Israel's Arab Citizens: The Ones Who Stayed Behind

Nearly everyone who thinks about Israel’s Arab citizens argues that they can’t stay the way they are. The question is, what's the desired solution and how to we get there?

David B. Green
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David B. Green

Israel's Palestinian Citizens I

The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel, by Ilan Pappe
Yale University Press, 336 pages,
$30 / 19 pounds sterling

Children at another Arab-Jewish bilingual school in Israel, at Misgav, in 2009.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within, by Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman
Cambridge University Press, 272 pages,
$27 / 18 pounds sterling (paperback)

What at is the most serious challenge facing Israel today? There are many contenders for the title, beginning with the price of cottage cheese and on up through Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The authors of two new books, however, would say that Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens their status within the state and their relationship to it, their grievances, the fact that so many Israeli Jews view them as a threat comprise the biggest and most pressing problem confronting the country. Both books make a good case for this, though they do it in very different ways. And both are persuasive that the issue threatens the long-term viability of the state.

The Israeli Arabs as most Jews refer to them or the Palestinian citizens of Israel as they now generally prefer to be called are “the ones who stayed behind” in 1948 (the gravestone of the late writer and politician Emile Habibi bears the epitaph, “Emile Habibi Remained in Haifa”), when in the wake of Israel’s creation and the ensuing war, 700,000 of their brethren went into exile. They are the “indigenous” people of the Land of Israel, though this is not a term most Israeli Jews would care to apply to them. But because they are better off than their Palestinian brethren on the other side of the Green Line, and have been largely law-abiding despite their claims against the state of which they are citizens they are often overlooked when people, even Israeli Jews, think or talk about “the Palestinians.”

Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman are liberal Zionists who believe that Israel’s Arabs have been treated shabbily and who see big trouble ahead if something significant isn’t done to change the way Israel the state and the society relates to them. Their academic (though not overly so) book attempts to summarize the current state of affairs and how it came to be, but also looks to solutions, proposing a path toward greater autonomy and equality for the Arabs that wouldn’t require Israel to relinquish its definition as the homeland of the Jews.

Ilan Pappe, the bad boy of Israeli “New Historians,” believes that Israel was conceived in original sin, its founding fathers having stolen the land of the Palestinians, both those who left and the ones who remained, and that their successors only compounded the crime by employing every trick in the book to turn the latter into second-class citizens. He therefore has little interest in preserving Israel as a Jewish state, and believes that Jews and Palestinians will all be better off when there is one binational entity. Although that’s a solution that probably won’t appeal to many readers of this review, there’s a lot one can learn from his survey and analysis.

Pappe, a Jewish, 57-year-old, Hebrew and Oxford University-educated historian, decided long ago which side he was on, and even tells us in “The Forgotten Palestinians” of how “superfluous it would be to look for ‘objective’ or even neutral research on the topic” of Israeli Arabs. Before he was invited to leave the University of Haifa, in 2007, and took up a position as professor at the University of Exeter, he ran twice for the Knesset, in 1996 and 1999, on the Jewish-Arab Hadash list. Thus, he has no qualms about being an “engaged” scholar.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Whereas Benny Morris (who has in recent years assumed the role of Pappe’s nemesis) has documented cases of Israeli massacres and expulsions of Palestinians during the 1947-49 War of Independence, but argued that they were isolated and not part of a premeditated policy, Pappe is certain that the Zionists employed and continue to this day to employ a policy of ethnic cleansing, and he uses that troubling phrase countless times in the book. (He also published a book in 2006 called “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” in case there were any doubts about where he stands.)

It would be fair to say that Pappe has no sympathy for the idea of a Jewish homeland, and that he doesn’t buy the argument that the Jews need to have their own state at least not in their ancestral land. This makes his book hard to digest. Marring it on another level is the fact that “The Forgotten Palestinians” suffers from sloppy editing and numerous factual errors. He tells us on page 216, for example, that Azmi Bishara ran for prime minister of Israel, but did not win, without mentioning that he couldn’t have won, since he withdrew from the race in its final days, a move that helped to guarantee Ehud Barak’s victory. Pappe then compounds the confusion on page 241, when he writes that, “In 1999, [Bishara] nearly ran as a candidate for the Prime Minister’s post, stretching the pretense of equality almost to [sic] breaking point.”

Further on in the book, Pappe, describing the impetus that a 2001 conclave at Lake Kinneret of Jewish Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum gave to Arab intellectuals and politicians to compile the so-called Vision documents (a series of statements from 2006, drafted by a variety of Arab politicians and thinkers, that outlined their critique of the Zionist project and a rough blueprint for a redefinition of the state), declares that “the only issue that bonded [the Jews] together was the demographic fear” of the Arabs. Whatever criticisms one might have regarding the meeting that yielded the “Kinneret Covenant,” which was an attempt by Jewish Israelis to agree on the common values and goals they shared as they looked to the future of their fragmented society, it is either disingenuous or just plain wrong to say that their only concern was the size of the country’s Arab minority.

