The term “Israeli Arab” that defines 20 percent of the country’s citizens is misleading if you look at their national identity. The overwhelming majority were born in the country, and they’re the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Palestinians. Those same citizens, whether they like it or not, have siblings, cousins and in-laws over the Green Line and overseas.
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The identification of these citizens with the Palestinian people’s suffering and its struggle for self-definition is absolute, though of course political approaches vary. It’s easy to see that most Israelis are unwilling to accept this outlook; otherwise the surprise at the demonstrations and arrests in Jaffa, Umm al-Fahm, Nazareth and other Arab communities wouldn’t be so great.
Instead of understanding and accepting their actions, Israeli Jews measure Israeli Arabs’ behavior based on their loyalty to the state. But if you examine this behavior since the state’s founding relative to government policy, you see that the overwhelming majority take advantage of the democratic tools at their disposal, even when they’ve faced draconian laws and racist policies.
In recent years, the government and Knesset have taken a nationalist line that pushes Arab citizens to the margins of Israeli democracy. This line basically starts with the demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish state and extends to the prime minister’s unforgettable Election Day remark about Arab droves.
In recent months, the government has held a dialogue with Arab representatives about closing socioeconomic gaps to lower the temperature after a tense election campaign. The treasury is crafting a plan it intends to present in the coming months. Advocates describe it as revolutionary but are reluctant to call it a plan for closing gaps with Arab society. Instead, they say it’s about “strengthening the weaker socioeconomic classes.” In any case, most Arabs fit that bill.
The upshot is that Arabs citizens in Israel can fight for civil rights and demand bigger budgets, but they may not demand national rights that threaten the state’s Jewish character.
This perception is also expressed in daily life. Every time there’s a crisis of confidence between the two communities, Jews shun Arab-owned markets, stores and restaurants. This behavior, both by the establishment and most of the people, leaves Arabs living in a restricted space between an economic carrot and a Jewish nationalist stick. This policy can’t go on forever and can’t convince the young generation that gauges its political behavior based on Western norms, not the Islamic State and Arab countries.
If the Israeli government believes in true equality and coexistence not based on the quality of hummus and baklava, it must seek a political deal with the Palestinians that eases tensions and provides a firm basis for civic equality and recognition of the national identity of their brethren in Israel.
If the situation remains as is, the protests and outbursts of rage will become routine. Sometimes, the rift will widen, as happened in October 2000. Israeli citizens who identify as Palestinians don’t need to prove loyalty to the state. Rather, they expect the state to prove its loyalty to one-fifth of its citizens.