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The "Future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel"

Dialogue no. 6, March 2007, between As'ad Ghanem and Asher Susser

(editors' note: the document discussed here can be found in English, Arabic and Hebrew at www.bitterlemons.org/docs.html)


Ghanem: The vision document we are discussing looks at the relationship between the Arab minority and the Jewish majority in Israel. For years, Arab leaders have felt they should clarify their intentions in this regard. The initiative to write the document was taken three years ago by the head of the Supreme Follow-up Committee of the Arabs in Israel, Shawki Khatib. He convened around 40 intellectuals and politicians representing all the streams of thought in the Arab community in Israel, got some funds from the UNDP and brought us to Jerusalem for four or five weekends to discuss all the issues.

We defined the Jewish-Arab relationship in each domain: social, economic, education, culture. The initiative reflects the assessment that there is a deterioration in three sectors: with the state, since October 2000; at the internal level, where social issues are getting more complicated with regard to clan politics, local politics and the status of women (note in this regard that of the eight chapters of the document, six are devoted to internal issues); and the third sector is our relations with the Palestinian national movement.

We agreed from the beginning, as a compromise among our diverse views, that we would support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. We didn't come back to this issue. We agreed that the creation of a Palestinian state would resolve the Palestinian issues of self-determination and we devoted our energies to internal Palestinian Arab issues in Israel.

The most controversial issue, the one that attracts the most attention among the Jewish media, concerns our relationship with the Jewish majority within the state. We define this as a crisis situation. It was clear to us that there was a need to clarify the situation and present an alternative, taking into account that we seek to improve our situation and that our Israeli citizenship is the framework within which to do so. Thus our demands are presented within an Israeli context, as Israeli citizens. We, the Palestinians in Israel, are dissatisfied with state policies toward us.

Since 1948, the state's attitude has reflected the "tyranny of the majority" with regard to land, social structure, municipal and educational life, citizenship issues and the status of the Arabic language in Israel. Even now, the Knesset is considering omitting Arabic as an official language in Israel. All decisions about our needs are taken by the Jewish majority. True, this is a democratic procedure, Arabs are represented in the Knesset and elsewhere in Israel, but it ignores the basic needs of the minority, hence in our definition this is a tyranny of the majority that must be stopped.

Israel is not a democratic state as the West and the Israeli majority see it. True, there are procedural aspects like separation of powers, free elections, free press and so on, but Israel lacks a basic component of democracy: equal citizenship. According to law, the Israeli system is based on the superiority of one ethnic group, yet a democracy requires equal citizenship as a cornerstone. Hence this is an ethnocratic state system: it belongs to one ethnic group, the Jews, who control all aspects of life. Whether in the media, academia or elsewhere, there is no area of public life where the minority has an effective role except one, the right to vote. This system, the hegemony of one ethnic group, should be stopped.

Here we move to the solution: First, Israel should move to a consociational system rather than a liberal system, a system that guarantees the right of the minority to be represented in all state institutions and all aspects of life in a proportional manner. Second, the Jewish majority should refrain from taking decisions that affect the Arab minority regarding minority issues without asking its approval. These are the two basic demands in this document regarding our relations with the state and the Jewish majority.

Susser: Let me begin with a general statement.

For the great majority of Jewish Israelis the establishment of the state of Israel is the fulfillment of the Jewish people's inalienable right to self-determination and the achievement of their national rights, after many centuries of humiliation and persecution. For the Jews, this was the ultimate attainment, against all the odds, of a normal national existence, as deserved by all peoples, and the guarantee of their collective dignity, in rejection and defiance of their horrific history of suffering, intolerance and physical annihilation.

An integral and essential facet of this attainment of sovereignty and independent statehood was the cultural revival of the Jews as a Hebrew-speaking nation, not only living in their own state but also creating in their own language. Of all Israel's achievements one may argue that this Hebrew cultural revival, in the form of Israel's world-class literature, theater, press and institutions of academic excellence, is by far its most impressive.

