While our politicians are busy calculating the possible combinations and permutations of the next coalition, one would hope they are not neglecting the priorities that will face the new government. Getting these priorities straight is even likely to affect the composition of the new coalition.
Everybody can agree on a number of subjects that should top the next government's priorities - dealing with the danger of Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah; pursuing the peace process; facing the momentous economic crisis that is fast approaching; reforming the educational system that has put our children in a league with developing countries; and certainly not last and not least, working toward integrating Israeli Arabs in the fabric of Israeli society. This long neglected and much misunderstood challenge urgently needs to be addressed before it reaches unmanageable proportions.
The relationship between Israeli Arabs, close to a fifth of all citizens, and the State of Israel is no small matter. If the majority of these citizens were to feel alienated from the state and hostile toward it, this would not bode well for the future of Israel. Seeing as such feelings have already developed among a minority of Israeli Arabs, it is important to stem this tide and reverse its direction. This is not going to be easy, but it is not impossible. The majority of Israel's Arab population is not hostile to the state. Many prefer living in Israel to living in one of the neighboring Arab states, and some of them, going beyond the call of duty as presently defined by the law, even volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
What needs to be understood is that allegiance to the state cannot be imposed, or enforced. It is something that has to come naturally, from a feeling of being at home here, from an appreciation for the principles on which the State of Israel is founded, from a sense of sharing a common fate with Israel's Jewish citizens. That feeling will grow in an atmosphere that the Israeli government has to foster, an atmosphere based on equal rights and equal opportunities and of tolerance toward the country's minorities.
The vocal representatives of the radical Arab parties elected to the Knesset are doing nothing to foster such an atmosphere. Quite the contrary: The hostility to Israel that they continually demonstrate only arouses a feeling of concern and suspicion among Israel's Jewish citizens. They are not helping to bridge the existing gap; rather, they are busy creating a gulf of suspicion and fear between Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens. But the absence of an active government policy that would better integrate Israel's Arab citizens, and the rise of a xenophobic Jewish political party, is producing a retreat rather than progress in the desired direction. The fact that the radical Arab parties succeeded for the first time in drawing almost the entire Arab vote should serve as a warning signal.
Sharing the obligation of defending the country with Jewish, Druze and Circassian citizens should not be the condition for Arab citizens to enjoy equal rights and opportunities. But it must be understood that such service is consistent with the standards of a democratic society. As long as Israeli Arabs do not participate in the defense of the country, they will always sense a feeling of separateness, a feeling that will be reciprocated by those citizens who carry the burden of the country's defense on their shoulders.
The IDF has a singular role to play in this scenario. The major vehicle of integration of new immigrants in Israeli society throughout the years, the IDF has made a praiseworthy contribution to the integration of Israel's Druze community. It can and should do the same for the Arab population, Muslim and Christian alike. Starting with the Bedouin population, the IDF should encourage youngsters to step up their volunteer service; it should continue with appeals to the rest of the Arab population to volunteer for military service. If the IDF's efforts are supplemented by an active government policy aimed at integrating Israel's Arab citizens, the goal so important to Israel can be achieved in the years to come. The next government should open a new chapter in the relations between the state and its Arab citizens.
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