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Kosovo's declaration of independence earlier this month sent spokespeople for the Israeli right scurrying to the television studios. "Israel must not recognize Kosovo's independence," warned MK Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday from the Knesset podium. "Anyone who says it's not a precedent for anywhere else is mistaken. It is a precedent." The Yisrael Beitenu party chairman noted that Yasser Abed Rabbo, adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was threatening that the Palestinians would follow the Kosovo precedent and unilaterally declare independence if negotiations with Israel failed. "There is no doubt that this precedent could lead - not today, but in five or 10 years - the Arabs of the Galilee to announce: 'We declare our independence,'" Lieberman warned.

Israeli Arabs did not need the Kosovars to plant the idea of unilateral disengagement from the State of Israel. An internal document, revealed here for the first time - "Arab Society and the Elections for the 18th Knesset" - was prepared several months ago by the bureau of National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who heads the ministerial committee on non-Jewish sector issues.

The document, which is subtitled: "Arab Representation in the Knesset in Danger," warns that the next Knesset elections could serve "as a catalyst for the realization of the internal election plan for the Arabs in Israel and the beginning of the formation of an autonomous Arab parliament." According to the report, this will happen if the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, in concert with the other movements that boycott Israeli elections, is able to bring about a situation in which less than half the Arab population votes in the general election.

Three stages

Given recent voting trends, this would not be a huge leap. In the election for the 14th Knesset (1996), nearly 77 percent of eligible Arab voters voted; for the 15th Knesset, the rate was 75 percent. For the 16th Knesset (2003), Arab voter turnout had declined to 62 percent; and in the most recent election, two years ago, only about 56 percent of Arab voters went to the polls, compared to 64 percent of the total Israeli voters. The document cites a May 2003 study conducted by Mada al- Carmel - The Arab Center for Applied Social Research. The study (based on a survey of 821 people), indicated that 43.4 percent of those who chose to stay home on election day did so as a political act.

The study found three dimensions to the boycott: as protest of Israel's policy toward residents of the territories or against the living conditions of Israeli Arabs; as a reflection of loss of hope in the possibility of obtaining any political gains within the country's current political structure - at least, not without paying the price of granting legitimacy to the Jewish state; as expression of a desire to redefine the Arab minority's citizenship. The boycott movement has not yet become a "political stream" in its own right, but the various types of boycotters do appear to share the view that there is limited value in seeking political influence via participation in elections. "The legitimacy of boycotting [elections] has been strengthened," concludes Ben-Eliezer's document. "But it may be imparting a different political meaning to boycotting than that intended by those who advocate the idea."

The expected raising of the vote threshold for Knesset representation, from 2.0 percent to 2.5 percent, will only help to feed the "secessionist" fire. For the Arab parties, it will increase the number of votes needed to make it into the legislature by between 10,000 and 15,000 voters. If the threshold had been raised before the last election, Balad, which under MK Azmi Bashara's leadership barely made it in as it was, would have been shut out. To ensure their parliamentary survival, the Arab parties will have to merge in some fashion. Dr. Danny Gera, an expert on Israel's Arab sector, is skeptical of the chances for a merger between Hadash and the United Arab List, in which the Islamic Movement plays a central role. He says that the Arab parties are always in the opposition, outside the parliamentary circle of influence and incapable of providing any genuine response to the hardships in their communities.

"The result of being pushed into a corner and the sense of affront was already evident in the 'Future Vision' document," adds Gera. "This is a ticking bomb that comprises 19 percent of the state's population, and within 15 years will make up 25 percent of its citizens. If the government does not act quickly, and with resolve, looking at the situation clearly, the frustration and lack of trust felt by Israel's Arabs will increase, and the pressures for civil autonomy will grow." Gera stresses that what could happen is not a declaration of political independence, but rather the establishment of separate civil institutions.

MK Jamal Zahalka does not understand how figures like Lieberman can preach Jewish "separation" from Israeli Arabs and then turn around and attempt to scare people with the prospect of a separation from the state initiated by Israeli Arabs. The new leader of the Balad party also cannot understand why the ultra-Orthodox are permitted to operate their own school systems, for example, and to receive state funding, while the Arabs are not. We are not asking for more than this, Zahalka says.

