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Israeli democracy was saved by the skin of its teeth this week from racist legislation that would have permitted the establishment of exclusively Jewish townships. For now, it is possible to breathe a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, it is difficult to sever Israeli discourse on rights and national self-definition from its connection to land.

In recent years, ever since successive Israeli governments began their attempts to reach an economic arrangement with the kibbutzim, and the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow began its struggle for the residents of public housing projects, this debate has intensified. And the demographic threats that the right likes to brandish, the collapse of the peace process and the influence of the intifada on relations between Israeli Arabs and the state have all contributed their share to the already loaded issue.

Behind the land arrangement with the kibbutzim, one man can usually be found: Ariel Sharon (first as agriculture minister, then as housing minister, then as infrastructure minister and finally as prime minister). From his perspective, settling every part of the Land of Israel is the Zionist response - together with military assaults - to what he views as the danger of control of the land by the Arabs. His Zionism, like that of most members of his cabinet, stems from a new definition of the Jews as a religious-ethnic group - and, therefore, in practice, as a racist group.

This sparks injustices such as Druckman's bill. But long before Druckman's bill was born, numerous similar principles had been created. These principles, which forced the Supreme Court to rule on the discrimination against Arab citizens in the Katzir case, gave birth to miserable townships such as Harish (out of overeagerness to establish towns that would Judaize Wadi Ara was born a desolate town in which only Arabs, who are not permitted by the state to develop their own towns, would be interested in or able to live in) and enabled the lawyers of the kibbutz movement to shed crocodile tears in court in their response to the Democratic Rainbow's petition. The petitioners, claimed the lawyers, are stealing from the farmers in general, and from kibbutz residents in particular, the land for which they risked their lives and shed their blood for the sake of the Jewish people and the state.

On the other side, stood the representatives of the slums, the residents of Amidar (the public housing company) and the Rainbow activists. Years of oppression and a feeling of not belonging were poured into their argument with the kibbutzim. In their anger, they had trouble seeing the genuine fear of elderly kibbutz residents and the children of those who were once a social and economic elite, who today are threatened with economic distress, with being pushed to the margins and with the undermining of their social structure.

And so, instead of each group listening to the other's pain, out of an understanding that both are liable to be swallowed up in the maelstrom of mighty interests tied in with real estate, they invested most of their strength in fighting each other.

Nevertheless, there were those on both sides who understood that this conflict weakened their arguments. Thus over the last few months, representatives of the Rainbow and the kibbutzim have been working on a proposed settlement. On June 7, the first draft was signed, and it will soon be presented to the general public.

"Every citizen of the state has social rights," the document states, "including the right to remunerative work, to suitable housing, to education, to acquiring knowledge, to health and welfare services and to an appropriate level of security in old age."

The document goes on to elaborate on the right to housing, the right to equality in the allocation of public resources and the need to preserve public assets (such as land and water). And at the end, the compromise is presented: "The state will work to enable the continuance of all lifestyles and types of settlement" - including, on the one hand, the right to earn one's living from farming, and on the other, the use of funds obtained from the rezoning of agricultural lands to advance society as a whole.

In sharp contrast to the campaign of incitement that charges that "the Democratic Rainbow is handing over land to the Arabs," the joint document encompasses the development of Arab townships, with industry, commerce and agriculture, and the granting of rights to unrecognized villages.

This document does not effect a revolution, but it does open a door. It hints at the possibility of relegating land to the restrained and unexciting status it deserves. It heralds, perhaps, the beginning of the replacement of messianic ethnic discourse with the discourse of a sane civil society.