Opinion

Israeli Arabs Are More Israeli Than People Think

Most want to live under Israeli rule without giving up the Palestinian narrative, and are persevering in this despite all the obstacles

A flag combining elements of the Palestinian and Israeli flags on display at a rally in Tel Aviv, August 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

The fact that most of Israel’s Arab citizens angrily rejected Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal for “land transfers” proves the weakness of the Palestinian identity of the country’s Arabs, wrote Abed L. Azab in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition on November 20. Azab says that at the moment of truth, it has been shown that most members of this community want to live in Israel with the blue ID card of an Israeli citizen.

I’d like to offer an alternative, preferable explanation: It’s not that the Palestinian identity of Israel’s Arab citizens is weak, it’s that their Israeli identity is strong. All the signs, including opinion polls, show that an affinity to the Palestinian people is an important component of most Arabs’ identity in Israel. When people see themselves as part of the Palestinian people and still prefer Israeli over Palestinian rule, it’s a sign their Israeli identity is very strong – much stronger than commonly thought to be.

Identity is a complex thing. Fundamentally, the Arab minority in Israel wants what a national minority usually wants: to have it both ways in a positive sense; in this case, to be both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. It’s obvious that given the national conflict, this is a difficult task.

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The passing of the nation-state law in its extreme and offensive version, while refusing to include the principle of civil equality, was based on the assumption that Arab citizens don’t want to be Israelis at all, so there’s no problem in offending them. Offending the Druze, about whom no one doubts their identification with Israel, is something the right is willing to accept as collateral damage.

But as I have written more than once, opinion polls over the years in the Arab community attest to a strong Israeli identity. The findings of these polls include not just an appreciation of Israel’s advantages (and a fear of the disadvantages of Palestinian rule), but also expressions of pride in Israel. Pride is a very significant term in this context: Only those who feel Israeli can take pride in Israel (or be embarrassed by it).

Not too long ago I spoke with an activist from the Balad party (yes, Balad, an Arab nationalist party). I told him: I want to understand not what you’re willing to fight for, but what you’d like to happen. If it were up to you, without the need for a struggle, would you want to live in “one state” in greater Palestine without Israel? Would you prefer this option over remaining an Israeli citizen? “Not so much,” he answered, but his face showed “not at all.”

Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the Likud party held a special Knesset session on national law.
Noam Rivkin Fenton

Anyone who answers this question this way has passed a much more significant test of Israeliness than the unfair one that Lieberman presented to Israeli Arabs. The polls confirm this: A huge majority of Israeli Arabs not only don’t want to live in “little Palestine” – about which it’s unclear when and under what conditions it will come into being – they also don’t want to live in the larger Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. They want to live in Israel.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with their current status in Israel. But an Israeli Arab citizen needs to be very Israeli, not just plain Israeli, to prefer Israeli citizenship over “one state” covering the entire land. And this doesn’t mean they’re not connected to the Palestinian people. Do Jews who prefer to live outside Israel prove they’re not connected to the Jewish people?

Of course one shouldn’t ignore this specific Israeli problem that stems from the deep national conflict. According to the Palestinian national narrative, one can’t “have it both ways.” Israel may perhaps be accepted de facto, but must not be granted legitimacy. According to this narrative, an Arab citizen can’t be an “Israeli Arab” or “an Israeli Palestinian.” This isn’t about a desire to emphasize the Palestinianness on top of the Arabness, it’s about a refusal, as a matter of principle, to adopt the Israeli label – not even alongside the Palestinian one.

Most members of the Israeli Arab community accept the Palestinian national narrative and vote for Knesset members who give it expression. However, they don’t adopt the emotional attitude toward Israel that flows from this narrative. Most of them want to have it both ways and are persevering in this despite all the obstacles, including their own national narrative.