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July 21, 2021 11:44 am
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Israel Needs a Clear Policy on Palestinians and Israeli Arabs

avatar by Yair Golan

Opinion

A Palestinian policeman gestures as trucks carrying goods arrive after Israel reopened Kerem Shalom crossing, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip May 25, 2021. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

In 2021, most of the Israeli Arab public — some 1.9 million people — have come to view themselves as a part of Israeli society. This has found expression in the ever-growing role played by Arab parties in the Knesset, the role that Arab parties play in determining the stability of ruling coalitions, and the engagement of the Arab public by Jewish politicians in ways not seen before.

Alongside the integration process, there are deep frustrations and feelings of discrimination by Arab Israelis, along economic and social lines. But it would be wrong to ignore the fact that a section of the Arab Israeli public expresses fervent Palestinian nationalist sentiments.

In responding to this picture, successive Israeli governments have not come up with one clear policy. There are elements of cooperation and partnership with the Arab public, but there has been no systematic government policy to integrate it.

One prominent example of this is the situation of the Bedouins in Southern Israel — almost 300,000 people, around a third of whom live in unrecognized communities, in conditions that are not suitable for a modern state.

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Meanwhile, skyrocketing violence in the Arab sector has mostly been met with indifference. There have been many complaints about illegal Arab land takeovers and construction, yet nothing tangible has been done to promote a solution to enable legal construction. The issue of building rights is complex, but the State of Israel does not want to deal with it.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, an Arab child gets a smaller education budget compared to his counterpart in Jewish state schools. This gap clearly does not serve the Israeli national interest in any way.

Hence, what has been happening is a failure by the state to embrace the Arab Israeli public, and to create an identification with the State of Israel among that public.

Such an affiliation could be created if the Arab minority were to feel that they have a stake in the country, enjoy equality, and can make progress. Instead, Arab youths who receive a poorer education and struggle to get into Israeli universities, often end up studying in universities in the West Bank and Jordan, run by elements hostile to the Jewish state.

The eruption of violence in the Arab sector is inexcusable. Those who are guilty of violence need to be dealt with firmly, and must be imprisoned for their actions. Every single person, Arab or Jew, who uses violence must be held accountable.

But we must ask ourselves how to repair this situation. The answer lies in initiating a serous, systematic national project to integrate Arab Israelis.

The same lack of a clear policy regarding Arab Israelis, has also plagued Israel’s dealings with Gaza. In 2008-9, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza; at the time,  I served as head of the IDF Home Front Command.

The operation, which began with a surprise air raid on Hamas’ bases and a Hamas police ceremony, went on to achieve significant military gains, even as Israeli civilians were exposed to terrorist rocket fire without the Iron Dome missile defense system, which was not yet operational.

And yet, Israel did not follow up on this achievement or try to leverage it for political gain.

Israel could have explored the option of a long-term, stable arrangement with Hamas. And the same mistake happened after the 51-day Operation Protective Edge in 2014, when Israel suffered 73 casualties. Nothing was done afterward to achieve political gains to stabilize the situation. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not interested in paying the price for a long-term arrangement with Hamas.

Had he been willing to, we could by now have had the answer to the question of whether such an arrangement is possible. Had the answer turned out to be negative, Israel would have been able to know that the time may have truly arrived to dismantle Hamas’ military wing, and treat it as a hostile army that needs to be smashed.

Yet Israel failed to choose either option  — not an arrangement and not the destruction of Hamas’ military wing. Instead, it opted for the in-between grey zone, thus abandoning the citizens of the South to the brutal hands of Hamas.

The idea of restoring Israeli deterrence through firepower alone has been largely discredited. Hamas is prepared to pay a heavy price, and it is not really deterred for a long time. Hence, a clear decision must be made on this front, too.

The same indecision has meant that Israel has not been able to deal correctly with the Palestinian Authority (PA). There is no sense pretending that the PA is composed of Israel-lovers. The entity is obviously made up of Palestinians who are deeply hostile to Israel — yet they are able to cooperate with it at the practical level, leading to success on the ground.

For the past 12 years, the Netanyahu government described the PA president as a terrorist supporter, and put the spotlight on his payments to the families of terrorists. But it is clear that the PA’s competitor is Hamas, and that it is in Israel’s interest to make the PA look more successful than Hamas.

Making the PA look like it is working well for its civilians, while Hamas is damaging them, is a core Israeli interest. Yet the opposite occurred. Instead of pointing out to Palestinians that the PA has superior economic development when compared to the Hamas regime, we have spent all of our time talking about how bad the PA is.

Despite the PA’s many and troubling problems, it is preferable to Hamas, and in the real world, we must choose between bad and worse.

In summary, Israeli indecision has meant that developments have occurred that run contrary to our critical interests. This has enabled Arab Israelis to identify with Hamas and with West Bank Palestinians — in direct contradiction of Israel’s interests. And it has enabled Hamas to extort Israel and grow stronger on our southern border, but without any long-term stable arrangement.

The time for clear strategic decision-making is now — and the most prominent Israeli interest is to prevent annexation of millions of Palestinians, while continuing to explore the possibility of living beside them peacefully.

Major General. Yair Golan (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his service in the Israel Defense Forces as the Deputy Chief of The General Staff, a position he held from 2014-2017.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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