A case of Arab democracy: the pursuit of equal rights by Israel's Arabs is challenging the Jewish character of the state. moment explores the tensions at the heart of the political relationship between Arabs and Jews.

Author:Green, David B.

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi's office is stifling. The thermostat is broken, and the air-conditioning in the new wing of the Israeli parliament refuses to kick in. Tibi, a legislator in his fourth term in the house, is hot and impatient. His eyes wander from his computer screen to his smart-phone, then to the staffers who walk in and out, to the technician who comes in to fix the thermostat. He frowns and fidgets in his chair, giving the impression that he'd rather be anywhere but here.

Tibi is easily Israel's most visible Arab MK, a status attributable to his sharp tongue, with which he regularly engages in high-pitched polemics, in fluent Hebrew, with his Jewish colleagues. Born in the central Israel city of Tayibe, the 5 3-year-old gynecologist with a medical degree from Hebrew University, is nothing if not provocative. An advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasir Arafat in the early 1990s, he served as the Palestinian representative at the 1998 Wye River negotiations. Not only has he called for an international boycott of Israeli companies in the pages of The New York Times, but in October, he accompanied Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, on his trip to the United Nations to submit his request for statehood. He is well known for opposing a state that in any way favors its Jewish citizens, insisting, for example, that the Law of Return, which allows Jews from around the world to claim automatic Israeli citizenship, be abolished. "I couldn't bring my [deceased] aunt from Jordan and Kuwait to be buried in Israel even though she was born in Jaffa," he says with irritation. "But any Jewish immigrant from Latvia or Moldavia can come to Israel, even though he wasn't born here."

Tibi's words and actions infuriate some Jewish politicians. Since he was elected in 1999, the Knesset Central Elections Committee has attempted several times to prevent him and other representatives of Israel's Arab parties from running. And two years ago Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beitenu [Israel is Our Home] party founder Avigdor Lieberman--who has endorsed the idea of "transfer" of Israeli-Arab towns and their residents to any future Palestinian state--declared that the real threat to Israel is not the Palestinians in the territories, but "Ahmad Tibi and his ilk--they are more dangerous than Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad combined."

As befits a politician, Tibi is also a master showman, who knows equally well how to ingratiate himself with his Jewish colleagues. Tibi's Knesset webpage, for example, has a link to a YouTube video of a speech he made in 2010 on International Holocaust Day, in which he calls the Shoah the "most horrible crime committed against modern humanity," and declares that "there is nothing more stupid or immoral" than denial of the Holocaust. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin called it one of the best speeches he has ever heard in the plenum about the Holocaust. Another YouTube clip shows Tibi joking in Yiddish during a session dedicated to commemorating the language.

There are 13 other Arabs in the 120-member Knesset, comprising 11 percent of the assembly, in contrast to the Arabs' 20 percent of the general population. Ten of the Arabs represent principally Arab parties. Tibi's party, Ta'al (the Arab Movement for Change), which partnered in the last election with Ra'am (the United Arab List, itself a coalition of the Islamic Movement and the Bedouin-based Arab National Democratic party) would like to see Israel's Arabs recognized as a national minority and nullify laws that give Jews preference in national life. Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), the former Communist party, favors a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and views conflicts in Israeli society as class-based rather than nationalist in nature. The Balad (the National Democratic Assembly) party's goal is to turn Israel into a bina-tional state. Its founder, Azmi Bishara, who coined the phrase "a state of all its citizens," has been in exile in Qatar since 2007, when Israeli officials began to investigate him on the suspicion he aided and abetted Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.

Israel's Arabs have had the right to vote and to run for office since 1948. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fond of saying--including in his speech to the U.S. Congress last year--Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens are alone among the 300 million Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa enjoying "real democratic rights" with freedom of expression and of religion. But the political status of Israel's Arabs is not straightforward. On one hand, recent Israeli governments, including Netanyahu's, along with a range of NGOs, have begun making serious efforts to address longstanding socioeconomic disparities between Jews and Arabs. A pilot program announced last year, for example, allocated $225 million to select Arab municipalities to increase and improve employment opportunities, early-childhood education and affordable housing. On the other hand, members of that same government, with at least the tacit support of Netanyahu himself, have over the past two years consistently referred to the country's Arabs as a potential fifth column, and initiated legislation that seems intended to remind them that they are citizens on probation.

Members of Netanyahu's coalition say that the bills they have introduced in the Knesset are intended to strengthen the state's Jewish identity, but many of them would limit--at least implicitly--the rights of the Arab community. These include a bill that would remove Arabic as one of the state's official languages, and another that would require anyone undergoing naturalization to swear loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state. Among bills that have already become law is one prohibiting discussion of the Nakba--the "catastrophe" as Israel's founding is described in the Palestinian national narrative--in publicly funded venues in Israel, and another that gives towns below a certain size the right to block the sale of homes to families that are "incompatible with the social-cultural fabric of the community"--which is widely understood to mean Arabs.

Tibi finds the barrage of new bills, some of which have been shelved after eliciting public outcry, exasperating. "You have to be a masochist to be an Arab in the Knesset," he says.


The residents of Tayibe, where Tibi still lives today, were among the 150,000 Palestinian Arabs who found themselves living within the borders of the State of Israel after the 1948 war. Although Israel's declaration of independence granted these Arabs full citizenship, in practice most were subject to military rule under the so-called Emergency Regulations, which had been drawn up during British rule.

These regulations permitted the government to expropriate any land abandoned during the war, even if the owners subsequently returned. Consequently, the majority of land held by Arabs before independence was transferred to state ownership and redistributed to Jews. Military rule also restricted Arabs from traveling around the country and took away their rights to organize politically. As it was, the Arab political and economic elite was largely in exile and those who stayed behind were mostly uneducated farmers. "What remained under Israeli control after the 1948 war was a remnant," write Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal, in their 2003 book The Palestinian People: A History, "a crumbling part of Palestinian Arab society."

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