Who Here Speaks Arabic?

The logical twists in party platforms on Israel's Arabs are distancing that community from the Jewish public, and feelings of alienation from the state only deepen as long as rightist parties gain ever more Knesset seats.

The measure of Avigdor Lieberman's being "right" on the political spectrum is not the fact that he lives in a settlement. There are many such MKs in other parties. Nor is it his political platform, which is not far from that of Benjamin Netanyahu. Nor is it his attacks on the legal system, in which he is joined by Shas and by the justice minister himself.

No, it is a single clause in Yisrael Beiteinu's platform that serves as Lieberman's war paint: "Responsibility for areas populated by an Arab majority, such as Umm al-Fahm in the Triangle, will be transferred to the Palestinian Authority. In parallel, areas in Judea and Samaria and strongholds of Jewish settlement will be officially annexed to Israel." [The Triangle is the area roughly bounded by the Arab towns of Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh and Tira.]

This clause was translated into two frightful campaign slogans: "Only Lieberman understands Arabic," and "No citizenship without loyalty," thanks to which his party has been rewarded with 15 Knesset seats.

Why the apprehension about Lieberman joining the government? It is due not to his policy toward Israeli Arabs, but his potential influence on the peace process, which has in any case virtually dissolved in the supposedly experienced hands of Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak.

One day after the elections, pundits and policy makers will deliberate over how best to dilute Lieberman's influence in any future government, as if he were the main obstacle to the peace process. As if without Lieberman, it would be a simply splendid government, ready to negotiate to divide Jerusalem, evacuate the settlements and deal with the refugee issue and the sharing of water between Israel and the new Palestinian polity.

Has anyone heard in the past few days any public official from any party relevant to coalition talks say he or she would not sit in a government with Lieberman because of his views on Israeli Arabs?

The more than a million citizens of Israel who are Arab hardly interest a soul. How many voters - whether in the left, center or right - know the difference between Ra'am and Ta'al, between Balad and the Islamic Movement, between the Movement's northern and southern branches or between Druze, Arab and Bedouin?

Newspaper reports speak of "the number of Arabs" who enter the Knesset, but not of which parties they comprise. "The Arabs," as everyone knows, are a single legion. All of them want the same thing, toe the same line, and a single government policy is applicable to all. In fact, if not for the rulings of the High Court, we could have bid them goodbye long ago. After all, would Labor and Kadima not join Lieberman in seeking to expel them from the Knesset on "charges" of disloyalty to the state?

On the left and in the center, as on Lieberman's right, the Arabs in Israel are simply a platform clause, one by which parties can rank themselves on the ladder of Zionism. Let's remember, for example, how many times the phrase "Jewish state" appears in Kadima's platform, and how "national obligations" are cited as a means of testing loyalty. Kadima even knows how to distinguish between Druze and Circassians on the one hand (they serve in the army), and all the rest, as the former group deserves all kinds of favors from the government while the others do not. The scale demanded by Lieberman, which has "Jewish state" on one side and "democratic state" on the other, serves the needs of virtually every party.

And the Arabs of Israel serve yet another useful political purpose. All those pursuing a two-state solution - that is, the parties of the left and center - link them to the demographic threat looming over Israel should it fail to reach an agreement. Herein lies the preposterous contradiction of the "Jewish, democratic state": a two-state solution will leave Israeli Arabs with the status of disloyal citizens, a fifth column, which must be dealt with through all the usual measures. Without a two-state solution, as we begin a slow crawl toward one state for two peoples, Israeli Arabs (along with "all the other" Palestinians) will remain a threat to Israel's identity, and that is in itself an unacceptable situation.

Ironically, Lieberman is left with the same problem. If he opposes the two-state solution, his proposal of removing Israel's Arabs to the Palestinian territories will be null and void. He will still be stuck with the same "warehouse" of Arabs, as his "transfer" will be relevant only with the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The problem is that the logical twists in party platforms on Israel's Arabs are distancing that community from the Jewish public, and feelings of alienation from the state only deepen as long as rightist parties gain ever more Knesset seats. Lieberman is perhaps the most fluent spokesman on relations with the Arab minority, but the members of any coalition of which he is a part are themselves also likely to "understand" Arabic.