To have all this dismissed in the vision document as a colonial enterprise (istitani and isti'mari in the Arabic; there can be no mistake about the fundamentally illegitimate connotation of this terminology in the Arab nationalist discourse) of a European elite, as if it were nothing more than the equivalent of the coffee-growing settlers in Kenya or their tobacco-cultivating brethren in Rhodesia, is groundless, reductionist and demeaning. Moreover, coming from the Arab intellectual elite in Israel, itself composed of graduates and faculty of these very same academic institutions, it verges on the unbelievable. One would have expected this elite to have made a greater effort not to agree, nor to accept, but to understand.

The Palestinians in Israel have now assumed the mantle of the indigenous people as the emblem of their arrogant sense of moral superiority against the Jewish "settler" state. They are dismissive in their non-recognition of the Jewish national movement and its sacrifice and struggle of over a century. This denial of the rights of the majority in the name of minority rights is unacceptable. That Palestinians do not accept the Zionist narrative is understandable. But it is hardly acceptable for them to demand its repudiation by the Jewish majority in Israel as a basis for negotiation. It would be equally ridiculous for the Jewish majority to expect the Palestinian minority to relinquish its own narrative and accept the Zionist one.

Now, to address As'ad's specific arguments, I'll begin where he has ended, on the issue of collective minority rights. I don't think the real problem is the inability of the Jewish majority to recognize the minority rights of the Palestinian community. A lot of Israelis can agree to collective minority rights. The problem with the vision document is that there is no recognition of the rights of the majority. There is no recognition of the Jewish right to self-determination. The Jewish majority is expected to recognize Palestinian minority national rights but the Palestinians don't recognize Jewish rights: they describe the Jews as foreign interlopers and settlers who are morally inferior to the native-born population--as if the Israeli Jews are not native.

There is no recognition of the other in this document, no acknowledgement that the Jewish majority is also a national movement with the right to self determination. It's understandable for the Palestinian Arabs of Israel to say they can't accept the Zionist narrative, I wouldn't expect them to. But by the same token it's unreasonable for the Palestinian minority to expect the Jews to accept the Palestinian narrative. There is an interpretation here of minority rights that is very extreme. How can minority rights only be recognized in exchange for non-recognition of the majority's rights? I expect the majority to recognize the minority's collective rights, but not at the cost of abandoning its national identity and ceasing to be the state of the Jewish people.

You argued in an Haaretz op-ed that Israel should be as Jewish as Sweden or England is Christian. But we do not see ourselves just as Jews by religion; most of us are Jews by nationality. Hence the comparison to a religious group is an unacceptable form of denial of our national and ethnic identity. Palestinians have to recognize Jews as the national majority that enjoys the rights of a majority if the Jews are to recognize Palestinians as a national minority. The majority has majority rights.

Ghanem: Other Jewish critics of our vision have also told me that "between the lines" we are ignoring the Jews as a national majority. Yet we did not write this.

Let me go through our demands of the state and the majority and make it clear that we recognize the right of the Jewish majority to self-determination and don't ignore its rights. Rather, we demand that this homeland should be agreed as a joint homeland, including the Palestinian minority in Israel as a full and not an inferior partner.

First, the Jews should recognize their responsibility for the Palestinian naqba of 1948. In particular, they should cease discrimination against the 20 percent of Palestinian Israelis who are internal refugees. We want full rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel who are deprived of their land rights. My home is in the village of Shaab, yet I don't have the right to rebuild my grandfather's home there. Instead I have an Israeli court order to demolish it.

Second, the state should recognize Palestinian Arabs in Israel as the indigenous group, the owners of this land. The national movement of the Jewish people was created in Poland, they came from abroad. Yet nowhere do we deny that there is now a Jewish collective in Israel that has the right to self-determination. We write that the state is the homeland of Jews and Palestinians. Each side has collective rights. We speak of mutual equality and recognition between the two groups. We have the same rights on this land as those we consider foreigners who came and occupied our land.

