Analysis from Israel

A regular reader of Odeh Bisharat’s op-eds in Haaretz might reasonably conclude that the Israeli Arab author doesn’t like his country very much. So I was stunned by the advice he offered his fellow Israeli Arabs in his latest column. Aside from being something you rarely hear Israeli Arab intellectuals say, it’s good advice–not just for his own community, but also for both Israeli and Diaspora Jews:

The time has come for the Arab leaders of public opinion to say outright: In spite of everything, we have it good here. It’s true that there’s a mountain of problems, but we want to be citizens of the state. Here we can fight to improve our living conditions, to protest, mobilize Jewish public opinion and conduct a battle against the extreme right. After all, the program that unites most of the [Israeli] Arab movements is based on the principle that Arabs are citizens of the state in which they will realize their national and civil rights. And in that case, it’s important to convey that the Arabs care about the state, because they care about themselves and their future.

The irony is that even though you never hear their leaders say so, most Israeli Arabs already agree with Bisharat. Polls have shown this repeatedly (here and here, for instance). The latest evidence came from last month’s Peace Index poll, a monthly survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. It found that Israeli Arabs are actually more optimistic than Israeli Jews about the country’s situation–in sharp contrast to what one would expect to find if, as both Israeli and foreign media outlets like to claim, Israel was suffering from a rising tide of anti-Arab racism.

Fully 40.3 percent of Israeli Arabs deemed Israel’s current situation “very good” while another 22.7 percent deemed it “moderately good,” meaning that 63 percent offered a positive assessment. By comparison, only 9.7 percent of Israeli Jews rated the current situation “very good” and 34.0 percent “moderately good,” for a total positive assessment of 43.7 percent. Israeli Arabs were similarly bullish about the future, with 32.9 percent predicting that Israel’s situation would be “much better” in the new Jewish year that began in October and another 21.5 percent expecting it to be “a little better,” for an overall positive assessment of 54.5 percent. The corresponding figures for Israeli Jews were 7.5 and 15.0 percent, for a total positive of just 22.5 percent.

Arab optimism extended across every field the pollsters checked: military-security (where 39.9 percent of Arabs forecast improvement), political-diplomatic (42.3 percent), socioeconomic (42.6 percent) and “disputes between different parts of the public” (31.6 percent). In every category, the proportion of Arabs who expected improvement far surpassed both the proportion of Jews expecting improvement and the proportion of Arabs expecting deterioration. Indeed, the proportion of Arabs who foresaw deterioration ranged from just 2.8 percent on socioeconomic issues to 13.2 percent on “disputes between different parts of the public.” Those last two figures are particularly noteworthy. If Israeli Arabs really felt threatened by rising racism, they would hardly predict improvement in “disputes between different parts of the public” by a ratio of almost 3:1 and improvement in the socioeconomic realm by more than 15:1.

Nevertheless, there’s one very real barrier to further improvement: Israeli Jews largely believe that most Israeli Arabs care more about the Palestinian cause than about their own country’s wellbeing, for the very good reason that this is what they hear, over and over, from Israeli Arab leaders. This obviously encourages anti-Arab sentiment and impedes integration. And as Bisharat correctly noted, it will be very hard to change this perception as long as Arab-Israeli opinion leaders refuse to say publicly that it’s false – that despite the “mountain of problems” Israeli Arabs face, and especially their deep disagreements with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, they nevertheless feel they “have it good here” and really do “care about the state.”

Bisharat’s advice, however, is no less applicable to the Jewish world–there, too, the refusal to “say outright” that things are good in Israel despite the problems is causing serious long-term damage.

As evidence, consider Sara Hirschhorn’s op-ed in Haaretz last week, with the self-explanatory title “Liberal Zionists, We Lost the Kids.” In it, the Oxford University lecturer lamented that young British Jews are turned off by Israel–not, as so frequently claimed, by “the occupation or the settlements,” but by “the very premise of a self-defining State of the Jews, back to 1948.” And to her credit, she acknowledged that liberal Zionist adults are largely responsible for this development: If liberals are to convince their children that a Jewish state is worth having, she wrote, “Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings—we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud—in spite of it all—in the State of Israel today.”

But of course, they rarely do. All you hear from most liberal Zionists nowadays, both in Israel and abroad, is a vile caricature of Israel: occupation, settlements, racism, discrimination, every evil in the modern pantheon. And when that’s all the kids have ever heard, why wouldn’t they end up thinking a Jewish state is a bad idea?

Problems obviously shouldn’t be swept under the rug; Israel is a good place to live precisely because it tries so hard to keep improving. But you can have too much of a good thing, and with regard to obsessing over Israel’s flaws, that point was passed long ago for both Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Jews.

Thus in both communities, as Bisharat and Hirschhorn correctly pointed out, the road to beneficial change begins with ceasing to focus only on the negative and remembering the highlight the positive as well. Saying outright that even Arabs “have it good” in Israel, unlike in so many Arab countries, might be an excellent place to start not just for Israeli Arabs, but also for Diaspora Jews.

Originally published in Commentary on November 11, 2016

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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