Israel's Biggest Danger

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

Today they're 20 percent of the country's population. Demographers predict they'll be 25 percent by 2025.

Even before a new coalition could emerge, Israel's latest election was historic. It marked the collapse of Labor, the party that can plausibly claim to have founded Israel and produced its most celebrated prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion (as head of Labor's predecessor, Mapai), through Golda Meir to Yitzhak Rabin. The last vestige of old Labor is Shimon Peres, who--with fitting irony--is the country's president only because he quit the party. Israel's political spectrum is now dominated by three right-wing groups: Likud, Kadima (the Likud offshoot founded by Ariel Sharon) and Yisrael Beytenu, a party of Russian immigrants. But while most commentators focus on the future of the peace process and the two-state solution, a deeper and more existential question is growing within the heart of Israel.

It's a question posed by the election's biggest winner: Avigdor Lieberman. His Yisrael Beytenu party won 15 seats, placing third but gaining enormous swing power in the Israeli system. Whether or not the new government includes him, Lieberman and his issues have moved to center stage. As fiercely as he denounces the Palestinian militants of Hamas and Hizbullah, his No. 1 target is Israel's Arab minority, which he has called a worse threat than Hamas. He has proposed the effective expulsion of several hundred thousand Arab citizens by unilaterally redesignating some northern Israeli towns as parts of the Palestinian West Bank. Another group of several hundred thousand could expect to be stripped of citizenship for failing to meet requirements such as loyalty oaths or mandatory military service (from which Israel's Arabs are currently exempt). The New Republic's Martin Peretz, a passionate Zionist and critic of the peace movement, calls Lieberman a "neo-fascist -- a certified gangster -- the Israeli equivalent of [Austria's] Jorg Haider." No liberal democracy I know of since World War II has disenfranchised or expelled its own citizens.

Today's Arab Israelis are descendants of roughly 160,000 Arabs who stayed in the lands that became Israel in 1948. Their number now stands at 1.3 million, 20 percent of Israel's total population, and demographers predict that by 2025 they'll be a quarter of the country's people. Aside from their military exemption, they have the same legal rights and obligations as all other Israeli citizens. But they face discrimination in many aspects of life, including immigration, land ownership, education and employment. "This inequality has been documented in a large number of professional surveys and studies, has been confirmed in court judgments and government resolutions, and has also found expression in reports by the state comptroller and in other official documents," retired High Court justice Theodor Or concluded in an official investigation of the second intifada. …