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The political rise of Lieberman and its effect on Arab-Jewish relations

liberman.jpgIsrael should be very cautious regarding how it treats its Arab minority. The country, the national home for the Jewish people, has an opportunity to show the world how a minority should be treated, and Lieberman’s rhetoric does not represent a step in the right direction.

(From Jerusalem) THE ISRAELI NATIONAL ELECTIONS have ushered in a new political dynamic that will surely change the way in which Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens interact. Avigdor Lieberman [1], the hawkish immigrant from the former Soviet Union who heads the political party Yisrael Beitenu [2] acquired 15 mandates in the recent elections, making his party the third largest in the Knesset.

His public demand that Arab citizens sign loyalty oaths in order to preserve their citizenship has further isolated the Arab public from the political mainstream and raised feelings of fear, anger and resentment among large segments of the population, which threaten to further damage Jewish-Arab relations.

NO CITIZENSHIP WITHOUT LOYALTY

Lieberman’s No Citizenship Without Loyalty plan aims to force all citizens to have a role in national service, whether it be civic or military, with their citizenship contingent upon active participation. “What if the Ayatollahs decided to strip Iranian Jews of their citizenship? That would indeed create a problem for the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel” This purpose of this is not to encourage greater participation in Israeli society, but rather to take advantage of the Arab aversion to all army-related institutions (due to the army’s actions in the territories and in the region), and to strip Arabs of their citizenship. This is a sneaky move by Lieberman, and his emergence alongside the leading parties gives him enough leverage to make it frightening.

But have we considered what an outrage it would be to pin such demands on other segments of the Israeli population? Haredi Jews [3] neither serve in the army nor commit to national service, and there is no small percentage of draft-dodgers either. Never before has there been talk of stripping them of their citizenship. Indeed, many messianic Jews are actively against the establishment of the state and some Ashkenazi Ultra-orthodox party MKs will serve as deputy ministers but will not actually serve as ministers, due to these sentiments. The fact is, this rhetoric is simply designed to further estrange and alienate the Arab public from the political game.

But beyond all that, the fundamental flaw behind the logic of the plan is the understanding of citizenship. Citizenship is a basic right provided by a state to its constituents. It is not conditioned upon behavior, beliefs, loyalty, or even actions. Suggesting that it can be taken away so carelessly contradicts the liberal democratic ethos. Even radical theocracies have yet to resort to this. What if the Ayatollahs decided to strip Iranian Jews of their citizenship? That would indeed create a problem for the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. In an article written by Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern [4], we are reminded that even those that committed the most heinous crimes against their countries do not face the threat of losing this fundamental right to citizenship. Yigal Amir murdered the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and yet he sits in jail stripped of freedom but not citizenship. Citizenship comes with certain responsibility and obligations (we are obliged to obey the law), but in a democracy, neglecting to fulfill those obligations does not jeopardize the right to citizenship.

A LONG-STANDING MINORITY STATUS FOR ARABS

Unfortunately, this whole issue derives from displaced anger at the Arab public, which is by and large a result of the state’s poor handling of the minority. This frustration is rapidly becoming a detriment to the democratic nature of the state. Sagi and Stern sum it up quite elegantly in saying, Minority status is the cornerstone of Jewish memory. In exile, we were victims of various loyalty tests – religious, civil, social and national. How is it that we have internalized our persecutors’ norms? “Many years of cross-border conflict, most recently in Gaza, have strained Jewish-Arab relations within Israel to a near breaking point”

Israel should be very cautious regarding how it treats its Arab minority. The country, the national home for the Jewish people, has an opportunity to show the world how a minority should be treated, and Lieberman’s rhetoric does not represent a step in the right direction.

Even before this election, the Arab community’s faith in the political system had already sunk to almost nil; and now, seeing a figure like Lieberman receive such a shocking number of mandates –reflecting widespread and mainstream Jewish support for his principles– has killed many hopes, even amongst moderate elements of the population.

How did this happen?

“Lieberman manipulated these trends and capitalized on anti-Arab sentiment in order to solidify his position and assert himself in the political playing field” Many years of cross-border conflict, most recently in Gaza, have strained Jewish-Arab relations within Israel to a near breaking point. Events such as those in Acre [5], when violent clashes between Jewish and Arab youth led to irreparable damage to property and the tapestry of previously mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods, have torn the fabric of Israeli society. Wide socio-economic and political rifts and growing trends of separatism and alienation also pose a threat to Israeli democracy and the country’s status around the world. The recent war on Gaza polarized the Arab public in ways not seen since the second Intifada. Although the Israeli police handled the situation with better care and the protests were by and large non-violent, over 700 anti-war Arab demonstrators were detained, and the Arab mainstream was pushed into a corner, which effectively exacerbated trends of separatism. Simultaneously, the Jewish mainstream, guided by a largely pro-war consensus, could not understand that the victims of the operations were family and friends of Israel’s Arab population, and directed its anger towards them, becoming more tolerant of racial slurs and extreme rhetoric.

