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The recent proposals for radical changes to Israel's government structure presented by some of Israel's Arab intellectuals in an effort to accommodate the Arab minority, have sparked a renewed debate about the place of Israel's Arab citizens in Israeli society and its political scene. The fact that the authors of these proposals insist on referring to Israel's Arab citizens as "Arab Palestinians" serves as a reminder that they see themselves as Palestinians who, by force of circumstance - in their parlance, as a result of the "disaster" of 1948 - are now citizens of Israel in "their own land," who have the right to claim a far greater role in making the decisions that shape Israel's future and governance than they currently have in the existing Israeli system of parliamentary democracy.

As some of Israel's Jewish citizens see it, the tensions that characterize the relations between the State of Israel and some of its Arab citizens will not and cannot be resolved until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, or possibly until hostility in the Arab world or even the Islamic world toward Israel has ceased to be a significant factor in the Middle East. If this were the case, then such tension is likely to continue for a very long time. A future where possibly a quarter of Israel's citizens feel alienated from the state, hostile to it, and supportive of its enemies is a bleak and even dangerous one. Creating an alternate future in which many or most of Israel's Arab citizens identify with the state and feel a sense of loyalty to it is probably the most important challenge facing Israel. This subject, neglected by successive governments, is crying out for attention.

Are we destined to live with a large minority in our midst that feels dissatisfied with its lot and identifies with Israel's enemies rather than with Israel itself, whose citizenship they share with the country's Jewish citizens? This question led me to accept the position of the minister for Arab affairs 20 years ago, in the first national unity government, led by Yitzhak Shamir. It was, at the time, a position without a ministry and without a budget, of little influence, that hardly any senior politician wanted. The position has since ceased to exist - an indication of the lack of importance ascribed to it on Israel's political agenda.

I had encountered the problems that some of Israel's minorities had to deal with during my first tenure as defense minister in 1983-84. I discovered then that Druze youngsters - obligated to serve in the IDF like their Jewish counterparts - did not enjoy equal opportunity in the army, as many positions and branches of the service were not open to them. The military bureaucracy was slow to follow my orders to correct this situation, and it was only during my second tenure as defense minister (1990-92) that full equality was institutionalized in the IDF. Today all branches of the IDF are open to Druze soldiers, a Druze major general sits on the IDF General Staff, and a significant number of IDF senior officers are Druze.

The year I spent as minister in charge of Arab affairs encouraged me to believe that it was possible to bring many of Israel's Arab citizens to a greater identification with Israel and to an acceptance that with equality of rights should come equality of obligations toward the state and eventually equality of opportunity. That living in a democracy, in a country in which the rule of law prevails, in an economy that was making great progress to the benefit of all, could be a source of pride and satisfaction to Arabs as well as Jews, that might well overcome the tribal sense of association with Israel's enemies. Whatever sympathy I got from Israeli Arabs for this idea came from a recognition that I was serious about incorporating them into Israeli society as equals. Whether my views were shared by the Israeli government remains unclear; it is a question that haunts Israel's relationship with its Arab citizens to this day.

Many of those who believed that the tensions between Israel and its Arab citizens were inextricably linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expecting that the Oslo Accords and Israel's recognition of Yasser Arafat and the PLO as its partners in a peace process would assuage these tensions, were to be disappointed. The tensions have only increased over the years. There is little reason to expect that even if and when an agreement to establish a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria and Gaza is signed, such an agreement would spell the end of the difficulties that characterize the relations between Israel and its Arab citizens. On the contrary, it may very well exacerbate them.

Israel must, therefore, find means of normalizing this relationship regardless of whether any progress is made on the Palestinian front or on Israel's relations with the Arab and Islamic world. The fact that this issue had been neglected may have left the impression that Israel's Arab citizens are patiently waiting for Israel's government to awake from its slumber. But this is not the case. A constant and fierce struggle for the hearts and minds of the Arab citizens has been ongoing for years now. Arrayed on one side is the Islamic Movement and the radical secular Arab wing, both attempting to cast their net over all of Israel's Arab citizens - Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin - claiming to speak for them all, and preaching hostility to Israel. On the other side, meanwhile, successive Israeli governments have been soundly asleep.

Particularly significant are the inroads the Islamic Movement has made among the Bedouin of the Negev, who in the past had not been particularly religious and had not seen themselves as Palestinians. Day by day more and more Bedouin are being moved from essentially friendly positions to hostility toward Israel, while Bedouin youngsters are being discouraged from volunteering for army service.

During my second tenure as defense minister I encouraged the formation of an infantry battalion made up largely of Bedouin youngsters who had volunteered for a three-year service in the IDF. This battalion has given exemplary service and even attracted some Muslim and Christian volunteers from Arab villages in the North. Unfortunately, defense ministers who succeeded me have not shown the same enthusiasm for this project, which I had hoped would lead in time to obligatory military service for all Arab youth.

The importance of IDF service in ushering youngsters toward greater integration in Israeli society cannot be overestimated. The degree of Israelization of the Druze community, the drastic decline in its birthrate over the years, and the loyalty to Israel demonstrated again and again by this community, is the direct result of its youngsters' service in the IDF. In fact, it is difficult to foresee the integration of Israel's Arab citizens into society without them sharing equally in the obligations of citizenship. Without it, divisions will remain, and possibly widen, between those Israelis who are prepared to defend Israel and those who are not.

In any case, unless the government takes the initiative and contests the attempts by elements hostile to Israel to draw Arab citizens of Israel to their cause, Israel will be facing tremendous difficulties in the years to come. The problem goes way beyond budgetary allocations and a symbolic Arab minister in the government. But it is by no means a lost cause.