The Way Forward: Full Citizenship for Israel’s Palestinian Minority

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VOL. 44


No. 4
P. 48
The Way Forward: Full Citizenship for Israel’s Palestinian Minority

ISRAEL’S INTERNAL DISCOURSE on the conflict with the Palestinians suffers from a fixation on old paradigms that have long since become irrelevant. These paradigms are rooted in nineteenth century ideologies and the geopolitical upheavals of the twentieth century, including the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the events of World War II, and the outbreak of the Cold War. Very few of these factors are germane to the Israel of the twenty-first century and to the values it now upholds and represents.


A majority of Israeli Jewish society refuses to update its conceptions and agendas, however, prolonging Israel’s control over the lives and fates of millions of Palestinians, in complete contradiction to their wishes, both within the 1949 armistice lines and in the territories occupied since the June 1967 war. Many Israeli Jews regard the conflict merely as an extension of the 1948 war, when, in their view, what the Arabs wanted was to throw the Jews into the sea and be done with them—an attitude summed up by the late Yitzhak Shamir’s quip that "all Arabs are the same." Others, usually centrists and leftists, are wholeheartedly convinced that the war of 1967 and the subsequent settlement of the occupied territories are the root of all evil. They contend that the events of 1967 are of a completely different nature than those of 1948. Such intellectual self-deception leads these liberal Zionists to want to write off the cost of ’48 (the Palestinian Nakba and the refugees) in exchange for the price of the ’67 territories (the settlements and Jerusalem). And a small handful of Israelis dare delve deeper and really examine the dynamic at work between the Israeli polity’s Jewish and Palestinian components trying to envision new paradigms that could eventually lead to a shared life in a shared space between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.


From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian issue resides in two distinct spheres: the first, inside Israel "proper" (that is, within the 1949 armistice lines), which involves the civil relations between the Jewish majority and the non-Jewish, mostly Palestinian, minority and the disparity in the quality of citizenship they enjoy; and the second, comprising the political dynamic between Jews and Palestinians everywhere else, whether in the occupied territories, amid the Palestinian diaspora, or in the international arena.


The aim here is to look more closely at the first of these spheres, that is, the internal relations between Israel’s Jewish majority (80 percent) and its Arab minority (20 percent), and the latter’s potential to influence the quality of Israeli citizenship, on the one hand, and to emerge as a leadership vehicle for the entire Palestinian people, on the other. Today, almost seven decades after the establishment of the State of Israel and the destruction of the Palestinian community in historic Palestine, Israel’s Arab citizens have little or no influence either on the lives of the rest of the Israeli population or on their own, much less on the lives of their people across the borders. But that outcome is not destined by fate and, this article contends, the more sensitive seismographs are already starting to pick up the first tremors of change on the land of Israel.


Israel’s Two Communities: Division or Cooperation?


The Jewish and Palestinian communities make up the whole of Israel—together. From the very beginning, there has been a symbiosis between them, by which I mean that they have mutually and incessantly influenced one another, whether in cooperation, in estrangement, or in rivalry. In recent years, processes separating the two communities have greatly increased and intensified. There has perhaps never been a greater distance between the two than there is today. Since the outbreak of the second intifada after the tragic events of October 2000 (in which thirteen Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by police while protesting against the visit of then-Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount), [*] concrete walls have been erected and invisible barriers have been put in place inside Israel to separate Jews and Palestinians. Those divisions have become a central experience of each community’s reality. Shared civic spaces have greatly diminished, political partnerships between Jews and Arabs barely exist, and strong winds of segregation and discrimination are blowing through the public arena.


Alongside this widening gulf, Israeli democracy is at a dramatic turning point, having lost any resemblance to its earlier iterations especially as manifested during the 1990s. Throughout that decade, Israel was attentive to the needs and rights of its minorities: the Supreme Court handed down many groundbreaking decisions, which remain at the forefront of civil rights and human liberties; at that time, the political system in Israel did everything possible to reduce the disparities between Jewish and Arab citizens of the state and it forged the Oslo accords in the belief that it would lead to a sustainable political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.


