Alongside integrating Israel’s Arab citizens into the private sector and higher education, another pressing matter is including Israeli-Arabs in the peace process with the Palestinians. As Northeastern Professor Dov Waxman says, making peace with the Palestinians in the Territories through a two-state solution “will be, at best, an incomplete solution, rather than a comprehensive one.” If you consider how Israel’s Arab citizens are connected to the conflict, the only way a “two-state solution” can comprehensively resolve the conflict is if it addresses the concerns of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Two intractable issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict that are connected to Israel’s Arab citizens are their identity and the Palestinian Right of Return. Currently, Israel’s Arab citizens are officially “Israeli-Arabs.” However, in a 2013 study conducted by Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha, roughly 60% of the Arab community in Israel identify themselves as some form of “Palestinian.” Thus, many of Israel’s Arab citizens want the state to recognize them as a national minority in order to strengthen their cultural, religious, and educational autonomy, which may lead to more equality. Moreover, about 50% of them see the Naqba (the Catastrophe in 1948) as important to them – meaning that the Right of Return and the solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis is important to them, not just the Palestinians in the Territories and the refugee camps.
Indeed, if there is going to be a comprehensive solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Israel’s Arab citizens’ concerns also must be addressed, and thus they should participate in the peace process. The way for them to participate in the peace process is through Israeli civil society and electorate, which they have done before.
Before and after the First Intifada, Israel’s Arab citizens helped raise awareness of the Palestinian issue by staging protests on Israeli university campuses. For example, the Arab Student Union at the University of Haifa staged demonstrations bringing awareness of the Palestinian issue leading up to the Oslo Accords.
The Palestinian civil society in Israel has also addressed their concerns of their identity and the Right of Return through what are known as the “Vision Documents.” In 2006-2007, Israeli-Arab intellectuals drafted documents proposing Israel renounce its Jewish character, acknowledge its responsibility for the Naqba, and recognize its Arab citizens as Palestinians. Scholars Dov Waxman and Illan Peleg took some ideas out of the documents and suggested, rather than renouncing Israel’s Jewish character, to reform Israel’s identity as a homeland for the Jewish people to a homeland for the Jewish people and all of its citizens along with recognizing its Arab community as Palestinian minority.
The Israeli electorate has also been an effective outlet for Israel’s Arab citizens to participate in the peace process. For instance, they provided backing to the Labor government (1992-1996) during the Oslo Accords. Just as important, their boycott of the 1996 elections allowed Benjamin Netanyahu to become prime minister over Shimon Peres in the middle of the peace process. As we can see, Arab participation in the Israeli electorate can make a difference in the peace process. Nevertheless, Arab voting has declined over the past decade or so.
A study by the Abraham Fund in 2012 found that only 53% of eligible Arab voters voted in the 2009 elections, down from 75% a decade earlier. However, it should be noted that their boycott of the elections was not to separate themselves from Israel, but rather because they feel it would make little impact. As Mohammad Daraweshe says, “only 17 per cent of Arab citizens are boycotting elections on ideological grounds.”
The polling revealed that Israel’s Arab citizens would vote more if they had more of a say in the country’s decision making. 59% of the Arabs who did not vote said they would have if they had more representation in the Knesset, and 52% said, “Jewish leaders calling on Arabs to manage the state’s affairs would increase their willingness to vote.” In addition, 59% of Arabs said they would vote more if their leaders unified and if the youth (58%) and women (50% for women and 28% for men) were better represented in the Arab parties.
The Israeli government and the Arab parties can take the necessary steps to encourage Israel’s Arab citizens to further participate in Israeli civil society and the electorate. This will help them address their concerns in the peace process and lead to a more comprehensive solution. Their participation will also help further their integration in Israeli society and enhance Israel’s social cohesion and democratic character.