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Arabs say Israel is not just for Jews

Times Staff Writer

A broadly representative elite of Israel’s Arab minority has rejected the idea of Israel as a Jewish state and demanded a partnership in governing the country to ensure that Arab citizens get equal treatment and more control over their communities.

In a manifesto that is stirring anger and soul-searching among Jews, Arab leaders have declared that Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens are an indigenous group with collective rights, not just individual rights. The document argues that Arabs are entitled to share power in a binational state and block policies that discriminate against them.

Arab citizens, who make up about one-fifth of Israel’s population, have always felt alienated by the Star of David on Israel’s flag and a national anthem that expresses the Jewish yearning for a return to Zion. They have long protested the disproportionate Jewish share of budget resources, public services and land.

Until now, though, only small groups of Arab intellectuals had dared to advocate collective equality or the abolition of Jewish national symbols.

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“The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” is the first such sweeping demand by Israel’s Arab mainstream. The manifesto was drafted by 40 academics and activists under the sponsorship of the Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel and has been endorsed by an unprecedented range of Arab community leaders.

As such, it has set off alarms.

As Jewish leaders learned of the document, which was issued in December but not widely circulated until last month, they seized on it as evidence of a growing militancy by a minority that, by and large, openly sympathized with Hezbollah guerrillas fighting Israel in last summer’s war in Lebanon.

The document does not address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But critics argue that adoption of its proposal to redefine Israel as a binational state would undermine Jewish support for a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a solution to which Israel’s government is formally committed.

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Commentators on the right have denounced the manifesto as the work of an internal enemy that threatens Israel’s identity as a haven for Jewish self-determination. On the left, Jews who have advocated equal treatment of Arabs within a Jewish state say they feel disheartened.

“Is this the beginning of a new demand for the establishment of a state within a state?” Hagai Meirom, treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel, asked at a public forum last month. “Is it still possible to mend the Arab minority’s feelings of belonging?”

The document’s sponsors say most of the criticism misses the point.

Shawki Khatib, head of the 64-member Arab mayors group, said the manifesto was not an ultimatum but an effort to catalog Jewish discrimination against Arabs and provoke debate over how Israel’s two largest communities should live together.

“The main message is that we do not accept our situation as second-class citizens,” Khatib said in an interview at the group’s headquarters here. “We want to change that situation, and we prefer to change it through dialogue.”

He said he would invite Israeli officials to take part in an assembly next month to discuss the eight-chapter document.

The walls outside Khatib’s office display mementos of Arab alienation. One poster reads “We will not forget” alongside portraits of 13 Israeli Arabs killed by riot police in October 2000 while demonstrating in solidarity with a Palestinian uprising.

Driving home from Nazareth, Khatib stopped his car to illustrate another grievance: entrenched discrimination that contributes to sharp inequalities between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

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Across the highway from Yaffa a-Nasra, the Arab village he has governed for 16 years, Khatib pointed to a modern industrial park, home to electronic and biotechnology plants. It lies within the Jewish municipality of Migdal Emek.

“Whenever the central government builds a new industrial area, it gets located in a Jewish town instead of an Arab town,” he said. “The Israeli towns get the local tax revenue and the jobs. Look, this highway separates our reality from theirs.”

Central government allocations for public services further skew the income gap. In public education, for example, the state invests about twice as much per Jewish pupil as per Arab pupil.

Nearly half of Israel’s Arabs live below the poverty line, and their rates of unemployment and infant mortality are twice the national average. They face obstacles securing residency permits for Arab spouses who are not Israeli. Exempt from military service, they do not qualify for thousands of higher-paying jobs reserved for veterans. They make up only 10% of Israel’s university undergraduates.

Arab leaders also chafe at limits on local autonomy, such as the Education Ministry requirement that all public schools use textbooks that teach history from a Jewish perspective.

Arabs take part in Israeli politics and vote in elections but have almost no power in the central government. Arab parties hold seven of the 120 seats in parliament, sitting in opposition. Another three seats are held by Arabs belonging to the Jewish-led parties in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition. An Arab-Jewish Communist Party has two seats.

Last month, Raleb Majadele of the Jewish-led Labor Party became the first Muslim Arab to hold a Cabinet position, only to be criticized by Arab political parties as a token minority in a racist government.

Arab leaders acknowledge that recent Israeli governments have recognized a need to tackle the inequalities.

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“But they focus on individual rights,” said Aida Toma-Suleiman, a women’s rights activist on the Supreme Follow-up Committee for the Arab Citizens of Israel, a broad leadership group that includes mayors, members of parliament and heads of civic organizations. The group has endorsed the manifesto.

“Our view is that citizens cannot enjoy individual civil rights if their ethnic group does not fully enjoy equal collective rights,” Toma-Suleiman said.

To that end, the manifesto urges Israel to adopt a “consensual democracy” like that of Belgium, which reconciles its Flemish- and French-speaking communities through power sharing, proportional representation and local autonomy. The system proposed by Israel’s Arabs would give Arab communities control over decisions about education, culture and religious affairs.

The idea of a governing partnership has wide support among Arab citizens. A recent poll by the Yafa Institute found that 57% of Israeli Arabs want a change in the character of the state to put their community on an equal footing; 14% want Israel to remain a Jewish state.

A separate survey by the Institute for Policy and Strategy showed that Arab citizens identifying themselves as “Arab patriots” outnumbered those who called themselves “Israeli patriots” by nearly 3 to 1.

The Arabs’ assertiveness has provoked anger on the right.

Avigdor Lieberman, who joined the Cabinet last year as head of the Israel Is Our Home Party, warns repeatedly that Israel’s Jewish character faces a long-term “demographic threat” from Arab population growth. He favors a proposal to strip more than 150,000 Arabs of their Israeli citizenship by redrawing Israel’s eastern boundary to put them in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank.

In a recent speech, he appeared to validate the manifesto’s claim that Israel’s Jewish and democratic values are inherently contradictory.

In any such clash of priorities, Lieberman said, “it is more important that we remain a Jewish state.”

But the Arab proposals have also elicited anxious debate among Jews over how to accommodate the restive minority.

At last month’s annual Herzliya Conference, a leading forum for Israeli experts on national security, Toma-Suleiman defended the manifesto before a Jewish audience. She came under attack from a fellow panelist, Dan Schueftan, deputy director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University.

“Equality is not the issue,” Schueftan said. “As far as the Arabs are concerned, nothing short of the destruction of the Jewish enterprise will be enough, even if Israel closes the gap.”

Dov Lautman, a textile factory owner whose workforce is half Arab, took issue with Schueftan.

“I don’t agree with everything in the manifesto, nor do I agree with all of what my Jewish compatriots say about it,” he said. “To have a dialogue, you have to start from extreme positions.”

The exchange prompted Meirom of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who was the moderator, to observe that Israel faces a threat more challenging than any external enemy.

“This threat is not the Arab minority itself but rather the fragile relationship between Arabs and Jews in this land,” he said. “The solution to this threat lies in dialogue. It is my view that we do not need to forgo the essence of the state of Israel. There is still a possibility to create coexistence.”

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boudreaux@latimes.com


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