In stark contrast, the formation of Israel’s latest and most extreme right-wing government offers assertive majority rule as a conception of democracy. Evidence of this can be seen in the constant attacks on the Supreme Court as well as unrelenting legislative efforts targeting human rights groups, opponents of the occupation, and proponents of peace. It may therefore be surprising to suggest that here of all places, in Israel’s electoral politics, may lie the foundation of a comprehensive, and indeed possibly revolutionary, institutional change.


The State of Israel was established in turmoil and at a specific political juncture marked by the horrors of the Holocaust, the decolonization of entire continents from which Western imperial powers gradually withdrew, and the division of the world between the so-called free West and the Communist bloc. As a result of the 1948 war, and the decades of Zionist colonization that preceded it, Jews found refuge and salvation in a new country while the native Palestinians were made homeless, some within the borders of the state that was imposed upon them by force and others displaced beyond those borders. The Jewish success story was the Palestinian tragedy.


Since then, there have been several attempts to reach a sustainable political resolution, none of which has met with success. Among the many reasons for the failure, one in particular stands out, namely the fundamental assumption that such a resolution is predicated on separation, partition, and exclusion. All the plans to divide the land, which have created distance and hostility between the two communities, cannot serve as a sound basis for agreement and understanding while the alternative strategy, one of cooperation and partnership, has never been tried. For a more nuanced and iconoclastic understanding of Israel’s current reality and the prospects it might hold, a quick overview of each community’s point of departure is in order.


Three Israeli Jewish Revolutions


From 1948 to the present day, I contend that there have been three Israeli Jewish revolutions, or phases of evolution. The first started in 1948 and lasted until 1977. It was the period of the first generation, the era of David Ben-Gurion and the founders of the state, during which the state’s secular and socialist foundations were laid, bringing into being a society that, to all intents and purposes, no longer exists. The challenges of the first generation were enormous: building state institutions from the ground up, establishing a stable economy, dealing with massive immigration absorption, and creating a powerful military to protect the new state. The “problem” of the Israeli Arabs was not a priority and was sidestepped for many years by virtue of the built-in discrimination of the new regime: full citizenship and democracy for Jewish citizens and martial law (until 1966) for the Arab Palestinian citizens of the state—the overarching idea in this initial chapter of Israel’s existence being state and statehood.


The energy of the founders, what I have called the first revolution, lasted twenty-nine years. Removed from power through free elections in 1977, the leftward Labor movement of the founding generation ceded to the neoliberal Likud, under Menachem Begin’s leadership. Begin changed Israel with the same vigorous energy as Ben-Gurion had done earlier, but in a diametrically opposite direction. The nationalistic and conservative ideals of the second revolution’s Revisionist Zionism promoted an Israeli society that was more religious, much more nationalistic, and wholly capitalistic, and it championed a territorially maximalist stand. [**] Other than the few years under the Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak administrations, the second revolution (from Begin in 1977 to Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015) saw a shift in focus from the state to the territories and from statehood to “landhood” under the slogan Eretz Yisrael ha-shlema (the whole land of Israel).

Upon closer examination, this revolution appears to have run its course, as increasingly rightwing governments espouse radical ethnocentric, ultranationalist, and religiously-inspired policies. With the unification of Eretz Israel now an almost foregone conclusion, we are on the threshold of the third revolution, one that is founded in religious dogma and aspires to the establishment of the Third Temple! The idea of the Third Temple has grown in popularity for a number of reasons. As long as Israel faced existential, physical challenges, the idea of the Temple was a remote one. Once security and indisputable military power had been established, the importance of theological and spiritual challenges stemming from the very creation of Israel began to emerge. The result has been the infusion of religion into every sphere, both private and public, with religious issues gaining ground in politics and the growing mention of God in the public discourse around current events. Yeshivas and other religious organizations that nurture the ideals of redemption and the Third Temple have, for years, received state funding, and their neo-Zionist lexicon abounds in phrases such as "redemption of man," "redemption of the people," and "redemption of the land." Such ardent religious ideologies have always existed, albeit outside the mainstream, but after years of government funding their hour has finally come. The calls for a fundamental change to Israel’s inner functioning are growing increasingly strident as proponents of this movement display a palpable sense of apocalyptic urgency: for them, the great clash of civilizations between Christian democratic states and Muslim caliphates is part of the very real divine plan to revive and reestablish the kingdom of the god of the Jews.


