The Arab question in Israel was the term used in the top ranks of Mapai, the ruling party in the young State of Israel – and forerunner of Labor – to encapsulate the complex issue that arose after the War of Independence of 1948-49. In the wake of the fighting, and the armistice agreements that concluded the war, about 156,000 Arabs remained within Israel (out of an estimated 700,000 before the war), accounting for 14 percent of the nascent states population. So it was with some justification that Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett stated in a meeting of Mapai Knesset members and the partys senior leadership, on June 18, 1950, that this is one of the fundamental questions of our policy and of the future of our country. He added that the issue was one that will determine the direction of the countrys morality, for our entire moral stature depends on this test – on whether we pass it or not.
Almost 70 years later, the Arab question in Israel continues to pose a conundrum for politicians when they address the issue of the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel (or, as they are often imprecisely called, Israeli Arabs).
The minutes of the meetings held by Mapai, which are stored in the Labor Party Archive in Beit Berl, outside Kfar Sava, attest to the deep dispute in the party over two conflicting approaches concerning the Arabs in Israel. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his associates – Moshe Dayan (Israel Defense Forces chief of staff 1953-1958) and Shimon Peres, at the time a senior official in the Defense Ministry – urged a policy of segregation and a hard hand against what he argued was a communal threat to national security; while Sharett and other Mapai leaders – Pinhas Lavon, Zalman Aran, David Hacohen and others – promoted a policy of integration.
The disagreement between Ben-Gurion and Sharett mirrored the respective approaches held by the two regarding the Arab world in general. Sharett was critical of Ben-Gurions policy, which he said, held that the only language the Arabs understand is force, and called for an approach that preferred the matter of peace. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, then a Knesset member, and later Israels second president (1952-1963), summed up succinctly the alternatives in a meeting of the Mapai MKs several weeks later, on July 9, 1950: The question is the attitude the state takes toward the minorities. Do we want them to remain in the country, to be integrated in the country, or to get out of the country We declared civic equality irrespective of race difference. Does this refer to a time when there will be no Arabs in the country? If so, its fraud.
The discussions within the party were quite freewheeling, even if speakers frequently expressed concern of leaks to the press, which could have lead to international pressure on Israel to improve the treatment of its Arab citizens. Indeed, the future of the relations between the peoples who inhabited the country demanded weighty political decisions. Among the issues in question: the right to vote, the Absentees Property Law, the status of the Arab education system, membership of Arab workers in the Mapai-affiliated Histadrut federation of labor, and more.
One proposition that arose frequently in the discussions was that of a transfer – the expulsion of the Arabs who continued to reside in Israel – a term that some found grating already then. In the June 1950 meeting, Sharett took issue with the allegation, voiced by Ben-Gurion and his supporters, that the Arabs in Israel were a fifth column. That was a simplistic assumption, Sharett said, which needs to be examined. As he saw it, the fate of the relations between the two peoples depended overwhelmingly on the Jews. Will we continue to fan the flames? Sharett asked, or try to douse them? Even though a high-school education was not yet mandatory under law (and the state was not obligated to offer one), a large number of the Jewish youth in the country attended high school, and Sharett thought that the state should establish high schools for the Arabs as well. Israel needs to guarantee them their cultural minimum, he added.
For political reasons, the segregationists tended to ignore the difference between the Arabs living in Israel and those who were left on the other side of the border following the war, many of whom made attempts to infiltrate and return to their homes. Sharett took the opposite view: A distinction must be made between vigorous action against Arab infiltration and discrimination against Arabs within the country.
Ranking figures such as Sharett and Lavon, who was defense minister in 1954-55, viewed positively a further exodus of Arabs from the country, but only by peaceful means. Sharett vehemently objected to the position taken by Dayan, who not only wanted to bring about a situation in which there would be fewer Arabs in Israel, but sought to achieve this through active expulsion. In Sharetts view, We must not strive to do this by a wholesale policy of persecution and discrimination. Sharett spoke of distinctly unnecessary forms of cruelty, which are tantamount to an indescribable desecration of Gods name.
Dayan, notwithstanding the fact that he was serving in the army at the time – as head of Southern Command – participated in Mapais political meetings and helped set public policy. He was one of the leaders of the aggressive stance against the countrys Arabs and was against a proposal that they should serve in the army (an idea that came up but was shelved). He opposed granting the Arabs permanent-citizenship certificates, opposed compensating those who had been dispossessed of their land, and in fact opposed every constructive action that could contribute to bridge-building between the peoples. Lets say that we help them live in the situation they are in today and no more, he proposed.
