many lessons to be learned from this study. One of its main messages is that the one-state idea (a single bi-national state for Arabs and Jews) is not the solution. Palestinians near and far should understand this. They cannot count on achieving demographic superiority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel and the entire Jewish community will not sit around passively and watch the Palestinians use their demographic advantage to set up a one-state entity. On the contrary, many radicals in Israel may be planning for a "one-state" solution of their own, looking for opportunities-particularly a pre-emptive new war-to expel Palestinians from inside or outside the occupied territories to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

By dreaming and lobbying for a one-state solution, Palestinians may be giving hard liners in Israel the perfect pretext for increased discrimination or even for the abovementioned idea of a "transfer". And by fragmenting their leadership and dividing public opinion over this issue, Palestinians are offering Israel an additional incentive to avoid taking them seriously in peace talks.

The University of Haifa study has a double message: increased ethnic tolerance from Jewish Israelis and unity behind a two-state solution for Palestinians. In the wake of the Gaza flotilla crisis, this is all the more urgent.

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* Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz (grubeiz@comcast.net) Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab American commentator. He is former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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About Dr. Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

Dr. Ghassan Michel Rubeiz is a Lebanese-American Middle East analyst with special interest in political sociology, social justice and democracy. He is a former professor of social work and psychology. He was Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches for the Middle East during the eighties and early nineties. He also served Eastern Europe for six years from the Geneva office of Christian Children’s Fund. Between 2000 and 2005, he was the Washington Liaison Director of CCF. He is now focused on public speaking and writing on the Middle East. Over the last five years, he has contributed a series of articles to the Christian Science Monitor online edition, the Lebanese Daily Star and the Arab American News. Currently, Rubeiz is writing regularly from his home office in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. His special interest is in politics and religion and in promotion of Arab American understanding. His maintains his personal blog at www.aldikkani.blogspot.com.

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