Today's Arab Israelis, Tomorrow's Israel

By Rozenman, Eric | Policy Review, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Today's Arab Israelis, Tomorrow's Israel


Rozenman, Eric, Policy Review


DESPERATE TO REPLACE or resuscitate the Oslo "peace process during the miniwar last fall and winter with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reiterated his call for separation. If seven years of Israeli withdrawals from one national security "red line" after another had not bought peace, then at least separation -- unilateral and quick -- of Jews and Arabs, of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would bring quiet.

To stimulate cabinet discussion of separation, Barak distributed copies of Haifa University Professor Dan Schueftan's manifesto, Disengagement, to his ministers. By late December a poll showed 75 percent of Israelis (no doubt the figure would have been higher if it reflected only Jewish Israeli sentiment) favoring separation in some form or another. That meant the idea behind Barak's winning slogan in the 1999 campaign, "Us here, them there," remained popular, if Barak himself did not. Shortly before ousting Barak in February's election for prime minister, Ariel Sharon restated his own proposal for unilateral separation (though only as a response to a future unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians).

Despite the renewed interest in the subject -- which survives Barak's defeat -- separation along the pre-1967 "green line" neither divides nor conquers. That is because, as the "al-Aksa intifada" confirmed by enlisting the participation of many Israeli Arabs and the vociferous support of even more, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle already has penetrated to within "Israel proper." This expansion feeds on the rapid growth of Israel's Arab population and the deepening of that population's Palestinian national identification. Separation, as discussed by Israeli officials and academics, fails to deal realistically with this changed, but hardly new, paradigm.

Last fall, not only were Israelis and Palestinians killing each other across the pre-1967 green line in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and eastern Jerusalem, but Israeli Arabs and Jews also did likewise inside the 1948 boundaries. Although the numbers were small -- 13 Israeli Arabs killed by Israeli police, one by a Jewish mob, and five Israeli Jews murdered by Israeli Arabs -- the significance was great. The struggle that Israeli Jews had long imagined was between their superior state and an inferior Palestinian Arab movement over a West Bank/Gaza Strip entity has relapsed into its essential pre-1948 condition.

Then the Arab and Jewish inhabitants of British Mandatory Palestine west of the Jordan River (Britain unilaterally separated eastern Palestine -- Transjordan -- in 1922) waged an intercommunal fight for dominance. Today, they do so again, the Oslo process and favorable demographic trends having stimulated Arab appetites and solidarity on both sides of the green line. Arafat rejected Barak's unprecedented offer of 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and de facto control over eastern Jerusalem at Camp David last summer because he would have had to share Jerusalem, drop the Arab "right of return" to pre-'67 Israel, and declare the conflict over. Simultaneously, the Arabs of Israel, by supporting those of the West Bank and Gaza last fall, also reaffirmed that Jewish claims inside '48 lines are still up for grabs.

Smaller majority, larger minority

DESPITE ITS MANY successes, Israel 53 years after independence remains a Jewish beachhead in the Near East. Three-fourths of Israel's infrastructure and Jewish population lie within an L-shaped strip 75 miles from Haifa's northern suburbs to Tel Aviv's southern ones and 35 miles west to east, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This Jewish heartland rarely exceeds nine miles in width.

As a result of Jewish immigration and Arab emigration during the first five years of Israel's founding, Jews constituted roughly 87 percent of Israel's population from 1953 through 1967. But then the consistently much higher Arab Israeli fertility rates -- supplemented by a high level of Jewish emigration -- began to close the gap. …

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