Since 1967, numerous Jewish attempts to attack and blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif have been exposed. While they have been thwarted, the motivation behind the attacks has not abated. On the contrary, it has gained enormous momentum. The Temple Mount has gone from being a marginal national and spiritual issue to the central theme of the Far Right in Israeli politics: Eretz Israel has been conquered and in order to preempt any dispute of that conquest, the liberation of the Temple Mount is the next step—never mind the means, given the sacred ends. With this dynamic now animating the Right in Israel’s political landscape, the liberal Zionists who constitute the Left remain paralyzed by two major traumas: their loss to Begin in 1977 and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995. The liberal Zionist Left is silent in the face of the developments described above and has, thus far, failed to offer any alternatives.


The Palestinian Arabs of Israel: One History, Three Chapters


I argue here that Israel’s Arab community is also entering the third chapter of its existence. In the context of Israeli politics, the first generation, that of the Nakba and the Palestinian tragedy, was almost completely silent, a characteristic common to those suffering collective posttraumatic shock. The Nakba generation was forced to live through almost intolerable circumstances: born into a majority community at the height of its social, ideological, political, and economic development, it lost everything in two short years, between 1947 and 1949. The majority became a minority and an indigenous society became a stranger in its own country, as villages were destroyed, communities erased, and individuals displaced forever. The political ineffectuality of the Palestinians under the new state that had been forced upon them was almost absolute. In retrospect, however, their role was more important than anyone realized at the time, for they became the keepers of the collective memory of a time before the establishment of that state. And it is they who bequeathed that memory to the next generation, now called the Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCI). The lifting of martial law in 1966 and the occupation of the Palestinian territories a year later brought this second generation into focus. But with the end of martial law extending the formal boundaries of Israeli citizenship to all citizens followed by the de facto reuniting of the Jews with their Eretz Israel in 1967, there was also a reuniting of the two parts of the Palestinian people: those in Israel with those in the occupied territories. At the same time, the second generation of PCI, and the difficult dilemmas inherent to their identity, propelled them to the forefront of Israel’s political consciousness: How was it possible to remain a loyal Palestinian without giving up Israeli citizenship or being perceived as a traitor in the eyes of one side or the other?


Against this backdrop, the second Palestinian generation in Israel began making its way to the top and acceding to political representation. Its representatives were student leaders, public intellectuals, and professionals who were native-born citizens of Israel and sought to be integrated into the fabric of Israeli society. Although they were involved in joint Arab-Jewish political and civic initiatives, they were not received positively by the Jewish majority. Over the years, they found themselves marginalized in the Knesset and were almost unable to fulfill any of their constituents’ needs. They were increasingly compelled to express the Palestinian national trauma in terms echoing those of their counterparts in the second Israeli Jewish generation, whose own collective trauma was the Holocaust. They did so by means of demonstrations and protests, as well as in the legislature, with a political brazenness that would have been unthinkable at the time of the first Palestinian generation. They effectively reintroduced the fact of Palestinian existence into the Israeli Jewish domain, thereby foiling Zionist efforts to erase all trace of the Palestinian presence prior to 1948. Israel’s obstinacy in holding onto the territories occupied in 1967 and its denial of basic political and civil rights to the millions of their inhabitants turned the occupied lands into a constant reminder of the existence of the Palestinian people both for Israel and the rest of the world.


