Voice of Palestine: The New Ideology of Israeli Arabs

By Dan Schueftan

Once a loyal opposition, Arab parliamentarians now go to bat for Israel's enemies.

In June of 2000, after Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from Lebanon, a “Hezbollah Victory Festival” was held in the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, in northern Israel. More than five hundred Arab citizens of Israel attended, most of them educated, secular supporters of the National Democratic Assembly party. Party leader Azmi Bishara, himself a Christian and a member of Israel’s parliament, praised the achievements of Hezbollah, a radical Shi’ite organization whose stated aims include violent struggle against the State of Israel. Standing next to Palestinian flags, Bishara addressed the crowd:
Hezbollah has won. For the first time since 1967, we have tasted victory. Hezbollah has every right to be proud of its achievement and to humiliate Israel…. Israel suffered defeat after defeat and was forced to leave southern Lebanon.… This is the truth…. Lebanon, the weakest of the Arab states, has presented a miniature model, and if we examine it closely we will be able to draw the conclusions necessary for success and victory.1
A year later, in June 2001, Bishara set forth another challenge, this time in front of hundreds of Arab leaders and dignitaries—including Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian Vice President Hassan Habibi—who had gathered in the Syrian city of Kardaha for a memorial service for the deceased president of Syria, Hafez Assad. Bishara called on his listeners to renew and intensify the path of “resistance” against Israel, so that it would not be able to exploit the Arabs’ inability to wage an all-out conventional war in order to impose its terms on the Arab world.2
Bishara’s remarks triggered a wave of protest in Israel and led to his indictment on charges of supporting a terrorist organization.3 Yet they were only one example of a trend evident among Arab members of Knesset in recent years. A close look at their remarks over the past decade and a half reveals that a deep-seated hostility to the Jewish state has become the norm among Israeli Arab lawmakers—both those who served until recently and those in office today. And the situation is steadily getting worse.
This was not always the case. Before the outbreak of the Intifada in December 1987, the style of Arab members of Knesset was less radical and provocative. While they were no less proud of their identity as Arabs, concerned for their constituents, or critical of Israeli policies than are their counterparts today, the previous generation of Arab leaders in Israel generally stressed their loyalty to the state, and would sometimes even show understanding for the national needs of the Jewish majority. Communist Party MK Tawfik Tubi, for example, served in the Knesset for forty years and was known as an uncompromising champion of the rights of Arab citizens. Yet Tubi defined himself as an Israeli patriot and insisted that there was no contradiction between his Arab and Israeli identities. As late as the 1980s, he would recall that prior to the establishment of Israel, he had reached the conclusion that by rejecting the partition plan of November 1947 the Palestinian national movement would lead its people to a national calamity.4 Tubi’s approach reflected a view that was widely held by leaders of the Arab community in Israel for many years: That the future of the Arab minority depended on its accepting the basic ground rules inherent in living in a Jewish state.
In the last two decades, however, a new generation of Arab parliamentarians has emerged. While the first generation of the Arabs who remained in Israel after the War of Independence in 1948 had grown up under a military government and in the face of severe economic, social, and educational hardships, this new leadership, which entered political life during the 1970s, grew up in a very different Israel and adopted a very different approach from that of the previous generation. The attitudes demonstrated by prominent Arab figures such as Azmi Bishara, Ahmed Tibi, Muhammad Barakeh, and Abdulmalik Dehamshe reflect not only more self-confidence, but also the willingness to express radical positions and to risk a direct confrontation with the Jewish majority.
This approach is in no way exceptional among the Arab parliamentarians in Israel. On the contrary, it represents the views of most of the Arab MKs (with one notable exception, Nawaf Mazalha of the Labor Party). Although the ideological and social backgrounds of the Arab parties vary considerably, as do many of the specific policies they advocate, the new generation of Arab leaders has adopted a remarkably broad consensus with respect to the Jewish state. The two most prominent political movements on the Israeli Arab scene—the Islamic Movement, which ultimately strives for imposing Islamic law (sharia) and stripping the state of all aspects of its Jewish national identity, and the Arab-led communist movement, which has historically advocated the idea of “two states for two peoples”—both employ the terminology of liberal-democratic discourse as an instrument in the struggle against the Jewish state,5 even though both radical Islam and communism reject liberal democracy altogether and identify with Arab regimes that are the antithesis of a pluralistic political order.6
There are, of course, differences in style and emphasis in the way Arab MKs express themselves. But these do not fundamentally alter the overall picture which emerges from a careful consideration of their statements. The essence of their position is an all-out rejection of the basic tenets perceived by the Jewish majority in Israel as underlying the existential interests of the Jewish national collective. There are three components to this rejection, each of which is becoming more pronounced over time: (i) Denial of the political and moral justification for a Jewish state; (ii) open identification with Israel’s most implacable enemies; and (iii) sympathy for, and occasionally even advocacy of, acts of violence and terror against Jewish civilians in Israel. Under such circumstances, the challenge that the Arab leadership in the Knesset poses to the basic beliefs of the Jewish majority appears to have crossed the bounds of ordinary discourse in a democracy, which depends on the preservation of a consensus as to the basic rules of the democratic game. Moreover, it reflects a deterioration in relations between the Arab and Jewish populations to the point of a serious crisis, one that makes political dialogue exceedingly difficult and raises questions about the future of the partnership between the two communities.

Rejection of the Jewish state is a central premise from which the claims, reactions, and policy positions of today’s Arab MKs are derived. Their arguments tie into the wider history of the 120-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict, and specifically the attempt by the Palestinian national movement to alter the basic political realities that have prevailed since the creation of a Jewish state half a century ago. Given the failure of all-out military efforts on the part of the Arab world and the improbability of their success in the foreseeable future, Arab MKs have joined the ranks of those seeking other, “softer” methods of perpetuating the same struggle. In their public declarations, they have begun appealing to core elements of the democratic and liberal value system accepted by most of the Jewish majority, even though these values and the practices that accompany them frequently contradict the attitudes and behavior of most of the Arab population which they represent.
The most striking example is the use of the rhetoric of civil equality in casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In recent years, Arab MKs have promoted the idea of Israel as a “state of all its citizens,” a somewhat euphemistic term in Israeli parlance, meant to describe a nationally “neutral” democracy that could serve as an alternative to a Jewish or Zionist state. MK Ahmed Tibi, who used to serve as a close adviser to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and has remained an overt supporter even after Arafat established the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a dictatorial regime, frames this position as a democratic principle:
We maintain that the Jewish character of the State of Israel must be abolished. We do not accept the fact of exclusive Jewish hegemony in the state, completely disregarding 20 percent [of the population] who are not Jewish. We are not subletting here, and the definition of who we are has to be anchored in the definition of the state; therefore we absolutely support the idea of a “state of all its citizens”…. It is impossible to talk about a Jewish state and a democratic state in the same breath. It is either a democratic state or a Jewish state. It would be enough for me if it were a democratic state.7
Abdulwahab Darawshe, then the leader of the Arab Democratic Party, used similar rhetoric in a 1998 interview to explain why he would not celebrate Israel’s Independence Day: “No, I will not celebrate it as long as there is no just solution for the Palestinian people, and as long as Arabs are not given equal rights, and until it is decided that this is a state of all its citizens and not only the Jewish people’s state. This country is not democratic but imperialist, an occupier, a racist apartheid state that discriminates against a minority of 20 percent….”8

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