Josef Olmert

Josef Olmert

Elections, Featured, Parliaments, Political Parties, Political Reform

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For many years, Israeli officials and politicians have prided their state in being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” However, if we are to define democracy as conducting multi-party elections, the Israelis are no longer alone. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and Lebanon have held such elections in recent years. The effects of the “Arab Spring” have played a major role, particularly with regard to North Africa. Yet, if democracy is about more than mere elections, and has also to do with the rule of law, minority rights, existence of civic society, and a peaceful, non-violent political debate, Israel may still stand out in a league of its own. However, this is not the case, even in Israel, if we are to believe many Arab politicians in Israel, as well as Arab civil societies, who have raised growing strong objections to the Israeli political system, arguing that the country is discriminating against them, and should not claim to be what it is not.

With the upcoming Israeli parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 22, 2013, it is an opportune time to examine some, though not all, of the issues at stake. Demographic data shows that non-Jews constitute almost 25% of Israel’s population. In a population of nearly 8 million, about 17% are Sunni Arab Muslims, 2% are Arab Christians, 2% are Druze, and 4% are non-Arab Christians, mostly of Russian origin, who immigrated to Israel in 1990 as part of the massive wave of Russian-Jewish immigration.

Next, there is the question of definitions, and this is where matters become somewhat more complicated, and politics take center stage. In the early days of the state, non-Jews were referred to as bnai miutim, meaning “minorities” in Hebrew. Then came the term “Israeli Arabs,” however, in the last 20 years, the most common terminology used by most Arabs is “Palestinian citizens of Israel.” This definition reflects the process of both Islamization and Palestinization that has engulfed the vast majority of Arabs in Israel, with the exception of the Druze community.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gathered momentum, becoming a determining factor in shaping Israeli public opinion as well as election results, many Israeli Jews believe that the emphasis on Palestinian national identity is detrimental to overall Israeli solidarity and poses grave dangers to the state of Israel and its dominant character as a state of the Jewish people.

There are two main concerns regarding this societal dilemma: the first is the security implications of the perceived loyalty issue of Arabs in Israel, while the second is the possibility of Arab demands for national minority recognition being a prelude to further demands for some kind of self-rule, and more ominously, the first step toward integration in a future Palestinian state.

The first concern is nonsense, as the number of Arabs involved in violent anti-Israel activities is very small. Yet, in a country such as Israel, where security concerns are paramount on the minds of people, and any incident involving Arab citizens receives dramatic coverage and is blown out of proportion, the popular perception is far out of touch with reality.

Regarding the second concern, there is at least one Arab party, the National Democratic Alliance (BALAD), which openly calls for the abolition of Israel’s Zionist identity. Elements within the two other Arab parties share this sentiment, though this is not their official position. This issue has quickly become a topic of major political debate in Israel, as elements of the Jewish right-wing, particularly Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, openly push for legislation in the Knesset designed to create loyalty litmus tests for Arabs. Considering Lieberman’s significant political clout as former Foreign Minister, the leader of a party with 15 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, and the recent union between his party and the ruling Likud party, this is a very serious challenge posed to the Arab population, and one which is wrong, offensive, and discriminatory in nature.

The political phenomenon of Lieberman deserves separate analysis, but it is gathering momentum, and not in the least due to the activities of many of the elected representatives of the Arab population in the Knesset. Most of them have completely abandoned any serious attempt to deal with the vast socio-economic issues plaguing the Arab population in Israel, ranging from honor killings to the unacceptable unemployment rate, which is well above that of the Jewish population. Instead, they have become the unofficial representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Israel. This is irritating to many Jews, but also, according to polls, to many Arabs, who want better life in Israel, and are not wholly preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or lack thereof.

As a result, participation rates among the Arab population in Knesset elections are consistently declining, a bad trajectory for the state of Israel.  Meanwhile, the vacuum created by the almost obsessive preoccupation of Arab leaders in Israel with the Palestinian situation is not filled by Jewish parties. This is a grave error, and its negative potential cannot be overestimated. Not one Jewish political party has a coherent plan on hand of how to improve the lot of Arabs in Israel.

Nothing short of a massive plan of “affirmative action” is required. Such a comprehensive, multi-dimensional plan would send a message of care, interest, and attention, alongside actual, discernible closing of gaps in income levels, economic opportunities, and educational standards. However, there is no sign that any of this is in place in the current campaigns. The Arab parties will get their share of around 10 to 12 seats, and will continue, for the most part, to be out of the political game.

Putting this all in context, it should be noted that the deep and intense ethnic and religious divisions that exist between Israelis and Palestinians could not be expected to diminish significantly if only income and educational gaps were to narrow, but they can definitely be reduced, thus facilitating a better environment for fruitful dialogue.

In the case of Israel, another consideration to be taken into account is the state’s self-image. It was Haim Weitzman, the first President of Israel, who said that the Jewish state will be judged by its attitude and policies towards its own minorities. Weitzman is not alive, but it is not a radical assumption to make that if he were alive, he would have had more than few words of strong advice to current Israeli leadership as to how to deal with the Arab population in their country.

Dr. Josef Olmert is an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina, and served as the former director of Israel’s Government Press Office as well as advisor to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.