Unable either to resolve or settle the conflict, the second generation was forced to accommodate the contradiction inherent in being a Palestinian political representative in the Israeli polity. Many members of that generation continue to experience the unrelenting tension between their collective belonging to the Palestinian nation and their Israeli citizenship. The PCI pay taxes but they do not serve in the army; although designated an official language, Arabic is all but absent in the public realm; Arab communities are expected to discharge municipal responsibilities but have no power to dispose of land as they see fit for planning purposes. This has resulted in convenient if unwitting collusion between the Arab members of Knesset (MKs) and their Jewish counterparts: by regarding the PCI’s loyalty to the state as equivocal, the Palestinian minority in the Knesset is spared having to choose between national identity and oppositional civic engagement; and considering their Arab counterparts’ own loyalty as questionable allows the Jewish MKs to persist in their profoundly exclusionist and discriminatory policies, enabling the Jewish majority in Israel to ignore, at no cost, the issue of equality for one-fifth of the country’s population.


In the latest Israeli elections, held on 17 March, Arab MKs formed the Joint List under the leadership of the youthful Ayman Odeh, a third-generation Palestinian from Israel. The Joint List generated a lot of interest both in Israel and elsewhere. It came about as a result of the Israeli Right’s efforts to trap the Arab citizens of Israel in the "loyalty in exchange for citizenship" quandary. In an act of parliamentary forcefulness that has characterized their actions in recent years, right-wing MKs raised the parliamentary threshold to 3.25 percent, thereby disallowing any party with a lower percentage of representation to participate in the general election. Since each Arab party only has a few MKs in the legislature, and therefore did not meet the threshold individually, the hope was that they would disappear altogether from the parliamentary landscape. The result was the opposite and almost paradoxical. The right-wing party "Israel Our Home," which initiated the bill, barely passed the election threshold, whereas the Arab parties unified as one list and actually increased their combined strength. For the first time since the establishment of the state in 1948, Israel’s Arab political parties banded together to run in the elections, uniting Right and Left, communists and capitalists, secularists and Islamists, civic nationalists and ethnic nationalists, feminists and traditionalists. It was a riveting moment in Israeli Palestinian politics that continues to command the attention of many in the Middle East. While preoccupied with formulating a common set of objectives and bridging the gaps on difficult points of disagreement, thanks particularly to its impressive new leader, the Joint List has simultaneously been able to reach out to the Jewish majority community. It is precisely this dual formula—in other words, full and active Israeli civic participation while maintaining identification with Palestinian nationality—that may be the key to breaking the impasse that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached.


The Diaspora Generations


Alongside the three generations of Jews and Palestinians inside Israel, Palestinians outside the country experienced a parallel development. The first Palestinian diaspora generation to be seen and heard fashioned itself from the ground up. Under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, the "father of the Palestinian nation," Palestinian refugees that were scattered around the Arab world broke free of their host countries’ cynical and paternalistic governments and became a national liberation movement that struggled by every means possible, both legitimate and illegitimate, to gain recognition. This is the generation that eventually signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993 and 1995.


The second generation, which arose in the shadow of the second intifada’s extreme violence during Arafat’s final years, are the children of the occupied territories—Marwan Barghouti, Fatah’s West Bank representative, and Ismail Haniyeh, his Hamas counterpart in Gaza, being just two of their most prominent and well-known representatives. At this time, it is unclear whether they or leaders like them among their peers can advance Palestinian interests beyond what the first diaspora generation was able to accomplish. The sustainability of the third generation of Palestinians, in the territories and in the diaspora, which is a generation of rights and nonviolent revolt, has yet to prove itself.


An examination of Palestinian political activity reveals something that is actually obvious and well-known but often overlooked: namely, that the Palestinian component of Israel, the Arabs inside the country, has never actually been in charge of leading the overall Palestinian cause. The historical reasons for this are too complex to address here but it is precisely due to the stagnation of the political processes described above that the next chapter in the story of the conflict may be emerging before our very eyes—a chapter in which cooperation, the erasure of barriers, and the creation of a shared public space offer the solution to that conflict. Many on both sides have all but despaired. They no longer believe that it is possible to reach an agreement. They prefer to manage the conflict rather than work to settle it. Others have chosen the path of extreme nationalism. But bin stark contrast to these trends, entirely different ideas are already being expressed in both societies.


