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Israel pushes out its own people

Dimi Reider | The Guardian

10 June 2009

Whenever Barack Obama speaks of the Middle East these days, there’s one thing that worries “senior Israeli officials” most. “He didn’t say ‘Jewish state’,” they mutter to reporters. “He had all the time to say these two words, and didn’t. Why didn’t he?”

Binyamin Netanyahu himself utters this phrase at every opportunity. He even went as far as turning this coveted idea into a precondition for negotiating with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, before being shushed by Washington.

But why this sudden insistence on what is supposed to be an internal Israeli matter, the self-definition of the state? As Abbas rightly commented, Israel can call itself the Hebrew Socialist Republic for all he cares. Why bring up this internal matter with Obama and Abbas, Israel’s primary foreign policy objectives?

The truth is that Netanyahu is speaking neither to Abbas nor to Obama. He is speaking to world public opinion, as he prepares for confrontation with a fourth party to the conflict, one that is as crucial as it is overlooked: the Israeli-Palestinian minority.

Israeli Palestinians, most of them native Palestinians who remained in what became Israel after 1948, constitute 21% of the population. Their very existence poses a critical reality check on Israel’s self-perception as Jewish and democratic, and if one throws in the population of the West Bank and Gaza, the proportion of Jews in Israeli-controlled areas shrinks to a mere 51%.

Despite discrimination in all walks of life – education, housing, civil service, politics – the Palestinian minority in Israel is slowly gaining ground. The number of Palestinian students on Israeli campuses is growing from year to year, discrimination is actively challenged both in court and in public life, and the years of housing neglect are biting back at Jewish hegemony as they push more and more young Palestinian professionals into previously Jewish-only areas.

So as almost any honest Zionist will tell you, here’s the dilemma. Israel’s proclaimed raison d’etre is maintaining a rigidly ethnocentric Jewish state, one in which Jews will never be in a minority. Being a minority must be understood in the emotional sense rather than the numerical one. This is important to our own historic memory as persecuted minorities, but even more so because maintaining a democracy is quintessential to Israel’s standing in the world community. On the other hand, given Palestinian advancement within Israel, an open democracy that plays by the rules will inevitably result in the erosion of the purist nation-state. So in the three-part Jewish, Palestinian and democratic conundrum, one element has to be dismissed. Netanyahu’s new catchphrase seems to indicate that that element will be the Palestinian minority in Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman is much maligned for his racism, but his line exemplifies one that had become very mainstream in Israel: a Palestinian state needs to be established – the sooner the better, before Palestinians in the occupied territories despair of nationalism and begin requesting the vote. Yet the geopolitical situation as it stands will, in such a scenario, still leave Israel as a bi-national state. His solution is annulling the citizenship of about half the Israeli Palestinians and redrawing the maps so that they find themselves within the new Palestinian state.

Lieberman’s position is widely shared; even self-proclaimed dove Tzipi Livni said, on several occasions, that “once a Palestinian state is established … we will be able to tell any Palestinian wishing to realise his national identity that he is now able to do it elsewhere”. More ominously, recent developments on the ground suggest the machinery for carrying out such an unprecedented task is already in motion.

The interior minister, Eli Yishay, had launched a legislative project to allow him the annulment of anyone’s citizenship without the authorisation of the attorney general. The IDF announced it would be allocating a special infantry brigade “to deal with a potential Arab uprising in case of war”. Last week’s national defence drill included just such a scenario – while most Israelis practised going into bomb shelters, army and police practised “suppressing a large-scale Arab revolt in the north” – the exact area of Lieberman’s proposed geographical experiment. And the outlandish bills recently tabled at the Knesset, ranging from banning commemoration of the Nakba to making citizenship conditional on a loyalty oath to a Jewish state, contribute to further alienation between the two communities and attach new fuses to an already much-rattled powder keg.

Are we facing the prospect of an ethnic cleansing? To a degree, ethnic cleansing has always been part and parcel of Israeli political life. Despite its bloody connotations, ethnic cleansing can be carried out in many ways. Family-by-family expulsion from “illegal housing” and discriminative economic pressure to emigrate is ethnic cleansing, too. We appear to be marching towards a nasty and brutal escalation on that front.

The reason why Netanyahu is talking over the heads of Palestinian Israeli citizens is precisely because most of them (over 70%) want to remain part of a sovereign democracy rather than the vague and improbably West Bank statelet. The reason he’s trying to create a fictional outside leadership for them in the character of the Palestinian Authority they so despise is precisely because their real leadership – their mayors, intellectuals, politicians and NGOs – persistently call for internal, Jewish-Arab dialogue over their rights and the role each community should play in a joint and truly democratic state.

Netanyahu’s efforts to throw in Israeli Palestinians with the West Bankers must be resisted. If he wants to make them part of the regional process, they should be heard speaking for themselves; if he doesn’t open the door for them as partners, they must be let in through the window, with every discussion of the peace process featuring exploration of the Israeli Palestinians’ exclusive plight. Most importantly, powerful international defence of their rights as Israel’s equal must be mounted and persistently ensured.