Lieberman manipulated these trends and capitalized on anti-Arab sentiment in order to solidify his position and assert himself in the political playing field. By spearheading the move in the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Arab parties from participation in the political process, he tested the waters and saw that the time was ripe for exploiting the growing rift in Israeli society. Most recently, No Citizenship without Loyalty is sure to test the limits of the societal cohesion – that is, if it has not already tossed them aside. Sagi and Stern said it best, The new demand for loyalty is the natural continuation of our everyday, banal attitude toward the Arab minority…Yisrael Beiteinu’s slogan did not change things. Rather, it bluntly articulated the facts of life in Israel.

ISRAELIZATION AND PALESTINIZATION

The facts unfortunately reflect years of neglect and systematic discrimination of the Arab minority at the hands of the state. Social trends have arisen in the progression of the Arab narrative in Israel, creating cycles of Israelization and Palestinization, terms that most aptly illustrate the construction of their collective identity. “Israel’s future cannot be secured if its Arab citizens continue to feel disconnected from the greater Israeli society, or if their calls for economic, social and civic equality continue to be neglected” During the years of Rabin, Arabs in Israel felt more included in the political and social system than ever before. Arab representation in the Knesset even provided a safety net, whereby for Labor to pass legislation it needed the backing of the Arab parties, despite their not being included in the coalition. When Barak ran in the national prime ministerial elections, he promised inclusion of the Arab voice, which he later refused. This, combined with the failure of the Oslo Peace Process, served as the catalyst for a Palestinization process, which has resurfaced today at full strength.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex, yet Arab citizens continue to be slighted in budget and land allocation, access to government services, employment opportunities and education. In 2003, the Or Commission acknowledged that the government’s handling of the Arab sector has been neglectful and discriminatory, yet its recommendations, to address the lack of sensitivity to the Arab population and unequal distribution of state resources, have not been implemented.

The urgency of dealing with this discrepancy is not only based on moral rights and declared values, but it is intrinsic to Israel’s security and stability. Israel’s future cannot be secured if its Arab citizens continue to feel disconnected from the greater Israeli society, or if their calls for economic, social and civic equality continue to be neglected.

SOCIAL EQUALITY AND ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

Israel has much to gain from an approach that sees engagement with the Arab population as an economic asset rather than a threat. “There is no doubt that the last 60 years, the state’s ill-treatment of its Arab citizens has played a vital role in their alienation and estrangement, which has resulted in the radicalization of Arab political leadership” For example, in the Sdereot-Israel conference in November, Aiman Seif, director of the Economic Development Department of the non-Jewish Sector (Prime Minister’s Office), said, The Israeli market will lose NIS 40 billion ($10.2 billion) this year, which is six percent of the GNP, as a result of the failure to integrate Israeli Arabs into the market. So, if the state were to lay the groundwork for official policies addressing these issues, or at least to prepare itself for them, we would certainly be better equipped to engage the Arab public as an economic asset, and not a potential disaster.

Coexistence can only be achieved in a climate of social equality and economic opportunity. The important work of civil society organizations notwithstanding, without official and widespread leadership from the government to direct Israel towards a shared future, in both word and deed, equality and coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel will forever remain limited in geography and scope.

There is no doubt that the last 60 years, the state’s ill-treatment of its Arab citizens has played a vital role in their alienation and estrangement, which has resulted in the radicalization of Arab political leadership (also an integral part of the larger problem). However, in spite of how Lieberman has come to his proposal, and more importantly the motivation behind it, the suggestion itself is not altogether far-fetched. Of course “forcing” anything is a terrible idea, and equality should not be the result of a compromise or price paid, but rather a fundamental right given to all unconditionally. In an opinion piece in Haaretz a few weeks ago, Moshe Arens said, regarding loyalty, It is something that has to come naturally, from a feeling of being at home here, from an appreciation for the principles on which the State of Israel is founded, from a sense of sharing a common fate with Israel’s Jewish citizens.

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE GOVERNMENT

“It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to provide equally to all its citizens” So it is important to remember that equal opportunity, social inclusion and integration are the components that are lacking in the state’s treatment towards its Arab citizens, and only after we begin to address these issues can we even begin to talk about integrating them into the military and national service apparatus. Presently, the more than 170 grassroots organizations working towards coexistence constitute the only true way to stimulate and bring about lasting and realistic change. It is unfortunate that the burden rests on the shoulders of civil society organizations.

It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to provide equally to all its citizens. Creating a successful multi-cultural fabric within the state could present a model of pluralism and democracy for countries in the Middle East and beyond, while engaging Israel’s Arab citizens as ambassadors for partnership with the Arab and Muslim world. Therefore, an emphasis on coexistence education policy should be considered within the legislative chambers immediately. Starting with education will provide the necessary foundation for our future generations to live together with mutual goals and interests. Although this will demand monumental changes in the budget as well as the education system, the cost of such reform will pay off. At the end of the day, the most important thing to realize is that the proper integration of Arabs into the state will be for the country’s own betterment.