Arab women at work
Arab women at work in a factory in Baka al-Garbiyeh. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Prof. Sammy Smooha of Haifa University’s sociology department has been monitoring the positions of Arabs and Jews in Israel for nearly 40 years. When he asked in his latest annual opinion poll, from 2012, whether they’d be willing to live in a Palestinian state, 23% of a representative sample of Israel’s Arabs replied in the affirmative.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise. Anyone following Smooha’s surveys knows that the position held by Israeli Arabs towards the state has become more extreme over the years. It is doubtful the Jewish majority knows that 67% of the country’s Arabs believe Israel is a racist state, only 36% accept it as a Zionist state, only 47% believe it has the right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, or that 53% support having a strong Muslim force in the Middle East to restrain Israel, and that 63% support the development of nuclear weapons by Iran.

Furthermore, 22% of Israel’s Arabs defined themselves strictly as Palestinians and another 45% as Palestinian Israelis. Only 32% defined themselves as the Jewish majority refers to them – Israeli Arabs.

Half full

These figures can be read two ways: We can call the cup half empty, with 67% of Israel’s Arabs defining themselves as Palestinian in one way or other; or call the cup half full in that 77% refer to themselves as Israeli.

Actually, the cup is half full in many other ways too, such as 63% of the country’s Arabs believing it would be good if Arab and Jewish citizens continue to coexist here, and 60% to 70% supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state where Arabs and Jews live together. These findings indicate clear support for a constitution establishing Israel’s status as Jewish and democratic, with the Arabs’ status being defined as that of citizens with equal rights. Fully 60% accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state with Hebrew serving as the dominant language and culture.

Surprisingly, the Arabs even think Israel should aspire to turn more towards Western culture than that of the Arab Middle East. And perhaps most surprising of all, they express affection towards their country: 58% believe Israel is a good place to live and 55% would prefer living in Israel than any other country in the world.

This brings us to the question of whether Israel’s Arabs want to go live in Palestine as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is proposing, via a shift in the border so that all Arab communities east of Route 6 become part of Palestine. As mentioned, 23% told Smooha they would like to live in a Palestinian state.

In practical terms, though, the percentage of Israel’s Arabs who truly want to become Palestinian citizens is probably negligible, according to the professor. The 23% figure reflects nothing more than conceptual support, a backlash of sorts against the country that discriminates against them.

It should be noted that in Smooha’s opinion polls, the Jews often appear to be more extreme than the Arabs. Only 34% of the country’s Jews believe Israel is a common homeland for both Jews and Arabs, 60% believe the Palestinians aren’t its original inhabitants, and 53% believe the state should give priority to Jewish citizens over Arab citizens. This implies that the feeling of discrimination among Arabs isn’t merely a figment of their imagination.

The feeling of being discriminated against fuels the radicalization among Israel’s Arabs towards the state. Only a decade ago, in the midst of the second intifada, 66% of Israel’s Arabs supported Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state as opposed to 47% now. A decade ago only 3% of the Arabs indicated their willingness to live under the Palestinian flag, as opposed 23% today.

But this deterioration, in Smooha’s opinion, is largely an expression of frustration and an attempt at defiance since it contradicts other positions expressed by Israel’s Arabs who have undergone an accelerated process of Israelization. “They acquired the Hebrew culture as a secondary culture to their Arab culture,” he says. “As far as they’re concerned, they made a type of deal with the State of Israel in which they enjoy the services of a welfare state, freedom of expression, democracy, civil rights, a Western standard of living, and protection from Islamic radicalism. All this they are paying for in deprivation and discrimination, which they counter with defiance in their radical positions – but it is still a deal they have chosen.”

In other words Smooha’s polls reveal that Israel’s Arabs have a very hard time with their Israeliness, but they really aren’t interested in replacing it with any other civil identity either – and certainly not Palestinian citizenship. “If Palestine were a flourishing Western country with a democratic regime and civil rights, then maybe transferring to it might be open for consideration,” says Smooha. “But in current circumstances it wouldn’t be rational for them to want to live in Palestine. It’s much better in Israel.”

The Shin Bet security service also believes in the loyalty of Israel’s Arabs to their country. “Most of the time in the past 60 years, Israel’s Arabs were loyal to the state – including the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War and the waves of terror that followed,” said former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin in a meeting held in 2008 with the U.S. ambassador to Israel and reported by Wikileaks. Diskin also said the main challenge facing the Israeli government is “how to connect Israel’s Arabs to the state,” and that this is a complicated task due to their identity crisis. He estimated that most of Israel’s Arabs want to live in Israel.

Not serious, 
but still damaging

So actually the foreign minister’s generous offer to force Arab citizens to give up their Israeli citizenship isn’t so generous at all. Several were even heard expressing themselves publicly this week by calling it another Nakba (the term used by the Palestinians for their national calamity in 1948). Referring to the loss of Israeli citizenship as a national calamity again highlights the duality in their complex attitude towards the State of Israel, and the crude mistakes Israel keeps making all the time with regards to them.

Nobody is really taking Lieberman’s proposal seriously and it clearly isn’t possible to implement. It is nothing but a red herring, but it achieves one clear objective along the way: It undermines the legitimacy of Israel’s Arabs as equal citizens and positions them as second-class citizens. From the perspective of many Jews who see Israel’s Arabs as a fifth column – in Smooha’s polls, 28% of the Jews support revoking the right of Arabs to vote in national elections – this proposal is considered valid.

So while Lieberman’s proposal isn’t expected to lead to any political result, it could definitely have a destructive effect on the social and economic integration of Israel’s Arabs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week at a cabinet meeting that one of Israel’s four growth engines is the integration of the Haredi and Arab populations in the workforce. It isn’t entirely clear how the prime minister intends to promote the integration of Israel’s Arabs in the labor market at the same time his foreign minister is turning them into illegitimate citizens.