I wouldn’t, therefore, rely on the facts in Pappe’s book if I were writing a college term paper, or even a newspaper article; the man is as sloppy as he is prolific. And yet, I can also say that I learned a lot from his book.

First, Pappe, in highly readable prose, gives us details and perspective about the history of the Arab community in the state’s early years that most Jewish readers aren’t often exposed to. For example, although in theory, native-born Palestinians who remained within Israel should have been automatically eligible for citizenship, just as Jews were and are today, wherever they were born, Israeli bureaucracy found a way to force most of them to undergo a naturalization procedure, which included a loyalty oath. More significantly, from 1949 to 1966, most of the country’s Arabs were subject to military law, based on the same Emergency Laws inherited from the British Mandate that still apply in the West Bank today. These severely limited Arabs’ ability to move around the country and find work (among other things), and made expropriation of their lands far simpler. Pappe, who describes the debate within leadership circles over the military-law regime in some detail, places primary responsibility for the long duration of this draconian system on David Ben-Gurion. The prime minister had to regularly ask the Knesset to renew military rule, and he continued to do so even after “the chief policy makers in the early 1960s and the researchers of the period agreed that the community did not constitute a danger of any kind to Israel’s security or existence.”

A mission to modernize

Pappe’s appendix on the role that ideology has played in the academic study of Israeli Palestinians is especially provocative in the good sense as it pushes us to examine some tendencies we readers may also possess, such as the belief that “Israel, and in particular its Ashkenazi citizens, had a mission to modernize everything in sight, be it the Mizrahim or the Palestinian minority,” an approach that he observes had “overtones of ‘the white man’s burden.’” Pappe suggests that because Jewish society saw Arab society as one “which would never become modern unless it was de-Palestinized and de-Arabized ... one can see why the removal of military rule ... did not change much in practice.”

What Pappe seems to lack is any understanding or empathy for Jewish Israel’s sense of vulnerability and victimization, however exaggerated that might sometimes be. His Israel is a bully, period, not a country that has never enjoyed a moment when there wasn’t somebody calling for its destruction. Peleg and Waxman’s comment that “the behavior and beliefs of Israeli Jews vis-a-vis Arabs in Israel must be understood within the context of the long, bitter, and bloody conflict [ ... which] has profoundly shaped how the Jewish majority has treated the Palestinian minority from the very beginning” may seem so obvious as not to need stating, but it isn’t obvious to Ilan Pappe. And that’s why his book, much as there is of value in it, is destined to be treated as a polemic, rather than a work of balanced scholarship.

Peleg and Waxman’s book, on the other hand, is understated, so that its profundity only creeps up on you gradually. Its modest tone also means that when the authors Peleg is a professor at Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, and Waxman is a professor at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, at the City University of New York state that “Israel’s unequal treatment of its Palestinian minority is as problematic for the country’s future as its continued occupation of Palestinian territories. Ignoring or minimizing this problem is to court disaster,” you know that they fully mean it, and for good reason. At the same time, they urge viewing the two issues as parts of the same conflict. Before you say, “Well, duh” to that, consider whether an Israeli official, Arab leader, or helpful international actor has ever drawn attention to this point, or even whether a Jewish political party in Israel has put improving the status of the Arabs high on its agenda.

Ironically, by introducing a demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” they write, it is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has now effectively linked the two conflicts, because, “as long as the majority of Palestinians within Israel oppose its exclusive Jewish identity, it is highly unlikely that the PA leadership in Ramallah will agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

Hybrid solution

What makes “Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within” especially valuable is its second half, in which Peleg and Waxman review the various possible arrangements that could be employed to deal with the problem, throwing their weight behind a hybrid solution, with elements of liberal democracy (Israel today, they say, is an ethnic democracy; Pappe calls it an “ethnocracy”) and group-based power-sharing that they believe would allow Israel to “maintain its Jewish identity,” but not in a way that could be “taken as license for discrimination against non-Jews.”

They urge redefining the state so that an individual’s status is determined by citizenship, not ethnicity. And they make a long series of very specific recommendations, in such areas as land distribution, affirmative action, even study of Arabic by Jewish students (in contrast to the Knesset member from Kadima who recently introduced a bill that would deprive the language of its status as an official language), that they think would make this a far more egalitarian society without turning it into a binational state.

For decades, Jews have had difficulty seeing the Palestinians of Israel, on the one hand, as an integral part of the people with whom they have been in conflict for more than a century. On the other hand, they have been unable to accept that Israel is the natural home of its Arab citizens, and that if the state aspires to be a true democracy, it has a ways to go before it can say all its citizens benefit from equality. In recent years, though, a conversation has begun, in part thanks to the efforts of demagogic politicians who portray the situation as one of either “us or them.” These two books, in particular “Israel’s Palestinians,” make a provocative but far more helpful contribution to the discussion.

David B. Green is editor of Haaretz Books

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