The new Palestinian discourse—whether in Israel or the occupied territories—reveals a new and potent line of thinking, one that is characteristic of the third generation: moving from tiresome and fruitless negotiations over interests and arrangements to political demands for full civil rights, and from mere complaining to civic engagement and persistent clamoring for absolute equality. According to most studies and public opinion polls, equality is a central prime political value for at least 15 percent of the Israeli Jewish electorate. Today, that admittedly still small segment of the electorate has no natural political platform and being dispersed among many parties, its potential influence and its ability to promote its views are undermined. But, like most of us, the Jewish majority is endowed with an Achilles’ heel, which in this instance resides in the statement that "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East." Although the validity of the statement remains untested, it is an expression of our national ethos that is absolutely mandatory, and any objection to it is perceived as a direct attack on Israel’s right to exist. But it is precisely based upon this vulnerability that the next strategic move can and should be made.


The strategy begins with addressing the question of the inequality of Palestinian citizenship in Israel. Although there are some laws that explicitly favor Jews (like the Law of Return) and some that explicitly discriminate against Arabs (on the basis of their origin, national affiliation or beliefs) de jure, the body of Israeli law is neutral. The problem is the actual reality, which is articulated in a language of discrimination and differentiation. Citizenship in the real life of Israeli Arabs is almost completely hollow. The Jewish monopoly on identity, resources, privilege, power, and politics is absolute. And the exclusion of Arabs from public positions, from state budgets, and joint political partnerships is well-known and needs no proof. The argument here is that the truly democratic camp in Israel can and must do all in its power to fight for absolute civil equality, to close the gap between formal citizenship and true and full citizenship, and to make the fight against exclusion and discrimination universal—that is, not merely an Arab struggle, but the struggle against exclusion and discrimination for all Israelis, whether new immigrants, those of Ethiopian origin, ultra-Orthodox women, or others. Progressive forces in Israel must commit to extensive cooperation to, among other things, break down the barriers between Jews and Arabs both in the Knesset and in all existing civic spaces. Real Arab-Jewish partnerships and the entry of Israeli Palestinian representatives into the center of the political arena are also a necessary step toward the revival of Israel’s progressive camp.


Israel’s current political structure is not an accurate reflection of the Israeli public’s true political colors. There is no ideological representation of a real Left because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has hijacked almost the entire public discourse. The only measure of the political system’s distinction between Left and Right is based on approaches to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those in favor of a resolution are branded left-wing while those against are automatically considered right-wing. But to be left-wing, a lot more is needed, and the proper use of that term requires full commitment to democratic equality for all citizens, regardless of gender, religion and ethnicity; secularization of the political system; fairness and equality in the distribution of public resources; and a constitutional infrastructure that upholds human rights and fundamental freedoms. Yet these basic principles are almost entirely missing from the platforms of those considered the founding partners of Israel’s progressive camp, including the Labor Party. In addition, the absence of a constitutional infrastructure, or at least of fair and stable rules of the game, is a source of infringement on all excluded populations, including women, Ethiopians, Eastern Jews, and the Arabs. The strategy I suggest presents a dual opportunity for the progressive camp: to take a principled political position, on the one hand, and to form alliances that serve interests broader than just those of the PCI, on the other.


Turning such a message into an influential and significant force, a game changer, would not only be strategic, in the long term, but already has current political potential. Intellectually speaking, the two-state formula is no longer the one dominating the discourse as initial steps have already been taken to test ideas that go beyond an "ethical" divvying up of the pie. The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, written by The National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel and unveiled almost a decade ago, was a dramatic attempt to address equal participation in the community and to reach out to the Jewish majority, which all but ignored it. [***] Yet, it is out of this document that grew and were developed ideas that today have common currency, including such notions as "one-state," "Israel as a state of all its citizens," "community autonomy," and the idea of a "national community." Each of these ideas has real potential to challenge the Jewish majority’s hegemony and privileges, only the abandonment of which can ensure Israel’s future sustainability.


