Israel must reclaim its Arab citizens – opinion

Written by on November 18, 2022

The rise of right-leaning candidates in Israel’s November 1 election has been derided by a gaggle of breathless commentators, notably The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, lamenting the end of Israel as we once knew it. First, it should be noted that such prognostications are wildly premature; Israel’s government has yet to be formed. Moreover, it’s worth noting what these observers have until now ignored: the elections were heavily influenced by the 11-day war in May 2021, also known as Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Amid heavy rocket fire by the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas, significant numbers of Arab-Israeli citizens staged a series of riots, attacking Israeli homes, schools, synagogues and hospitals. A little more than a year later, with troubling questions still lingering about coexistence, votes gravitated to the pugilistic law-and-order campaign of the Religious Zionist bloc led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The growing popularity of the Israeli Right is also informed by a lesser-analyzed trend that cannot be ignored. Israeli-Arabs, who undeniably enjoy greater rights and freedoms in Israel than in any of the surrounding states, are drifting away from their Israeli identity. They increasingly identify as Palestinians. This explains why some turned out during the May 2021 conflict, even hoisting Palestinian flags in mixed cities. During the recent election, even as other Arabs in the region cannot vote, a surprising number of them declined to cast ballots.

Arabs make up 21% percent of Israel’s population – a Muslim minority larger than in any other Western nation. As recently as 2020, only 7% of Israeli Arabs described identified as Palestinian. And Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, has regularly downplayed the threat to Israel from this community. Indeed, while the coexistence is far from perfect, the ability to live together in relative harmony has been a point of pride for both Jews and Arabs in Israel.

All of this may be changing, thanks to recent efforts mounted by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The clerical regime has stood up a nerve center to coordinate the activities of violent groups that seek Israel’s destruction. Cells of Arab-Israelis may be among them. Moreover, Iran has activated the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah to smuggle guns to Arabs in Israel. The goal is to arm the population to battle Israel. One inadvertent result appears to be an uptick in homicide among Arab Israelis.

Arab Israelis and Israeli left wing activist students, attend a rally marking the Nakba anniversary at the Tel Aviv University on May 15, 2022 (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

AT THE same time, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have launched an effort to draw the Israeli Arabs closer. Both actors, to varying degrees, harbor irredentist designs on Israeli territory. They see their Arab brethren within as key to their success. To this end, they insinuate that only Jews are full citizens and that the path to equality (if not dominance) is to join the cause of Palestinian liberation.

Fortunately, Israel is far from labeling a fifth of Israelis as a fifth column. But the new government must ensure that Israel never goes down that path. It must make greater efforts to integrate Israeli Arabs.

It begins with terminology. News outlets, like The Washington Post, now refer to Israeli Arabs as Palestinians. The Israeli government must not let this stand. Nor should Washington. Not if the goal is to foster coexistence. For that matter, not if the goal is to convey the truth. If Arab Israelis serve in the military, enjoy health and education benefits, and serve in the Knesset, they are clearly not Palestinians.

While the US can reinforce this, it begins with Israeli officials. Differentiating rhetorically among citizens on the basis of ethnicity is harmful. In government discourse, Israeli Arabs should referred to simply as “Israelis,” with exceptions of unavoidable sectarian relevance, such as religious holidays, school curricula, and language.

Beyond this, Israel must develop alternatives to military conscription for this important Israeli population. In recent years, such a thing was unthinkable. However, the new government will feature prominent Jewish figures who never served in uniform. Granting exemption to Israeli Arabs should no longer be resented. One viable alternative, and one that is already mainstreamed in Israel, is national service. Satisfactory fulfillment of such service should guarantee full legitimation in return.

Ironically, a right-wing government could be an ideal candidate to push for such change. Few, if any would accuse the next government of being soft on security. Indeed, Ben-Gvir has pledged to tackle crime in the Arab sector if he is tapped to handle the internal security portfolio. He sees the blight of gun violence among Israeli Arabs bleeds across to threaten Israeli Jews. If he succeeds in curbing the violence, he could persuade Israel’s Arab citizens that the government, even if containing hardliners, is theirs, no less. And it will distinguish them from Palestinians in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip – kindred people, perhaps, but with a different national destiny.

Ultimately, the shape of the new government is in the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu. He has a duty to form this government in accordance with the wishes of the Israeli electorate, which includes Israelis of Arab descent. He should acknowledge the inadvertent role they played in bringing Israel to this point and he should work to ensure greater integration, with US assistance.

Mark Dubowitz is the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research. Follow them on Twitter @MDubowitz and @JSchanzer.

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