Susser: There is an implicit reference here to the homeland of both peoples. But explicitly there is no recognition. Explicitly you say Israelis are settler colonialists. Nowhere do you refer to the Jews' right to self-determination or to Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. You use all these terms in reference to Arabs, not Jews. By implication you indicate that this is also the homeland of the Jews, but nowhere do you recognize their collective rights.

If you portray the Jewish majority as a European colonial settler movement, you create a built-in imbalance: the Palestinians see themselves as indigenous natives, morally superior to the foreign settler majority who are politically inferior in their collective rights. That is the way the document portrays the issue. Now, when you talk about 1948 and the need to compensate the Palestinians for the aftermath of 1948, this document and your words here do not mention that the war in 1948 that produced this process came as the result of rejection by the Palestinians and other Arabs of an international resolution to partition the land into two states. Measures taken by the Israeli state such as military government and expropriation of land must be seen in the light of a war waged by the Palestinians and other Arabs against the Jewish national project.

One cannot understand the evolution of the Israeli state and its attitude toward the Palestinian minority in a context detached in its entirety from the active conflict pursued by the Palestinians against Israel. The conflict of 1948 caused losses to the Jewish population, too: one percent was killed. Why shouldn't they ask for compensation from the Arabs? You cannot relate to 1948 as if the policies applied by Israel to the Palestinian minority are a function of some sort of ideology and not a by-product of that war.

Ghanem: We have to distinguish between two aspects: the narrative or story of what happened in 1948, and what happened after 1948. We cannot convince one another of our stories. The most important aspect in our vision is the practical aspect, what to do in the future to stabilize the situation on an equal and democratic basis. At this level we have specific demands. Yes, part of the land was confiscated as a result of the war. But another part, for example in the Negev, was confiscated more recently to ensure a Jewish majority in certain regions. Specific laws were passed to make this possible. Here I speak of land belonging to Israeli citizens, not Palestinians across the green line.

There are at least three aspects of discrimination: One is legal. For example, someone in the Knesset Legal Affairs Committee is currently being paid by the state to suggest how to de-legalize the Arabic language. There are at least 18 laws that discriminate against Arabs in Israel. Secondly, at the structural level Arabs are not represented in an equal (or near-equal) manner at all levels of government. And then there is the policy/implementation level: Israel initiates policies that give Jews more rights in Israel than Arabs. This should be stopped.

When we mention that we are the original inhabitants, this doesn't diminish Jewish rights today. No one claims that because they came as part of a Europe-based settlement process they have no rights. We write and we mean that Israel is the homeland for both Palestinians and Jews. We have the same collective rights. The fact that native Americans' rights have been recognized does not diminish the rights of America's immigrant majority.

Two groups are here, Arabs and Jews. Each has the right to self-determination. The system has to represent the two groups. I don't agree that when you ask for collective rights and a change in the state structure you are a separatist. Collective rights can be part of citizenship as in Belgium, Canada and Switzerland. Yes, we are different from the majority, but it's vital that state decisions regarding the minority should have the approval of the minority leadership and representatives.

Susser: You say there should be a Palestinian state next to Israel. So there will be a state where Palestinians have the right to self determination. But in Israel you say that as long as the state defines itself as the state of the Jewish people, ipso facto it is denying Palestinians their national rights, and therefore Israel cannot define itself as the state of the Jewish people. Your vision document argues that the very definition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people makes it what you call an ethnocracy, a racist regime. These are delegitimizing terminologies and you apply them to Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

The consociational approach in places like Belgium, Canada and Switzerland is one of mutual and symmetrical acceptance and not of rejection and delegitimization. Consociationalism is not a bad idea as such, but it has to be on the basis of mutual acceptance and not as an instrument of conflict and deconstruction. The vision document makes repeated references to Israel's "racist regime" in an obvious attempt to South Africanize the debate. The consociational rhetoric, therefore, looks like nothing more than a cover for the one-state South African-style solution. How can Jewish Israelis be expected to accept that?

No people can deny the right of Palestinians to full equality within the framework of the Israeli state, including their national minority rights, but only in a context where Jewish national majority rights like a flag and an anthem are recognized as well.

