Time to Contemplate Reality

Israel must minimize the area in which the Zionist character of the state is expressed, and maximize the area of equal rights required by Israel's democratic character.

The "vision for the future" presented in Nazareth yesterday by the national council of heads of Arab local authorities is expected to anger most of the country's Jewish public. The document, along with other position papers due to come out this month, outline a revolutionary change in the relationship between Jewish and Arab citizens here. At the root of these documents lies a demand that Israeli Arabs be recognized as a separate national minority with the right to establish separate institutions, and even be represented as an independent body in the international community.

It is a short distance from this approach for Israeli Arabs to demand that they be allowed to establish their own security forces. Another issue is whether such extreme demands will end up helping or harming the Arab minority in its struggle to abolish the injustice the state has perpetrated since its founding. But before the Jewish public angrily rejects the new demands, it is worth trying to understand the depth of the distress that has brought them about, and identifying the roots of the Jewish-Arab rift within the Green Line.

At the root of the complex relationship between the country's majority and minority is the Jews' feeling that they are under threat and the Arabs' (Palestinians') feeling that they are being discriminated against. Each side has convincing reasons: the Jews see Arab citizens as a fifth column due to their ties with the Palestinian enemy and the Arab nation; the Arabs see the Jews as invaders who stole their land and imposed a hostile government on them through the force of arms. Sixty years of statehood have not blunted the mutual fear.

There is an opinion that if and when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, the formula for conciliation between Israel's Jews and Arabs will be derived from it relatively easily. However, this assumption can only be tested when reality changes, and it can be determined whether the establishment of a Palestinian state will motivate Israeli Arabs to recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and motivate the Jewish majority to grant full equality to the minority.

Until the Palestinian vision of a state is fulfilled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jewish and Arab citizens here must contemplate reality soberly: They have been sentenced to live together, and they must find a way to do this in the most harmonious way possible. The Jews must understand that the positions now expressed in the Arab sector indicate the extent of the discrimination and exploitation it experiences. The Arabs must understand that the Jews cannot give up the Zionist identity of Israel, since they see it as the sole refuge the Jewish people have left in the world, and react harshly to what they see as a threat to their national existence.

The way to bridge the expectation gap is to minimize the area in which the Zionist character of the state is expressed, and maximize the area of equal rights required by Israel's democratic character. This means that the status of the minority should be significantly changed, for instance, by revoking discriminatory laws and privatizing the functions fulfilled by Jewish national institutions such as the Jewish Agency. Other solutions include having the Arab minority represented, in proportion to its percentage of the population, at the senior levels of civil service, planning institutions and boards of public companies; granting the minority equal property rights; letting the minority set the curriculum for its schools and giving it the resources necessary to carry it out, in accordance with its needs; and granting the minority freedom of speech and assembly, even when they are expressing Arab nationalist messages.

At the same time, the Arab minority must display loyalty to the state, not act against it, fulfill the obligation of national service, and shape curricula that will have the same core as the rest of the education establishment. The objective is to establish a joint civil society that will provide an opportunity for the majority and minority to remove mutual apprehension, soften their differences, and turn over a new leaf in their relationship. This matter requires intensive care no less than the conflict with the Palestinians in the territories.