Here’s an update to one of my previous posts on the settlement freeze:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not extend the moratorium on settlement building. Building has resumed, re-adding another hurdle in this decades-long process.
However, there has been some pressure on Israel to continue the freeze and Netanyahu may have felt as though he needed to respond in some way. His response was to call on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for an extended settlement freeze. Where to start with this….
First, to be clear… Netanyahu is not asking Abbas to recognize the state of Israel, but Israel as a Jewish state. This is an incredibly important difference. If we were discussing the recognition of the state of Israel, many would argue that the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization, the governing party of the West Bank) sufficiently recognized Israel years ago. Anyways, let’s put aside the issues of statehood for Palestine, settlements in the West Bank, etc., and focus just on Israel for a second. Within the state of Israel itself (not the occupied territories of West Bank or Gaza), almost 20 percent of the population is Arab Israeli (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs). This population is mainly composed of those who were living there prior to the establishment of Israel and their direct descendants.
Within Israel, the Arab Israelis are generally separated into Arab areas and towns. This is a widely recognized observation and is even mentioned on the website linked to above for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, albeit the website purports that this is by choice. The Arab Israelis face many hardships in their daily lives and are truly treated as second-class citizens. Building permits are routinely denied and when people are forced to expand illegally, they face demolition for illegal building. These areas have substandard services such as water, sewage, electricity, infrastructure, etc. In addition, their schools are given far less funding and face much harsher scrutiny into their curriculum.
Where am I getting this information from? Well, many sources; but, most recently and I think the most comprehensively and compellingly from the book The Other Side of Israel by Susan Nathan. Nathan is a Jewish woman who used the Right of Return to move from Britain to Tel Aviv after raising her children. After spending a little time in Israel, Nathan becomes uncomfortable with the relationship between Jews and Arabs and decides to move to an Arab town to get a better sense of what it is like and what conditions the Arab Israelis face. It is a FANTASTIC book – I highly recommend it!
So, maybe you are thinking “What makes this different from any poor neighborhood in any other country?” One aspect is that generally if the Arab Israelis attempt to move to another more affluent neighborhood, they are often denied based solely on the fact that they are Arab. It is also remarkably difficult for Arab Israelis to get some of the better paying jobs working for the state, again because they are Arab.
It also differs because of the extreme lack of interaction between the two sectors. This is on BOTH sides. Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis alike are often leery of meeting anyone from the opposite group, which only exacerbates many of the problems including the housing and occupation issues. Perhaps if the two groups understood each other more and knew each other, than there wouldn’t be such an aversion to integrating. It is not uncommon for someone from one group to have NEVER talked to someone from the other group.
To address this lack of understanding, some groups exist to bring Arabs and Jews together for meetings. Also, there was a great documentary about it, Promises, released a few years ago. In it, B.Z. Goldberg travels to Israel and interviews both Jewish and Arab Israeli children. He asks them about their feelings toward the other and if they would ever like to meet children from the other group. Some seemed willing, while others (on both sides) openly said that they would not be interested in that at all. They had intense feelings about it, which likely stemmed from family members. Eventually, the children meet and form friendships. However, the end is not all rainbows and sunshine…(it’s on Netflix, so check it out).
Circling back – how is the situation between the Arab and Jewish Israelis connected with the current request from Netanyahu (recognition of a Jewish state)? Many people believe that recognition of a Jewish state will have a negative impact on the Arab Israelis and their already worrisome status. In a recent New York Times article, Mohammad Darawshe (Israeli-Arab co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that promotes coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens) was quoted saying, “I think the Jews deserve a homeland of their own, but not one that negates the rights and status of other citizens.”
Palestinian Right of Return
Another major issue with recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is the implications it could have for the right of return claim that some Palestinians would assert and would want to be part of any peace negotiations. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes or were displaced during the Arab Israeli wars. Some are in the occupied territories and others are in refugee camps throughout the Middle East. Overall, there are currently around 4 million Palestinian refugees. Logically, if all of these refugees are allowed to move back into Israel, then Arab Israelis would soon out-number Jewish Israelis. Now, this of course would be problematic for a nation that wants to be both a Jewish state and a democracy….
Perhaps more on Right of Return and democracy issues for a later post.
The Ball’s in Your Court
One final thing as I wrap up this very wordy post…There has been speculation that if the international community or the US perceive Netanyahu’s proposal as a genuine effort to continue the peace process, then the ball will be back in Abbas’s court. I truly, truly hope this is not the case. I think that the idea of asking Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a cessation of building on settlements that are illegal and part of land that would be Palestine (in most proposals for a two-state solution) is ABSURD. This is not a sincere gesture on Netanyahu’s part, it is politics at its worst. It is especially irksome when you consider that by agreeing to this, Abbas could essentially be conceding one of the objectives that Palestinians would like to achieve during the peace process – right of return.
All in all, I know that the peace process seems laughable and I know that many people are pessimistic (even apathetic), but I like to remain hopeful. Given that, I honestly hope that both sides can get away from these silly antics and get back to work on what is certainly a daunting and arduous task – creating a lasting and viable peace agreement.