Ghanem: I said earlier that one of the levels of discrimination is the symbolic one. Ideally, our symbols should be represented alongside the Jewish symbols of the state. We use the word very carefully. We don't say that Jews don't have the right to self- determination, nor that the Palestinian national movement won't have self-determination alongside Israel, but that inside Israel we want to be equal citizens. I wrote in Haaretz that when Israel becomes Jewish like Sweden and England are Christian and all citizens are equal, then we can discuss it again. But the Jewishness of the state currently means discrimination for us. The Jewish majority should not wish its self-expression to come at the expense of the Palestinian minority.

Susser: We are talking about the creation of a Jewish national state where there is a Jewish national majority that also recognizes the national rights of a minority. But you are asking the Jewish majority to abandon its national character. If maintaining Jewish national character means, as you define it, that this is a racist regime, that makes the kind of compromise that you speak of impossible to attain unless the Jews abandon their national character. Hence the context of the vision document is confrontational.

If the context were of mutual recognition of national rights, majority and minority, then it could work. But the document departs from this context. It suggests a settler-native relationship that delegitimizes the Jews and repeatedly refers to your struggle against an ethnocratic racist regime. This sounds like the South Africanization of the debate in a way intended to delegitimize the Israeli state.

You refer to us as imperialists. Coupled with your sense of moral superiority vis-a-vis the Jewish national enterprise, the demand for Palestinian Israelis to maintain national ties with the external Arab world that is broadly in confrontation with Israel and the language you use--the historical point of departure for the way 1948 is explained--all this creates from the Jewish majority point of view a confrontational point of departure. Again, I can understand the Palestinian minority not accepting the Zionist narrative, but you are asking the Jewish majority to abandon its narrative and national symbols for the sake of Palestinian minority rights. That's asking too much.

The two sides should sit down and negotiate how these symbolic and legal issues are resolved to the satisfaction of both communities. But there has to be symmetry in recognition of national rights. The Arabs have to recognize explicitly the same mutuality and symmetry of Jewish national rights as a point of departure. This document does not use that kind of terminology, hence I'm not surprised that the Jewish press in Israel highlights the confrontational aspects.

Ghanem: I'm not surprised by the Jewish majority's reaction. It would prefer to continue rejecting the Palestinian demand for equality. People would like to preserve their superiority. From 1948 until now and perhaps for another generation the majority will continue to maintain its hegemony in all aspects of life: distribution of land, representation in national institutions, academia, etc. From our point of view this should be changed. It was clear to us that the majority would reject our demands. Unfortunately, some of the Arab institutional parties, mainly the Islamists, also reject us--albeit without raising specific alternatives to the demands presented as part of the vision--since from their point of view we gave up certain aspects that are important for the interests of Palestinians in Israel. So there is discussion in both sectors. As for confrontation, it's true our situation and the measures taken against us since 1948 can be defined as the state considering us part of the enemy.

What we demand can be divided into two categories. One is rights that should be given to us as a collective. It is not rational that the state continues to control the Arab education system. We have a very important demand to run our own education system, establish our own university, create our own textbooks for our children. The fact is that the state today under a very left-wing minister of education still avoids dealing with this. The other category is related to integration: our right to be an equal part of Israel's citizenry, treated as equals. The state speaks of plans to do something, but nothing has happened for the last ten years.

Susser: The demand for recognition as a national minority, an Arab education system, an Arab university, equal rights and representation--most liberal-minded Israelis don't object to these demands. But when they're raised in a confrontational context, the message is not one of integration but of confrontation. If the message of integration were not accompanied by denial or half-hearted recognition of the Jewish collective right to self-determination, the context would not be confrontational but rather one of mutual acceptance. In that context the issue of minority rights becomes far easier to deal with and the same pragmatic demands appear in a very different light.

If this document had acknowledged that Jews have the right to self determination and have a legitimate national narrative even if Palestinian citizens of Israel don't accept it and that a large portion of the Arab-Jewish problem in Israel stems from a conflict of narratives and a regional conflict, this approach of mutual acceptance would transform the debate. But the present context is identical with that of historic Palestinian rejection of Israel and all it stands for.

