Israel's Identity Crisis

Before it can sign a peace treaty with its enemies, Israel may have to finally decide whether it is a Jewish state or a democratic one.

| Wed Mar. 8, 2000 4:00 AM EST

When the stumbling Middle East peace talks eventually get back on their feet, Israel will have more than tough negotiating to do. After years of avoidance, it may have to confront the contradiction at the heart of its national identity.

The talks hinge on the exchange of land for peace -- first the ceding of the Golan Heights to Syria, and then at least parts of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. So polarized is Israeli society over this issue, and so distrustful of its politicians, that it has been deemed necessary to take a final accord to the people in the grandest of all democratic gestures: a referendum. That, however, necessitates determining exactly who 'the people' are -- a question Israel has managed to duck for over 50 years.

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From its inception, Israel has defined itself as a contradiction: It is both a democratic state, where all citizens are theoretically equal, and a Jewish state, whose Arab citizens -- by far the largest non-Jewish minority group -- have been consigned to de facto second-class status. Now, it may be forced to finally declare itself one or the other.

Right wing parties were quick to reject the notion that a simple majority would suffice to carry such an important referendum. Their rhetoric relies somewhat on the notion of an historic occasion demanding an historic consensus, but as many frankly admit, their goal is to ensure that, whatever the outcome, it will be determined by a Jewish majority.

Various proposals are currently being floated, suggesting various numbers as the majority mark. One plan put forth by the right-wing Likud which has received preliminary support in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, states that a majority in the referendum will be set at over 50 percent of all registered voters -- which, considering Israel's voting turnouts, will put it at roughly 65 percent of the actual vote. The government has vowed to block this proposal.

This super-majority idea would, in effect, bypass the Israeli Arab vote, a minority of nearly 20 percent which has for decades struggled to find its own identity and voice in Israel's often boisterous take on democracy. Despite deeply-felt sympathy to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and feelings of shared fate with them, despite even often referring to themselves as Palestinians, Israel's Arabs took a different path. The vast majority of terrorist activity against Israel came from the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and from countries beyond, not from Israeli Arabs. So entrenched is this fact that when a uniquely untalented terrorist cell was recently unearthed in an Arab town in northern Israel, reaction from Israeli media and politicians was almost as much surprised and shocked as it was angry.

And yet, as the notion of a "Jewish majority" demonstrates, the Israeli Arabs' loyalty to the country is cast under doubt. There is a sort of vicious circle at play: for years underprivileged, undersubsidized and often treated as second-class citizens, Israeli Arabs had little incentive to develop the kind of loyalty that might have legitimized their vote in the eyes of the "Jewish majority" proponents. Their ties -- cultural and sometimes familial -- with the Palestinians of the occupied territories made them suspect on security issues, to the extent that when Arab Knesset member Hashem Mahamid was recently appointed to the prestigious and influential Foreign Affairs and Security committee, a storm of protests ensued from right wing Knesset members.

Part of this doubt may be explained by the Israeli Arabs' exemption from military service, still the core experience of Israel. The reasons for this exemption run the gamut from humanitarian (avoiding a situation of brother fighting brother) to plain paranoia. But whatever the reasons, Israeli Arabs thus fail to pass the rite of passage of most Israelis, and also miss out on the socializing and networking opportunities which the army service forces on other Israelis. And so, by virtue of not serving in the security apparatus, they are deemed unfit to serve in that very same apparatus.

But inside this vicious circle there are some very compelling reasons for the Israeli Arabs' sense of belonging and wish for participation: Their representatives in the Knesset are taking part in a democracy where it is rare for a leader to survive two terms in office, let alone decades, as is more typical of the region; they are presented with economic opportunities unheard of by their kinsmen in surrounding countries; and perhaps, more important than anything else, is their sense of the land. They are, after all, that part of the Arab population in pre-Israel Palestine that didn't flee and wasn't driven away. Their sense of belonging to the place is profound.

And, they claim, as citizens, as people who belong, they have a right to a vote that counts. To the credit of Israel's government, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin concurs, and he is ultimately responsible for drafting the referendum law. The opposition accuses him of taking this stand because without Arab support the chances for a 'Yes' in the referendum are slim. This may be true, but that assumption also troubles the Arab population, which feels that the notion that their votes will automatically support the left diminishes their bargaining power for other legislation and for a bigger portion of the budget.

This collision of the various strands of the story of the Arab citizens in Israel could prove very opportune, for all the soul-searching and consternation it causes now. It seems only fitting that, on the occasion of sorting out its relations with Arabs in surrounding countries, Israel will also begin to sort out its relations with its own Arab citizens. There will be the added bonus of sorting out its relations to democracy.

Yaron Ben-Ami is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

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