Lieberman, the State Exists to Serve Its Citizens

Plan to transfer Arab areas to a future Palestinian state violates Israel’s most basic obligation as a democratic state.

Eyal Benvenisti
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The Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm.Credit: Nitzan Shorer
Eyal Benvenisti

The legal opinion the Foreign Ministry published regarding the plan for "transfer of sovereignty over populated areas" hides behind the assumption that Israel would give Arab areas of the Galilee region to a future Palestinian merely to exchange territories. Stripping residents of the areas of Israeli citizenship, according to this assumption, would just be an unavoidable by-product of the plan.

There are, in fact, precedents for territorial transfer changing the citizenship of the territory's residents. In earlier eras, it was customary for such agreements to lead to a chance in the residents' status without their consent. With the stroke of a pen, they became foreigners in their own land. Indeed, in the past, international law treated people as objects, giving states absolute discretion to decide who was a citizen and who was a foreigner.

But the assumption that the purpose of the transfer proposed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is simply territorial exchange is naive, or worse, dissimilative. It is clear that the plan's real goal is the transfer of human beings, namely Palestinian Israeli citizens.

Unlike the return of Israeli citizens in the West Bank to Israel, which stems not from their Jewish identity but from the fact that they are living on land that belongs to another people, the purpose of transferring "the Triangle" area is solely to separate Arab citizens from the State of Israel.

The legal opinion commissioned and promoted by the Foreign Ministry commiserates with the people to be transferred, warning that measures must be taken to minimize the damage to "the fabric of their lives." But this sentiment too is naive, if not disingenuous. The main damage would come from the segregation itself, by which the state would inform the people that they are no longer its citizens.

The United Nations' 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Israel is a signatory, defines racial discrimination as "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."

In signing the agreement, Israel committed to refraining from and combating racial discrimination and guaranteeing all its citizens, regardless of background "The right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State" and "The right to leave any country, including one's own, and to return to one's country."

Because the disingenuous plan Lieberman is concocting would transfer territories rather than people, the formulators of the legal opinion were able to ignore the injunction against racial discrimination, although the plan is tainted with it. But this is not the main issue Lieberman's plan raises.

The biggest problem with the plan is that it goes against the raison d’être of a democratic state — to protect the rights of its citizens. Citizens are not objects meant to maintain the state's well-being, but vice versa. In the words of the American Declaration of Independence: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, the state, which is the trustee of all its citizens, has no legal right or moral authority to deprive its citizens of their citizenship. They are sovereign and the state exists to serve them. Accordingly, the Foreign Minister and any other state institution must regard itself as a servant of all Israeli citizens, including Arab ones.

In addition, stripping people of their citizenship greatly impinges on their constitutional right to dignity. Even on the erroneous assumption that the plan's demographic ambition (which is, in essence, ethnic cleansing) is seemly and legal, it cannot be achieved by removing people’s citizenship, since such a removal would constitute using them as a means to enhance the happiness of others. This would be an infringement of their human dignity, which is forbidden by Israeli law and is not within the authority of the Knesset.

The events of World War II and the widespread denial of citizenship to Germany’s Jews highlighted the importance of the being a citizen. It showed that holding citizenship serves as protection against the caprices of authority. German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt called the right to citizenship “a right to possess rights.” The world has since become more sensitive to human rights in general and to the right to citizenship in particular. It is sad to see Jewish legal counsellors in a Jewish state evaluate a racist proposition without ripping off its deceptive mask. Their legal and moral duty is to castigate it as a contradiction to the basic tenets of international law and the laws of the State of Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor LiebermanCredit: Emil Salman

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