Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's new foreign minister, is perhaps most notorious for his policy demands regarding the Arab citizens of Israel. He wants Israeli Arabs to prove their loyalty to the state by taking oaths and doing national service, otherwise he would deny them Israeli citizenship. And he wants to move the green line (1967 border between Israel and the West Bank so that Arab villages in the Triangle and Wadi Ara areas become part of Palestine and their residents become Palestinian instead of Israeli.
At their core--if we could strip them of racist exaggeration--some of Lieberman's ideas might be worth discussing. Indeed, at their core these policy proposals are not originally his. In embracing and distorting them, Lieberman appears to be motivated by an angry racist nationalism that used to be foreign to Israel but that sells well with his constituents, who are primarily from the former Soviet Union. But he is also reacting to growing extremism among the Arab citizens of Israel as they insist that Israel cannot be a Jewish state and must reflect their Palestinian national identity as well. Those Arab citizens are in turn responding both to the failed Oslo peace process and to decades of prejudice and neglect by Israeli governments.
By way of unraveling this very negative process of escalation and finding the positive core that Lieberman has abused, let us look at the ideas one by one.
Regarding loyalty oaths and national service, note that the highly secular Lieberman has addressed these demands to ultra-orthodox Jews as well as Arabs in Israel. Indeed, the Jewish mainstream is generally far more critical of ultra-orthodox avoidance of military service than of Arab avoidance: Arabs have never been asked to serve, whereas the ultra-orthodox are called up, then released on the basis of a political concession to their religious orientation, which in their world view takes priority over the state. Lieberman also accepts the option of some sort of civilian rather than military service.
Precisely such a volunteer civilian service core has recently been established in Israel. Initial one-year volunteers include Israeli Arabs as well as ultra-orthodox. They work in hospitals, with youth groups and with their local municipal and village councils. These volunteers find the service acceptable and even desirable because it links them to the country and to their fellow citizens without demanding outward expressions of loyalty to the state of Israel.
Why not make this civilian service compulsory for those not doing military service? It would answer a critical need of a highly pluralistic, not to say fragmented society. And it would render Lieberman's racism-tinged demands far less appealing to Jewish voters.
Turning to the idea of moving the green line, I believe I was the first to propose, back in 1994, that Arab villages inside Israel could be part of the territorial swaps that accompany a two-state solution agreement. At the time, surveys showed that between one-fourth and one-third of Arab citizens of Israel liked the idea. I cited both political and demographic motives for this proposal, and no one accused me of racism. Since then, mainstream Israeli politicians have also suggested that Arab citizens whose primary identity is Palestinian could apply to the future Palestinian state for passports even if they continue to live in Israel.
The difference between these proposals and Lieberman's is that the latter insists on cancelling the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who find themselves and their towns and villages inside the Palestinian state, whereas most of us recognize that the Israel High Court of Justice would very likely accept an appeal by such an Arab Israeli who wants to retain his or her Israeli citizenship, because native citizenship is a fundamental right that governments cannot arbitrarily deny. This may be one reason why Lieberman wants to seriously dilute the authority of the High Court--one of his most nefarious initiatives.
What the French and Germans could do in Alsace Lorraine after their wars is no longer acceptable in the age of human rights. Still, nothing should stop an Israeli government from moving the green line in Wadi Ara and the Triangle as compensation for annexing settlement blocs within the framework of an agreed solution. An Israeli resident of Umm al-Fahm who finds himself in Palestine would not lose his Israeli citizenship and would be free to move to Nazareth or Shfaram inside the green line. But if he stays in Palestine, future generations presumably would not be Israeli.
Lest we forget, unlike his fellow right-wingers Lieberman supports a two-state solution, to the extent that he is ready if called upon to vacate his own settlement, Nokdim. Sadly, he has taken otherwise legitimate ideas and distorted them in terms of both content and angry racist invective. This gives those ideas a bad name. And it further escalates Jewish-Arab tensions in Israel.- Published 6/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
There's no doubt that the new right-wing Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu with Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister is seen as a bit of a headache by many concerned parties in the international community, including among the friends of Israel in the US and Europe.
The radical composition of the government poses a challenge to everyone, especially since radical and extreme elements in both Israeli and Palestinian societies have been nourishing each other over the past several years. The extreme policies of Ariel Sharon, including abandoning the peace process, contributed to the emergence of Hamas and its victory in the last parliamentary elections. Similarly, Hamas' victory aided in the election of this new Israeli government.
One of the reasons the new government poses a challenge to others is the prominent position of Lieberman and the political views that helped him attain such prominence, whether on the peace process or with respect to Israel's Palestinian minority.
Lieberman has come up with two very controversial proposals in this regard. The first is to adjust the borders of Israel to exclude areas of particularly high Palestinian population density and place them under Palestinian Authority or state control. The other is a loyalty law that ultimately seeks to restrict political freedoms for those questioning certain Israeli constants and that is directed at the Palestinian minority in Israel.