Ghanem: Part of the problem is how to present our vision to the Jewish majority. We said to ourselves that even if we take the Israel Declaration of Independence and put it in our vision statement, some Israelis will argue with us and say no, you mean something else. Nowhere do we say Jews don't have the right to self-determination. We say both Jews and Arabs have the same collective rights. We don't want a Jewish official in the Prime Minister's Office to control our religious affairs. I know most Israelis don't want to control our religious and cultural affairs. We say it's time to stop this domination and discuss how we Arabs should carry out these tasks; we have plenty of Arabs who can do the job.

Susser: But you can't open your vision paper with the statement that Israel is a colonial settler enterprise and a racist entity. "Escalation of our struggle"--this sort of terminology comes from the PLO of a generation ago; from a confrontational rather than a reconciliational context. Hence even reasonable demands made this way sound unreasonable.

I have no problem recognizing Palestinians as a national minority; I'm on record 15 years ago saying so. But if that notion comes in the framework of delegitimization of the Israeli national enterprise and the interaction of the Palestinian minority with an external Arab and Islamic context that these days means Hamas, Nasrallah and Ahmedinezhad, the context is confrontational.

I see no problem with Arab control over the Arab educational system, unless what Arab children are taught is your opening statement: "Israel is a colonial settler enterprise and a racist entity". In that case we're back to a confrontationalist framework. The same demand sounds different within a framework of conciliation.

Ghanem: To sum up, this is a vision by Palestinians for Palestinians, mainly for internal consumption but also for the Jewish majority in order to clarify our demands. We started with our historic narrative: that we are indigenous and that Jews from Europe came and took our land, though without ignoring that Jews have a different narrative. In our opening sentence we proclaim our future as Israeli citizens; this is not a vision about the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but about the Palestinians in Israel, bearing in mind the assumption that the conflict will be resolved with a two-state solution. This is also a compromise. I personally, for example, believe in a single binational state solution. This is a compromise among Arabs. It's important because it was released by the head of the Follow-up Committee, hence represents the Arab mainstream.

When we released the document, we meant to initiate a debate among ourselves and with the state and the Jewish majority. We deal with very sensitive issues. This is the first time Palestinians in Israel have placed such a statement on the table. This underlines its importance.

It is essential to continue the discussion, not only of the presentation of the narrative and the right of Arabs to control their own lives, but also to get the liberals among the Jewish majority to speak up in favor of doing something about our rights. That's what Shawki al-Khatib promised in introducing this document: a conference after three months in order to hear all the reactions and comments and produce a new document that incorporates reactions from the right and the left. I don't believe too much of the content will be changed, but the tone might be. The substance is likely to remain because it represents our needs. It is with those needs that the state of Israel and Jewish intellectuals and representatives have to deal in order to create a better future for both communities.

Susser: A vision document as a basis for discussion between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority is timely and essential. We do indeed have to discuss how to work out our future in this country. But it is critical that the discussion be based on a context of equality, reciprocity and mutual recognition. This is the major failure of this document: the contextual framework. This is where I would expect in future the correction to come from. Once the contextual framework is changed to reciprocity and mutuality, the rest is relatively easy.

It is flawed logic to demand that the Jews confess to their collective guilt and illegitimacy in order to be accepted. In 1948, the Palestinians and their Arab brethren threatened Israel's existence in a war designed to prevent Israel's creation. And Israel is now expected to apologize and compensate for the consequences of its victory as if there had been no war at all. This too is in perfect accord with the Palestinian national narrative as espoused by the PLO and Hamas, which, needless to say, has not been the basis for agreement with Israel but for interminable conflict. No one needs any more of that.

Dr. As'ad Ghanem heads the Government & Political Philosophy Department at the School of Political Sciences, University of Haifa and is chair of the executive committee of the Ibn-Khaldun Association. He was an active participant in the preparation of the document described here.

Prof. Asher Susser is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.