King of the Arabs

"With our own hands, we are building the Kosovo of the Israeli Arabs," Ben-Eliezer has preached to the governments of Israel, including those of which he has been and today is a senior cabinet member. "We haven't helped them to become loyal citizens, we let the clan leaders govern them, we encouraged the system of the sheikhs and the mukhtars and the system of the carrot and the stick and we turned them into prey in the mouths of a bunch of predators. I'm referring to the Arab Knesset members, whose survival is fueled by incitement against the Zionist idea."

Minister of Culture and Sport Ghaleb Majadele (Labor) does not mince words either: "Israeli Arabs are suffering to this day because of the Labor Party, which is the forefather of the policy sins against our sector. We faithfully represent the public that elected us time after time, and look after its interests much more than the minister and his party."

Ben-Eliezer says he is speaking as head of the ministerial committee that was appointed to change this situation, which, in his blunt fashion, he describes as "an atom bomb that's about to explode." Of course, he is also speaking as a Jewish politician who is known within his party as "king of the Arabs." MK Amir Peretz, who once vied for the same title, had asked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to create the ministerial committee for non-Jewish sector issues for himself. Apart from helping Majadele secure his position in the cabinet, Peretz has not done much for Israel's Arab minority.

After Barak became Labor Party chair and defense minister, he handed the Israeli Arab domain to Ben-Eliezer. "I'm not a leftist," Ben-Eliezer stresses. "I'm worried about the country's future. The way we've treated them since 1948, apart from the brief period of the Rabin government, has pushed them into alienation and despair. We're in a sociopolitical process whose end is predictable. Fortunately for us, it is proceeding very slowly, but if we don't stop it, we ourselves will turn them into a fifth column."

Ben-Eliezer is unsparing about Jewish collective guilt on this issue: "Show me another place in the world, aside from Zimbabwe, where there are 60 localities without master plans and where everyone builds wherever he wants. This is how people are prevented from becoming upstanding citizens and are turned into criminals. With our own hands, we brought Hamas to the territories. With our own hands, we're leading the Israeli Arabs to Kosovo."

Gera, who served as advisor to the Knesset's Interior Committee regarding the implementation of the Or Commission report, says that since the publication of the commission's findings, the government has acknowledged the large disparities between the Arab minority and the Jewish majority, but that little has been done to address these gaps. Israeli Arabs lead in all the negative indices and come in last in the positive indices. Of the 69 communities with a low socioeconomic ranking, 61 are Arab. The average wage for an Arab salaried employee is 20 percent lower than for a Jew. Arabs travel on badly maintained roads and their children study in crumbling classrooms. Their unemployment rate is double that of residents of nearby Jewish communities (and only 3.5 percent of state employees outside the medical field are Arab). A welfare recipient in Herzliya receives six times more than his or her counterpart in Sakhnin.

Ben-Eliezer is also critical of the treatment of other non-Jewish minorities. Two weeks ago, he wrote to Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim complaining about a shortage of 2,000 housing units for young couples from the Druze and Circassian communities, whose men serve in the army. "In recent years, the severe housing shortage has been creating serious problems and great frustration in the community," he wrote. "These problems derive mainly from negligent and diffident treatment on the part of the relevant authorities and are causing a growing lack of trust between these soldiers and their families and the state's institutions."

The dispute surrounding the behavior of the police during last fall's Peki'in disturbances is a very minor matter, in Ben-Eliezer's view. "For the Druze residents of Peki'in, the straw that broke the camel's back wasn't the entry of the police," he says. "It's the cumulative result of years of anger and frustraton. The Arabs think that [the Druze] are Jews, and the Jews think of them as Arabs. The Bedouin sacrifice their lives for us, and look how we treat them, and then we expect them to take pride in their flag.

"We are on the brink of disaster," Ben-Eliezer concludes. "Look where we've come to. Every day, the situation looks worse." He promises to bring the matter up for discussion in the cabinet soon.