These two positions and the motivation behind them have elicited strong reactions not only from the Palestinian minority in Israel and progressive Israeli forces and groups, but also from among the friends and supporters of Israel in the West. These worry that such extreme positions will harm the image of Israel worldwide and create a situation in which support for Israel becomes not just a political issue, but an ethical one.
Lieberman's outspoken presence has also focused attention on the Palestinian minority in Israel, which has always suffered various kinds of discriminatory and racist laws. Most importantly, the community saw the state confiscate swathes of land to make way for new Jewish immigrants after 1948. Until 1966, furthermore, the state imposed military rule on the Palestinian community, restricting its movement and undermining its social and civil rights. The Palestinian minority has always been discriminated against in terms of education and health services and forms the poorest and least educated sector of Israeli society.
In order to solve the tensions between the Palestinian minority and Jewish majority in Israel there needs to be a departure from the mentality that Lieberman represents, i.e., that the country has to be pure Jewish, or Jewish first and foremost. But Lieberman has only given prominent voice to decades-old policies and practices that essentially seek to undermine the minority and ensure the Jewish majority.
These policies derive from the same underlying motivation that saw Zionist forces drive out Palestinians in 1948 in order to make room for a Jewish state rather than a secular and democratic one. Lieberman represents an unrestrained and unapologetic modern strand of that kind of thinking and that is why his prominence is so dangerous.
Certainly, it is the kind of attitude that will continue to cause problems for Israel in the region as well as with its Palestinian neighbors. It may now cause problems for Israel more widely.
Israel has never been held accountable for its illegal and unacceptable behavior toward the Palestinians under occupation as well as its Palestinian minority. That has encouraged the most extreme elements in Israel. They, in turn, may now bring the issue into the light in a way that does not favor Israel or its interests in the region.- Published 6/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
VIEW OF A PALESTINIAN CITIZEN OF ISRAEL
I refuse to be on the defensive
an interview with Mohammad Darawshe
bitterlemons: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants all citizens of Israel to meet certain basic loyalty requirements and would deny them citizenship if they don't. What's wrong with a loyalty requirement?
Darawshe: I wish that was the only demand, it would be easier to handle. Lieberman's agenda is even more anti-Arab and racist; it sets up thresholds for citizenship for Arabs but not for others in the country. Conditional citizenship is wrong. People are citizens from birth. All of Lieberman's proposals are part of an attempt to change the demography of Israel or at least render Arabs second-class citizens. This is not the promise of equality embodied in Israel's Declaration of Independence. This ideology should be fought to maintain the democratic nature of Israel.
bitterlemons: Lieberman wants not only Arabs but ultra-orthodox Jews to do national service.
Darawshe: Before we talk about service to the country we have to talk about the attitude of the country toward different segments of society and the status of Arab citizens: are they legitimate citizens of the country or not? Should Israel perceive itself to be the state of its Arab [as well as Jewish] citizens or not? These discussions require dialogue between leaders of the Jewish and Arab communities in the country. The product of this dialogue could deal with national service, equal budgets, how the police address the Arab community--as a controlling authority or service provider that prioritizes Jewish communities over ours--and the nature of the relationship between the majority and the minority in the country.
[Lieberman's focus on] a single issue is a tactic to serve a political agenda. We need to structure supporting elements like bilingualism in government services, equality in government budgets and cultural activities to bring the communities closer together. These are more important than the issue of national service.
bitterlemons: How do you respond when Lieberman says Arabs are not loyal citizens of the state?
Darawshe: I refuse to be on the defensive. The Palestinian citizens of Israel have succeeded in proving their loyalty and respect for the law over 62 years, more than was expected of them. To be citizens of a country that is fighting our people is not simple, yet we have maintained respect for law and distanced ourselves from violence during two intifadas and seven other wars. The overall experience of the Arab citizens from a security point of view has exceeded expectations. We have chosen to try to reach peaceful relationships through dialogue and seeking solutions, not forcing a violent and explosive crisis. Unfortunately, because the state has failed to develop the right institutions [for coexistence], this has created space for radicalism to develop inside the Arab community and for anti-Arab racist movements within the Jewish community.
bitterlemons: Lieberman wants to move the green line so that certain Arab towns and villages on the Israeli side of the line are in a Palestinian state. Is this an acceptable proposition?
Darawshe: First, I hope he's serious about a two-state solution. He's the one under scrutiny now as to whether he'll push the two-state agenda forward or backward. Territorial exchange is a legitimate topic for states to discuss, but not population exchange in which Israel can deprive Israeli citizens of citizenship. No law gives the right to remove citizenship from anyone; people need to be asked if they want to maintain their citizenship or not. So this is not an option that helps Israel. It creates more anger and frustration toward it. Anyone with this agenda should consider the diplomatic and other interests of the country. Violent threats against fellow citizens due to their ethnic affiliation are not democratic and do not constitute proper civic treatment of minorities.
bitterlemons: What does the Arab community of Israel expect from the new government in this respect?