Civic-minded individuals, organizations, and joint Arab-Jewish activities at the grassroots level are gaining increasing influence. Civil rights organizations have succeeded in changing the overall attitude toward equal civil rights in Israel. The spontaneous social protest of the summer of 2011 dramatically transformed the public discourse from one that could be described as arch-capitalist to something that is decidedly more social democrat in tone, and the goal of those movements is institutional change through a creative and determined commitment to social activism. In contrast, the political system is still trapped in a tangle of old constructs and loyalties. Stuck in its own rhetoric, it has yet to open up to new concepts and to the clear expression of the will of the public "on the street."


If and when the political establishment eventually responds to the challenges posed by intellectuals from above and by societal pressures from below, a new party structure will inevitably arise that differs from the current one in every respect. It would take on the expression of a civil equality movement, whose underlying principle would be full equality for all citizens of Israel, men and women, Palestinian Arabs and Jews. The movement would be broad enough to encompass the Israeli left’s liberal Zionists, a confederation of social movements, and voluntary sector organizations dedicated to establishing joint Israeli Arab-Jewish initiatives. It could then progress to formulating new social and political policies and, would, in the final stage, engage in a political struggle against the faulty civic order—the one of unjustified privileges, which accepts and profits from all the built-in inequalities—that controls our lives today.


Based in humanism, the new movement would also be pluralistic, in terms of its socioeconomic outlook, and it would cover a spectrum from the socialist ideals of old to some of the newest and most groundbreaking paradigms of social democracy. In terms of the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the movement would also exhibit a continuum of political expression ranging from those who believe in the two states to one-staters, alongside those that envisage developing the concept of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation. But all, without exception, would have an unwavering commitment to human equality, from the (Jordan) River to the (Mediterranean) Sea.


It is my belief that, in time, such a political coalition could become the second largest faction in the Knesset and emerge as one of the major driving forces of Israel’s entire political system. Notions such as "the Jewish majority" or "a wall-to-wall coalition without Arabs" and euphemistic expressions such as "the Zionist Camp," which excludes Arabs, would disappear altogether and become a distant bad memory.


In addition to establishing full civic equality between all the country’s citizens, the movement would address the need for change in Israel’s political behavior so that it is not merely one more oppressive ethnocentric "democracy," but a truly democratic polity based on the key principle that every person, from the river to the sea, deserves the same and equal rights. This third-generation political movement would therefore distinguish itself by the struggle to achieve three fundamental changes: first, the adoption of a real constitution that transforms Israel from a class-based society steeped in discrimination to an egalitarian society guided by a constitution; second, full and active citizenship that propels the PCI into the heart of public activity and civic leadership; and, third, the emergence of a new locus of leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the PCI spearheading efforts for the political advancement of a lasting resolution between Israel and Palestine.


While this may be dismissed as a pipe dream, there is at the present time no better or more sustainable vision for Israel’s future.


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Avraham Burg was born in Jerusalem in 1955 and educated in the Religious Zionist school system. He was an MK for sixteen years, served as the Speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, and was also the chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization from the mid- to late 1990s. Since retiring from politics in 2004, he has lectured widely and authored a number of books about Israel and the Middle East.


[*] The Temple Mount, considered the holiest site in Judaism, is to the Palestinians the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary); it is also Islam’s third holiest site. See JPS 118 for more both on the Sharon visit and the second intifada that followed.


[**] Revisionist Zionism is an ideology developed by (Vladimir) Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s and 1930s in response to the World Zionist Organization’s refusal to state that “the aim of Zionism was the establishment of a Jewish state.” See JPS 49 and 162 for more on Revisionist Zionism.


[***] Ed. Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, trans. Abed Al Rahman Kelani, (Nazareth, Israel: The National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities in Israel, 2006),