Arab-Jewish relations in Israel are extremely problematic. They are linked in a variety of ways to the broader issues of Israel-Arab relations and specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Somewhere alongside the heavy political issues, we also confront the day-to-day problems of Arab-Jewish coexistence "on the ground". In Israel there are Jewish towns, Arab towns and a variety of mixed-population towns, each with its own history and specific demographic make-up.
Earlier this month, the public-at-large was given a close-up view of the volatile state of Arab-Jewish relations in mixed towns when riots broke out in Acre, an ancient port town north of Haifa. Everyone agrees the disturbances began when an Arab drove his car into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement when all vehicle traffic ceases for 24 hours. From that point on, no one can quite agree on the specific motivation or "choreography" of events. Nor are these details particularly important: it’s clear that Arab-Jewish relations in Acre must have been extremely problematic even before Yom Kippur in order for dozens of people to be injured, homes torched and entire families displaced as the outcome of a single unfortunate incident.
Two obvious and immediate background factors to the Acre events, one Arab and one Jewish, come to mind. On one side, over the past two years much of the Arab intellectual and political mainstream in Israel has embraced demands for a full-fledged bi-national state ("consociational democracy") that would give Arabs a veto over Israel’s Jewish content and symbols.
That Israel’s Arabs require and deserve equal land rights and economic and educational opportunity goes without saying. But their demands now go much further. Most disturbing of all–and here even the years of mainstream Jewish neglect of legitimate Arab socio-economic needs cannot be blamed–the bi-national state demands can be understood to bring their authors into line with those in the Arab and Islamic world who refuse to accept the existence of a Jewish people at all, much less one with legitimate roots in the Middle East.
These positions adopted by prominent leaders of the Arab citizens of Israel in effect reject the principle of a democratic Jewish state that lies at the heart of the Oslo solution of two states for two peoples. They position the Israeli Arab community as very much a part of the broader Palestinian problem. They send a message that the Oslo process of discussing Palestinian political independence in the West Bank and Gaza–wherein the Palestinian citizens of Israel were once seen as a potential bridge between Israelis and Palestinians–has radicalized Israeli Arab views.
But in parallel, the failed Oslo process has also radicalized the views of Israeli Jews on the political right who are in any case predisposed to be hostile toward the Arab population of Israel. Thus in Acre, as in East Jerusalem and Peki’in in Upper Galilee, Jews who basically oppose coexistence are seeking ways to establish neighborhoods in the midst of Arab and even Druze population concentrations and push Arabs out. This would effectively expand the West Bank Arab-Jewish confrontation into all of Israel, thereby serving the settlers’ political goal of erasing the green line boundary between the State of Israel and the West Bank and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state.
But even moderate Israeli actors are contributing to Arab-Jewish alienation in Israel. The fence/wall that so mindlessly cuts off East Jerusalem Arabs from their brethren in the West Bank is radicalizing them–witness the series of suicidal attacks launched in West Jerusalem by frustrated Palestinians from the outlying villages of East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Israeli governmental refusal to create new Arab towns or an Arab university exacerbates the pressures generated by the increasingly crowded Arab living space in Israel.
Perhaps, if and when there is a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arabs and Jews in Israel will be able to contemplate quietly whether they wish to live in mixed or separate towns and cities. Apparently, it is only when the conflict is resolved that Israelis will seriously address the heavy issue of the Jewish nature of their state–an issue that must be resolved before the status of non-Jews in Israel can be dealt with substantively.
Until that time, three political/demographic dynamics will continue to operate and to clash. For one, Israeli Arabs will refuse to be pushed out of their traditional dwellings by Jewish extremists. On the other hand, economic factors will impel Arabs who are denied legitimate development opportunities to move into Jewish towns and neighborhoods in the simple and justified hope of bettering their lot. Finally, tensions will flare up periodically between Arabs and Jews, spearheaded by nationalist and racist extremists on both sides and nourished by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The short-term outlook is not good.