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What the 2019 Israeli Elections Mean for Israeli Arabs

By Jonathan and Ryan Haber

Israeli Arabs, the official government and media term for Palestinians and their descendants who stayed when the state of Israel was formed in 1948, are Israel’s most prominent minority group. Despite misconceptions that Israel is a homogenous nation, Israeli Arabs make up almost 20 percent of Israel’s entire population, with some Israeli Arabs serving in the Israeli Defense Forces and sitting on the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

However, today you will not find many Israeli Arab citizens calling themselves Israeli Arab, instead Arab citizens are preferring “Palestinian in Israel” or “Palestinian Arab.” It's one of the clearest signs that indicates that the already fragile relations between the Jewish and Arab populations within Israel have gotten worse, with many Israeli Arabs today choosing to separate themselves with their Israeli identity.

The event that caused the most recent deterioration in the relationship can be traced back to a legislative incident that occurred only a year ago: the nation-state law. In 2018, the Knesset passed a series of laws which, most controversially, declared Israel a national homeland for Jewish people, essentially declaring Israel as a Jewish state, and placing this declaration as one of the nation’s fundamental Basic Laws. The laws were condemned by Israeli Arabs, who argued that the nation-state clause effectively made non-Jewish peoples in Israel second-class citizens. In the aftermath of the nation-state law, some Israeli Arab politicians resigned from the Knesset and large-scale police clashes occurred at Israeli Arab protests against the legislation.

Since the adoption of the nation-state law, there has been a general sentiment of alienation among members of the Israeli Arab community.

The current Israeli government’s continuing disregard for the alienation felt by many Israeli Arab citizens could have massive ramifications in the years to come as the discrimination and high level of poverty present in Israeli-Arab community will cause domestic turmoil within Israeli society.

A History of Damaged Relations

Israeli Arabs have lived in the state of Israel since the country’s founding, ever since their descendants remained in Israeli borders in the aftermath of the First Arab-Israeli war in 1948. After the war Arab citizens were governed under martial law, with the Israeli government placing restrictions on travel, free speech and business for Israeli Arabs. Despite martial law ending in 1966, the policy created deep-rooted hostility between Israeli Arabs and Jewish citizens that still persist.

Under Israel’s federal laws, Arab citizens are given the same rights and protections as their Jewish counterparts, though there are still major disparities between the two communities. For example, Israeli Arabs have a lower national income, a higher infant mortality rate, and less representation in government bureaucracy and other institutions, such as universities when compared to Jewish citizens. Segregation, though illegal under Israeli law, is also a major problem between the two groups, with 90 percent of Israeli-Arabs living in Arab majority towns and villages. This separation between the communities is mostly caused by unconscious social behavior, though there have been cases where Arab citizens were intentionally blocked from moving to majority Jewish neighborhoods. Jewish and Israeli Arab children rarely attend the same schools together.

Hardening Divisions

Current Israeli government policy has done little to soothe tensions between Jewish and Israeli Arab citizens. Besides the nation-state law, the rhetoric and recent actions from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his collation government have only exacerbated tensions between Jewish and Israeli Arab citizens. During the 2015 Israeli elections, the Prime Minister even warned of Israeli Arab voters “coming out in droves” and that the “Leftwing organizations are busing them out” in an attempt to impact the vote .

Likewise, for the upcoming 2019 Israeli elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu is planning to form a new coalition with the Jewish Power party, which includes former followers of Meir Kahane, an ultra-nationalist politician who advocated for violent attacks on Israeli Arabs.

After decades of marginalization and with a national government that appears -or is- unwilling to provide any tangible policies or reassurances about closing the disparities between Jewish and Arabs citizens, many Israeli Arabs have begun turning their identities away from Israel. For instance, in a 2017 poll of the Arab community, 84% of Israeli Arab respondents wanted to be called “Palestinian in Israel” or “Palestinian Arab”. Only a small minority of 16% of respondents preferred the title of “Israeli Arab”. The passing of the nation-state law has only further pushed those who feel marginalized in Israel to further believe that non-Jewish citizens will never be fully accepted or integrated into Israeli society.

Unless there is a drastic shift in the Israeli-Palestinian tensions, such as a peace settlement, there likely be little change in the feelings of alienation of the Israeli Arab community. Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition are unseated in the 2019 elections, left and center politicians in Israel will most likely be wary of making drastic changes to the nation-state law,for fear of political backlash. Internal divisions within Israeli Arab political parties in the Knesset have also impeded progress to end the inequality between Jewish and Israeli Arab citizens in Israel.

Without a comprehensive policy to ensure Israeli Arabs have more representation and weaken discrimination against minority groups in Israeli society, relations between Israel’s largest minority group and Jewish citizens will continue to become increasingly bitter, which will lead to immense social strife in the future.

Implications for the Years Ahead

Whether the current Israeli government or its supporters want to ignore Israeli Arabs or not, it is impossible to deny that the community represents an important portion of Israeli society, with members in the arts, politics and defense of the country. With elections happening soon, some change is possible. Increasing the representation of Israeli Arabs in government agencies would be a good first step in making Israeli Arabs feel more included in the affairs of the state. Another simple step could be for the Israeli government to increase government funding towards Arab cultural projects, such as Arab schools. A more far-reaching step could be to give Israeli Arab communities more autonomy to govern their own affairs, a long-time demanded request from the Israeli Arab community.

A revision of nation-state law, which is an election promise by the centrist Blue and White alliance, would also be a welcome action in improving relations between Arab and Jewish citizens.

If these policy changes are not implemented by the newly elected administration will control the Israeli government, the situation between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel could grow more volatile and spark more anger in the Israeli Arab community. This would be especially dangerous in a period that has already seen immense violence and flare-ups on the borders of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.  

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