"The Galilee is sitting on a powder keg," says a Jewish public figure who lives in the region. He senses "growing extremism and separatism" in neighboring Arab communities and warns that "if government neglect continues, Galilee will become Bosnia."

An Arab intellectual from the Triangle region of Israeli Arab villages, predicts that "within two or three years, continued discrimination will bring us all to another October 2000." [Thirteen Arab demonstrators were killed by police in northern Israel over several days of disturbances that followed Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount at the end of September 2000.] When the topic of discussion is Arab-Israeli relations, the forecast can never be too stormy.

Indeed, Prof. Sammy Smooha's survey Index of Arab-Israeli Relations in Israel indicates how severe alienation has become: 53.3 percent of Arabs feel rejected as citizens of Israel. The University of Haifa sociologist found a deterioration in the image that each group has of the other: 55.8 percent of Arabs do not trust the majority of Jews, 57.2 percent of Jews share similar feelings toward Arabs, and fears are profound.

Transfer, or expulsion of Arabs from the state, is not on the government's current agenda, yet a majority of Arab citizens - 55.4 percent - responded at the end of 2003, that they feared the possibility of transfer. Seventy percent said they feared violence on the part of Jews. For their part, 77.3 percent of Jews responded that they feared an Arab popular uprising. Smooha says that the statistics reveal a deep rift, of a magnitude that has precipitated civil war and governmental collapse in other countries.

Despite that, the "growing extremism theory" prevalent among Jews, policy makers and academic researchers is not supported by Smooha's comprehensive study, in which 1,400 Jews and Arabs participated. According to the growing extremism theory, says Smooha, Jews and Arabs are engaged in a historic process of continuing alienation, distancing and conflict. According to the theory, "conflict will inevitably appear. The only question is when. The events of October 2000 were only a harbinger of the big crash." Logic and evidence supporting the theory of growing extremism are so strong that few would dare to question or refute the theory, according to Smooha.

However, similar surveys carried out by Smooha since 1976 point out the possibility of trends in Arab public opinion that conflict with common assumptions. A total of 10 percent of Arab citizens now deny Israel's right to exist. The number was twice that in 1976, and about 15.5 percent in 2001-02, after the bloody events in the Arab sector. With or without reservations, 90 percent of Arabs now recognize Israel, and most want to be integrated into Israeli society: 67.5 percent would be willing to live in a Jewish neighborhood, and 80 percent would like Arabs to enjoy parks and share swimming pools with Jews. Only 13.4 percent would be willing to move to a Palestinian state.

As a result of these findings, Smooha tends to support a theory that he created as an alternative to the growing extremism theory. According to his "politicization theory," positive and negative forces acting on Jews and Arabs in Israel create a balance that prevents conflict. This creates a process in which crisis, confrontation and violence are not inevitable outcomes. He believes that politicization is fed by two more basic processes, "Israelization, which connects Arabs closely to the state and to Jews in many areas of life, and democratization of the society and its government."

The study of Arab public opinion indicates that Israeli Arabs are reluctant to adopt a path of nationalist confrontation, and, in fact, prefer to avoid politics altogether. Political demonstrations by the Arab public are nearly nonexistent and, in the last Knesset elections, voting in the Arab sector hit an all-time low of about 62 percent. Voting in regional council elections was characterized by the failure of political parties to rally support. The voting saw the election of lists based on hamula, or clan, affiliations. The Islamic Movement's southern wing was trounced in Knesset and regional council elections.

According to the survey, a majority of both sectors, about 58 percent, believe that MKs from Arab parties loyally represent Arab citizens. However, the political stands adopted by these representatives are not necessarily identical to those of their constituency. Arab legislators, for example, failed to support the Geneva initiative, which denies the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the pre-1967 borders. But almost 75 percent of Arabs in the study support the return of refugees only to the territories, and a considerable minority of 37.7 percent actually accepts the Zionist principle that "Israel is justified in maintaining a Jewish majority."

As MK Ahmed Tibi puts it, "Israel is a democratic state for the Jews and a Jewish state for the Arabs." However, 65.2 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement "despite its disadvantages, the government in Israel is democratic also toward its Arab citizens."

What has happened to public opinion since the events of October 2000? An examination of public opinion over the past 28 years shows that there has been a considerable moderation of what Smooha calls "militant stands" in the Arab population. A total of 3.1 percent of the Arabs said in the current study that they supported violence, as opposed to 17.9 percent in 1976, 8 percent in 1988 and 5.4 percent in 2002. A total of 54.9 percent said that they feel closer to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, while 45.1 percent said that they feel closer to Jews in Israel. In 2002, these numbers were 70 percent to 30 percent in favor of Palestinians. In 1985, 47.1 percent responded that they were anti-Zionist. This statistic now stands at 20 percent. A total of 78.8 percent responded that they were non-Zionists.

Despite this, the Jewish population has hardened its opinions regarding Arabs. The rate of Jews who would deny Arabs the right to live as a minority in Israel was 15.9 percent in 1985, 9.6 percent in 1995, but rose to 21.5 percent in 2003. Almost 74 percent of Jews said that they avoided entering Arab settlements.

One of the surprises of the survey was the extent to which Jews would be willing to grant a certain level of autonomy to Israeli Arabs, ranging from 55.1 percent who said the state should recognize a representative body elected by the Arab community to 61.3 percent who agreed that Arabs would autonomously manage issues relating to their religion, education and culture within the framework of the state. Israeli governments have always soundly rejected both of these demands.

Among Arabs surveyed, it was surprising that 48.2 percent support comprehensive integration into the Western world, and that within some Arab subgroups - Christians (68 percent), Druze (56 percent) and non-religious Muslims (52 percent) - there is actually a majority that supports such integration.

Smooha says his research presents a picture that is "gray - not black or white." Like many commentators, he is convinced that "in the final analysis, the events of 2000 led to serious restraint on both sides."

Face to face interviews

The Arab-Israeli Relations in Israel Index, sponsored by the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa, was initially published this month with the goal of presenting a current picture of the two populations and the changes in their relations over past years. The current research examines public opinion, but the author, Prof. Sammy Smooha, intends to add the study of "objective" factors in the future, which will measure equality in socioeconomic terms (such as education, income, poverty, and unemployment), representation in government, discrimination, demographics and bilingualism in the minority and majority populations.

The Jewish population surveyed included 700 men and women above age 18, from geographic areas throughout the country, including settlements beyond the Green Line. The survey was conducted by telephone in Hebrew and Russian.

The Arab population surveyed also numbered 700 men and women, and included a representative sample of Arabs in Israel, including Druze and Bedouin Arabs. Palestinians in East Jerusalem were not included. A specially appointed staff interviewed participants face to face in the months of August and September 2003. In both populations, sampling error was 3.7 percent.

Prof. Smooha has been conducting public opinion surveys among the Arab population for the past 28 years. His surveys are considered to be credible, in part because they are conducted in person. Smooha intends to publish the index periodically in the future, using similar questions each time. Smooha says the index will join three indexes currently published by Israeli academics: The Peace Index published by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at the University of Tel Aviv; the National Strength Index, published by the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa; and the Democracy Index published by the Israel Democracy Institute.