Dayan's approach remained consistent over the years, and conflicted with the view taken by Sharett and the stream in Mapai that he represented. Speaking in the same June 1950 meeting, Dayan asserted, I want to say that in my opinion, the policy of this party should be geared to see this public, of 170,000 Arabs, as though their fate has not yet been sealed. I hope that in the years to come there will perhaps be another possibility to implement a transfer of these Arabs from the Land of Israel, and as long as a possibility of this sort is feasible, we should not do anything that conflicts with this.
Dayan also objected to Sharetts proposals to improve the level of education among the countrys Arabs. It is not in our interest to do that, he said. This is not the only question on which the time for a final solution has not yet arrived.
Zalman Aran, a future education minister, objected to the military government that had been imposed on Israels Arabs at the time of statehood and remained in effect until 1966. Under its terms, Arabs had to be equipped with permits both to work and to travel outside their hometowns, which were also under curfew at night. As long as we keep them in ghettos, Aran said, no constructive activity will help. Lavon, too, urged the dismantlement of the military government. In 1955, a few months after resigning as defense minister, he savaged the concept at a meeting in Beit Berl. The State of Israel cannot solve the question of the Arabs who are in the country by Nazi means, he stated, adding, Nazism is Nazism, even if carried out by Jews.
Even earlier, Lavon was a sharp critic of the line taken by Dayan and other advocates of transfer. At a meeting of another Mapai leadership forum, on May 21, 1949, he said acidly, Its well known that we socialists are the best in the world even when we rob Arabs. A few months later, on January 1, 1950, in another meeting, he warned, It is impossible to take action among the Arabs when the policy is one of transfer. It is impossible to work among them if the policy is to oppress Arabs – that prevents concrete action. What is being carried out is a dramatic and brutal suppression of the Arabs in Israel... Transfer is not on the cards. If there is not a war, they will not go. Two-hundred thousand Arabs will be citizens in terms of voting... As the state party, we must set for ourselves a constructive policy in the Arab realm.
Back in December 1948, during the discussions on granting the right to vote for the Constituent Assembly – Israels first parliamentary institution, which was elected in January 1949, and a month later became the Israel Knesset – Ben-Gurion agreed to grant the right to vote to the Arabs who had been in the country when a census was taken, a month earlier. About 37,000 Arabs were registered in the census. The decision to enfranchise them apparently stemmed from party-political considerations. The thinking was that most of them would vote for Mapai.
This assessment was voiced in the discussions on the Citizenship Law in early 1951, when Ben-Gurion expressed the most assertive opinion. He refused to grant the right to vote to the Arabs who were living in the country lawfully (as Sharett demanded) but who had been elsewhere during the census (because they had fled or had been expelled in the wake of the war); or to those Arabs who resided in the Triangle (an area of Arab towns and villages on the Sharon plain), which was annexed to Israel only in April 1949, under the armistice agreement with Jordan. Is there no country in the world that has two types of citizens in elections [meaning voting and non-voting], Ben-Gurion asked rhetorically in a meeting of Mapai MKs on February 20, 1951.
In the view of Sharett, who submitted a conflicting draft resolution, it would not be possible to defend this situation in regard to ourselves and in regard to these Arabs, and in regard to the Arabs in Israel as a whole and in terms of world public opinion. Accordingly, I suggest granting them the right to vote... Discriminate only against the Arabs who entered Israel without permission.
Sharett maintained that Ben-Gurion had not given consideration to the root of the problem. Terrible things were being done against Arabs in the country, he warned. Until a Jew is hanged for murdering an Arab for no reason, in cold blood, the Jews will not understand that Arabs are not dogs but human beings. Sharetts view carried the day in the vote, and the Arabs in the Triangle voted in the elections.
In the July 9, 1950, meeting, MK David Hacohen disputed the argument that discrimination against the Arabs and the institution of the military government were essential for the countrys security. Assailing the Absentees Property Law – a series of measures that allowed the state to expropriate land and homes abandoned by Palestinians who were displaced during the war, even if they subsequently returned to the country – he said, I dont know whether it was clear to us all, when we voted, how grave it is. He noted that, According to the law, when an Arab dies, his property does not go to his wife but to the Custodian of Absentees Property It is inconceivable for us to declare equality of all citizens and at the same time have a law like this on the books.
Apparently, no one took issue with the next comparison Hacohen drew: These laws that we are coming up with in regard to Israels Arab residents cannot even be likened to the laws that were promulgated against the Jews in the Middle Ages, when they were deprived of all rights. After all, this is a total contrast between our declarations and our deeds.
A similar approach was voiced during the same meeting by Zalman Aran, who viewed Mapais handling of the Arabs as a process of despair that must be rejected instead of finding excuses for it.
