In his speech last week to the members of Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted that Israel's more than 1 million Arab citizens have been enjoying democratic rights for decades. He added emphatically: "Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel's Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of 1 percent are truly free, and they're all citizens of Israel!"
There is no doubt the prime minister's words brought a bitter smile to the faces of all those who are intimately familiar with the situation. There is a difference between the image of the State of Israel presented to Congress and the reality on the ground, and a large gap between the things said there and what happens here. There is also a real difference between the rhetoric and the practice.
First, the premier made an irrelevant comparison between citizens of what is in his opinion the only democratic country in the Middle East, and citizens living under undemocratic regimes. The proper comparison would have been between Israel's Arab citizens and its Jewish ones, especially as the Arabs are a native minority in their homeland. It also would have been more logical to compare Israel to other democracies. Such comparisons would have led Netanyahu to a conclusion opposite from that expressed in his speech.
Moreover, there is a wide-ranging discussion in Israeli academia concerning the nature of the country's regime, including over whether it can be called a democracy at all. There are scholars who argue that Israel is a liberal democracy like the United States and Canada. But many others say there are serious and significant flaws in Israeli democracy, and describe it as an "ethnic democracy," "hollow democracy," "formal democracy" or a "Jewish democracy." Then there are those who say Israel is not a democracy at all, but rather an "ethnocracy," a regime designed to privilege the Jewish majority.
As long as the occupation continues, as Israel lacks either a constitution or clear borders, as there is discrimination against the Palestinian minority and an attempt to Judaize the space, and the state defines itself as "Jewish," it cannot be called a full democracy.
The prime minister apparently forgot that the government he heads is the only one to date that, in its statement of principles, ignored the rights of Arab citizens and legitimized Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's party, whose action plan called for abrogating the rights and status of Arab citizens, revoking their citizenship and even transferring them to a future Palestinian state. The current government has already passed a number of laws that harm the rights of the Arab public, such as the acceptance committee law, which was aimed at denying the right of Arab citizens to live in small Jewish communities by giving those communities the power to reject them, as well as other laws, including one preventing commemoration of the Nakba. Recently the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee advanced a bill that would give preference in hiring for civil service jobs to people who have served in the military.
There are many examples of violations of Arab rights, starting with house demolitions and the non-recognition of the Arab-Bedouin villages in the Negev, through the exclusion of Arab Knesset members and their parties from the possibility of becoming members of the government, to the stringent security inspections to which Arab citizens are subjected, without distinction, at the airports and border crossings.
The fourth "equality index" published about two months ago by Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, based on reliable data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, showed an increase over the past few years in the gaps between Jews and Arabs in the areas of employment, welfare, housing and health. It also found that public education in the Arab community lags far behind that in the Jewish sector - and all this as a result of systematic and consistent discrimination by all the governments of Israel.
And though the Arab citizens of Israel may constitute less than one-half of 1 percent of all the Arabs in the Middle East, they comprise about one-fifth of the population of Israel, yet their representation in the civil service here is only 7 percent. There isn't a single Arab cabinet minister or ministry director general or government company CEO, university president or public company chairman. No university or government hospital has ever been built in an Arab municipality, and since 1948, the state has not established even one new Arab town or city. Some 60 percent of all Arab families live below the poverty line.
The government Netanyahu heads has thus far done nothing to benefit the Arab population, apart from approving a plan last year to invest NIS 800 million in its economic development. But that plan is intended for only 13 Arab municipalities, will deal with only a limited number of issues - and will be in effect for five years. Indeed, the current government is the most hostile and the harshest ever in its treatment of Arab citizens.
After we stopped for a second and thought about what Netanyahu said in Washington, checked the facts and refreshed our memory with the reliable data, and looked at the reality before our eyes, we came to the conclusion that the Arab citizens of Israel do not enjoy real democratic rights. And the responsibility to change this grave reality is incumbent on the prime minister.
Ali Haider is a co-executive director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.