Darawshe: As foreign minister, Lieberman should be concerned with how Israel treats its Arab citizens. This will be a model for other countries' treatment of their Jewish minorities. [Lieberman's proposals] are not in the national interest of Israel or the Jewish people. Moreover, any threat to ethnic minorities hurts the democratic nature and social cohesion of the country and could generate radical groups with violent solutions.
The responsibility for the creation of social cohesion in society is the government's. Hence I expect the prime minister and others in the new government to take up the responsibility and promote equality and social justice between all ethnic groups in Israel as a guarantee for safety and security, economic prosperity and protection of the moral values upon which the state is founded.- Published 6/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Mohammad Darawshe is co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, dedicated to advancing coexistence and equality among Jews and Arabs in Israel.
VIEW OF A PALESTINIAN CITIZEN OF ISRAEL
an interview with Johnny Mansur
bitterlemons: Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, has proposed two policies that appear aimed directly at the Palestinian minority in Israel, one on transferring Palestinian areas of Israel to Palestinian Authority or state control and one implementing a loyalty law. What is at stake here?
Mansur: What is at stake is that Lieberman wants to formalize in the legal framework of the state discriminatory ideas that were around before him and are fiercely opposed by Israel's Palestinian citizens. These include asking Israel's Palestinians to swear loyalty to the state and express their loyalty partly by serving in the army.
Palestinians in Israel refuse to confuse their loyalty to the state with army service. Most Palestinians consider themselves as citizens of Israel as well as a part of the Palestinian people worldwide. They see no necessary contradiction between those positions. That is why they also oppose the attempt to remove them from the state by making them a part of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian minority in Israel wants to be a part of an Israeli state, but one that defines itself as being for all its people, not Jewish.
bitterlemons: How big a problem is it that Israel defines itself as a Jewish state.
Mansur: It is a big problem The Palestinians in Israel are not immigrants and did not come from abroad to live here. They are the indigenous people of the state. They want to play a part in daily life and help shape the future of the state if Israel will offer them full rights in a democratic state. But this is problematic if Israel insists on being a Jewish state, because such a definition doesn't leave room for the identity of Palestinians in Israel.
bitterlemons: Do you think there is a connection between the rise of Lieberman and growing tensions between Palestinian and Jewish communities in Israel?
Mansur: These tensions came before Lieberman. They started with the events of October 2000 when the state killed its own citizens, an event that has still not been redressed. Since then there has been a growing gap between the communities and greater segregation.
bitterlemons: But does Lieberman's position on Israel's Palestinian minority reflect public opinion among the majority?
Mansur: Lieberman represents a mentality that in politics and daily life existed before him but is growing. For example, in the program of the new government there is no mention of Israel's Palestinians. This comes from a racist mentality. The problem of a lack of schools is only a problem in the Arab sector. With respect to hospitals, Israel has not built a single hospital for its Palestinian citizens since the state was created in 1948. These are issues that a government should address. And the gap between the two communities is growing every year.
Israel always wanted more land and fewer Arabs and every day the state acts against its Palestinians in one way or another. Lieberman simply wants to formalize what is already common practice. What it means is that Israel will more and more become an apartheid state.
bitterlemons: Is it possible for Israel to define itself as a Jewish state and offer full rights to non-Jewish citizens.
Mansur: It is difficult. Jewish society in Israel is composed of many different groups and those differing interests are why it defines itself as a secular state. But as long as that term applies only to a Jewish state it only applies to Jewish communities. For the Palestinian community, such a state still does not represent them. Palestinians want a democratic state for all its people.
bitterlemons: Do you think Israeli Jews believe Palestinians in Israel are discriminated against?
Mansur: No. The media's portrayal of Israel to Israelis is that this state is the only democratic country in the region and offers its Palestinian community all the accompanying benefits, taking part in elections and standing for office and so on. So most Israelis believe that Palestinians have the full benefits of a democracy and they don't want to listen to different opinions.
The fact is that Palestinians remain discriminated against in many ways and the only way to correct this is for Palestinians to become citizens with full rights.
bitterlemons: Does Lieberman then pose a challenge to Israelis who think of their country as democratic?
Mansur: Yes, and it is now up to those Israeli Jews and the Palestinian minority to find a way to work together to minimize the effect of Lieberman's way of thinking. This is the challenge and it is a good opportunity for Jews and Palestinians to work together to defeat discrimination and racism in Israel.- Published 6/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Johnny Mansur is a Haifa-based local historian.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.