Israel Can’t Keep Marginalizing Its Own Palestinian Citizens

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict often seems like a nightmarish Groundhog Day of endless repetition. And indeed Hamas and Israel are yet again battering each other. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is impotent and paralyzed while Israel advances the aggressive building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Yet one usually overlooked group may be taking on a bigger role this time: the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Also known as “Arab Israelis,” at almost 2 million they comprise about 20% of Israel’s citizenry but face significant discrimination. Almost 6 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, also ruled by Israel, have no citizenship.

Arab Israelis have historically played a marginal role in both Israeli society and the Palestinian national movement. But with strong forces pulling in each direction, that may soon change. It may not have much impact on the current fighting, but it could transform the shape of the struggle going forward.

In some ways, Arab Israelis are being slowly integrated into Israeli life as individuals. Many Jewish Israelis lauded their heroic service as medical staff during the pandemic. But collectively they’re increasingly alienated and feel more “Palestinian.”

In 2018 Israel adopted a “nation-state law” that says only Jews have a right to national self-determination in Israel. As the recent communal violence in “mixed cities” between Jewish and Arab mobs demonstrates, the impulse to assert themselves as Palestinians against a shared Israeli domination is growing — as is their risk of being attacked by Jewish extremists.

A key factor that’s driving them is the disappearance of the “Green Line,” the border supposedly separating Israel proper from the occupied territories, which formed the basis of hope for a Palestinian state.

Israel has long ignored that distinction, allowing all Jews to live under the same laws in a fully integrated state while creating a plethora of diverse rules and realities for Palestinians depending on where they live. Still, the Green Line mirage offered hope of the oppression only being temporary. This has effectively vanished in recent years with the Israeli government formally ruling out a two-state solution and human rights groups increasingly criticizing Israel for “apartheid” rather than “occupation.”

What is left is a deepening sense of shared oppression among Arab Israelis, with their second-class citizenship, and their fellow Palestinians living under de facto apartheid in the West Bank. That prompts a far more integrated Palestinian struggle, even if it takes different forms in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and inside Israel.

But there is another new dynamic at work too: The fractious and hitherto impotent Arab political parties in Israel have begun to inch toward a new degree of parliamentary effectiveness.

After the 2020 election the United Arab List was the third largest bloc in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature — a historic breakthrough — though that changed when the Yesh Atid party broke with the larger Blue and White coalition.

More strikingly, Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist party Ra’am, entered into a prolonged courtship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent months to potentially join a new Israeli coalition government. Though Abbas is an Arab, and an Islamist no less, his homophobic and culturally reactionary views resonate with some right-wing Jewish groups surrounding Netanyahu.

There was considerable resistance to such an alliance. Netanyahu ultimately failed to form a majority, and the opportunity was passed to centrist politician Yair Lapid and right-winger Naftali Bennett. But Abbas again positioned himself well and is still viewed as a potential coalition partner.

Jewish outrage over communal violence could kill his chances. So could deep anger among his own constituents. But the strife could also open an avenue for Abbas to make the leap into Israeli governance.

He seems determined to continue these negotiations, denouncing rioting and lawlessness and positioning himself as an agent of responsible engagement and calm. He’s still playing the political game to acquire official power and state patronage.

Some Israeli commentators see Abbas entering government as an opportunity to address a growing internal security threat by bringing Arab Israelis closer to the social and political mainstream. A potential analogue is when Shas, a party representing once-marginalized ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, was brought into the Israeli government in 1984.

If Abbas’ efforts to get the Arab-Israeli toe into the government are rejected, as Bennett’s most recent comments suggest they may be, that could dissuade other Arab-Israeli politicians and amplify the community’s sense of alienation and exclusion.

Israel faces a clear choice: Either it finds ways of integrating its Arab citizens into national life and reversing a growing trend of communal alienation and anger. Or its own Arab citizens could become a powerful part of a more unified Palestinian national movement confronting Israeli rule.

The answer should be obvious, but anger often trumps self-interest — especially between Israelis and Palestinians.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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