Morally, if we are a movement that does not lie, and we do not want to lie, we are here living a total lie, he said. All the books and articles that have been written, and the speeches made internally and for external consumption, are groundless when it comes to implementation. I am not talking about the attitude of individuals in the country toward the Arabs. I am talking about a [policy] line. I reject this line, which has emerged within society and has a thousand-and-one manifestations. I do not accept all the excuses that have been put forward.
Taking issue with Dayans approach, Aran compared the situation of the Arabs in Israel with the situation of Jews in other countries. On the basis of what we are doing here to the Arabs, there is no justification for demanding a different attitude toward Jewish minorities in other countries I would be contemptuous of Arabs who would want to form ties with us on the basis of this policy. We would be lying in the [Socialist] Internationale, we are lying to ourselves and we are lying to the nations of the world.
Dayan – still an officer in uniform, it must be remembered – objected to the opinions voiced by Hacohen and Aran, and saw no reason to draw a distinction between the Arab public in Israel and Arabs in enemy countries. I am far more pessimistic about the prospect of viewing these Arabs as loyal, he countered.
During the same period of a decade-plus when Ben-Gurion was premier, a political battle raged in Mapai over the continued existence of the military government. Ben-Gurion persistently defended the military government, which he saw as a deterrent force against the Arabs in Israel. In a meeting of the Mapai Secretariat on January 1, 1962, he railed against the dominant naivete of those, such as Sharett and Aran, who do not understand the Arabs, and warned of the possible consequences: There are people living under the illusion that we are like all the nations, that the Arabs are loyal to Israel and that what happened in Algeria cannot happen here.
He added, We view them like donkeys. They dont care. They accept it with love... To loosen the reins on the Arabs would be a great danger, he added: You and your ilk – those who support the abolition of the military government or making it less stringent – will be responsible for the perdition of Israel. A decade earlier, on January 15, 1951, Shmuel Dayan, Moshe Dayans father, a Mapai leader and longtime Knesset member, had voiced similar sentiments in a meeting of Mapai MKs. The Arabs, he said, could be good citizens, but its clear that at the moment they become an obstacle, they will constitute a terrible danger.
A decade later, Aran offered an opposite assessment of the situation. Speaking at a meeting of the Mapai Secretariat in January 1962, he maintained that it was the military government that is exacerbating the situation. He also rejected the Algeria analogy. On the contrary, he thought, the existence of the military government would not delay an Arab uprising but would only spur it. He reiterated his critique of the early 1950s a decade later. He was against a situation in which the Arabs are second-class citizens who lack rights like the Jews, and he was critical of both himself and his colleagues: We accepted this thing, we became accustomed to it... We took it in stride... Its hard to swallow... No Arab in the State of Israel is able, needs to, is capable of – whatever you give him economically, educationally – accepting that he is a second-class citizen in this country. I think that the world does not know the true situation. If it did, it would not let us keep going on this way.
Already then, Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, under whose term as prime minister the military government would be abolished, foresaw the dire consequences: It would not surprise me if something new suddenly emerges, that people will not want to rent a stable – or a room – to an Arab in some locale, which is the [logical] continuation of this situation. Will we be able to bear that?
One person who was not impressed by such arguments was the deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres. In a Mapai Secretariat meeting on January 5, 1962, he maintained that in practice, the military government is not a strain on the Arabs. The military government, he added, was [effectively] created by the Arabs, who endanger Israel and as long as that danger exists, we must meet it with understanding. In contrast, Isser Harel, head of the Shin Bet security service (1948-1952) and the Mossad (1952-1963), stated in 1966, days after resigning as Eshkols adviser for intelligence and security, that the military government is not a security necessity, and therefore there is no need for its existence. The army should not be dealing with the Arab citizens. That is a flaw in terms of our democracy (quoted in the daily Maariv, July 10, 1966). That had been the view of the security hawks, including Yigal Allon, since the early 1950s.
Over the years, it was claimed that the military government had served as a tool in Mapais hands for reinforcing its rule, both by giving out jobs and by distributing benefits, and also by intervening in election campaigns through the creation of Arab factions within existing parties that were convenient for the ruling party (and suppressing opponents on the other side). This is not the venue to discuss that allegation – for which evidence exists – but its worth noting one of the motifs of the hard-hand policy, which preserved the segregation between Arabs and Jews, as expressed candidly by Ben-Gurion in the meeting of the Mapai Secretariat on January 5, 1962: The moment that the difference between Jews and Arabs is eliminated, and they are at the same level If on that day there does not exist a regime in a world where there are no more wars, I do not have the shadow of a doubt that Israel will be eradicated and no trace will remain of the Jewish people.