'Now Israelis Feel a Threat from Within'

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Monday, 10.45am, EST

In the last two weeks, we’ve seen a number of Israeli Arab youths killed in clashes with police and also, at the weekend, violent attacks by Jewish civilians on the Israeli-Arab neighborhoods of Nazareth. What impact has this had on Israel and the peace process?

"For Israeli Jews, the violence in Israeli-Arab communities is probably the biggest shock they’ve had in the last 12 days of rioting. They’re more accustomed to Palestinians rioting in the West Bank, even if it leaves them depressed by this feeling that the peace process is falling apart, and that they’ll never have peace. But when the conflict reaches Israeli-Arabs, it gives most other Israelis a feeling that their own country is being threatened and is falling apart."

Why are Israeli-Arabs suddenly identifying so strongly with the Palestinians?

"For one thing, the Islamic movement has become quite strong in Israeli Arab towns in recent years, particularly in Nazareth — the largest Israeli-Arab town — where it controls the city council. They’ve used some of the same calls that Arafat has used to stir things up on the West Bank, which is to urge their supporters to come out in defense of the mosques in Jerusalem, which they claim are under attack.

"But a more powerful reason is that this is a minority of 1 million in a population of 6 million, which perceives that it gets a raw deal. Their social services and education are inferior, and Israeli-Arab children are twice as likely to live below the poverty line as Jewish children. So there’s this boiling resentment that has been pushed into the open by recent events.

"This has undercut the sense among Israeli Jews that Arabs in Israel are getting the benefits of living in a prosperous democracy. Still, it’s certain that despite their anger, there aren’t that many Israeli Arabs willing to turn in their Israeli passports for Palestinian ones, precisely because of the relative prosperity — at least when compared with the West Bank — and democracy issues."

Isn’t this a disaster for Prime Minister Barak? His predecessor, Shimon Peres, narrowly lost to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 after Israeli-Arabs withdrew their support…

"Yes, that was because they were angry at Israel’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ military campaign in Lebanon. Peres had been leading Netanyahu before that, and ended up losing narrowly. And, of course, Barak got 95 percent of the Israeli-Arab vote, which is a sizable bloc since they’re almost one fifth of the population. So the violence in Israeli-Arab communities is a problem both for any election Barak may have to call — and he may be forced to call one soon — and even for his plan to try to hold on to power with a minority government, because would be dependent on the support of ten members of parliament from Arab parties. They wouldn’t be in the government, of course, because that has been something of a taboo among Israelis, which is also something Israeli Arabs complain about — they’re expected to support Labor Party governments, but never to be allowed to serve in them. Still, they’ve given their support in the past in the interests of the peace process and of their Palestinian brethren."

So, would they refuse to support Barak even if they knew the alternative was a Likud government that would probably stop the peace process?

"The different camps of Israeli politics can be very self-destructive. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, remember, collapsed because the right wing brought him down, paving the way for a government that has gone further in terms of concessions to the Palestinians. It was obvious at the time that that was what they’d get, but they did it anyway. And it’s quite likely that the Israeli Arabs would do the same. If they do, the polls show right now that Netanyahu will return, oust Ariel Sharon as leader of Likud, and narrowly win an election."

How has the violence inside Israel affected Israelis’ long-term view of the peace process?

"Many Israeli Jews now feel that even if they manage to reach a deal with the Palestinians, that before too long the Israeli-Arabs — who feel themselves to be Palestinian — will demand to be part of the new Palestinian state. And they’ll demand that the parts of northern Israel where they live be incorporated into that Palestinian state. And that could plunge Israel right back to the conflicts of 1948. The violence has disabused Israelis of a notion that the peace process will lead to final peace. Instead, they imagine, it will be the calm before a new storm among the Israeli Arabs."

So what policy outlook follows from that grim view?

"Many on the left and even some on the right in Israeli politics believe the only way to address this problem is to better integrate the Arabs in Israel, spending more on their communities and doing more to make them feel part of the state. Because then it would be only the professional malcontents and smaller fundamentalist factions that would agitate to be part of a Palestinian state, while most would see an interest in being Israeli — particularly if there’s a peace deal that makes it less difficult to be both Israeli and Palestinian. But this conflict goes back to the fundamental question of how Israel can be a Jewish State with a 20 percent Arab population, and still be a democracy. And it’s a very difficult question to answer. It makes a lot of Israelis very uncomfortable."