Can Israel attain national security without the Arabs?
By Nazir Majali | 03/09/2009
Israeli Arabs can be a major resource for Israel's national security. They can make a huge contribution to reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world, and especially the Palestinian people
Israeli arabs on a visit to Auschwitz, May 2003
Israel will never achieve true national security if it does not start to view its Arabs as an asset. Israeli Arabs are generally absent from the debates on national security regularly held at Israel's various think tanks and at conferences, and one may assume that they are also missing from the secret debates and studies presented to Israel's security branches.
In these settings, the Arabs are treated as a hostile entity. The researchers focus on looking for ways to defend Israeli society against them, to attack them, to cope with them, and to stand united in order to deal with them. In order to put fear in the Arabs' hearts, Israel is willing to be part of a military alliance with the United States that could embroil Israel in wars that have nothing to do with it, in which its sons could be killed. In order to avoid having to sit in the same boat with the Arabs, Israel's policymakers are even willing to accept the support of the descendents of those who perpetrated the Holocaust in Germany and persecuted the Jews during the long years of the Diaspora in Europe. In 1956, Israel participated in Britain and France's war against Egypt, and now, it is willing to make a covenant with Islamic Turkey and the Kurds in Iraq to encircle Syria. Even when peace is on the table, it is always a peace that is against someone or something: peace with Egypt and Jordan in order to isolate Syria; peace with Qatar and Oman in order to besiege Iraq; negotiations with Syria in order to weaken the Palestinians or with the Palestinians in order to weaken Syria.
Even Israeli Arabs, who are citizens of the State of Israel, are perceived as a negative factor in all these discussions, and some Israelis have even come up with contingency plans to deport them. The fact that Hezbollah's Katyushas whistled over their heads too and that eighteen Israeli-Arab civilians were killed in the recent war will not prompt these people to embrace them as fellow citizens who share the same fate as they do; the Arab's pain is always suspect and they are regularly being shown the door.
The time has come to change direction and start thinking about the Arabs – about the Arabs in Israel and in Arab countries, including the Palestinian people, as an asset, one that can play a positive role in the development of the State of Israel as it seeks to consolidate its national security. The Arabs are not the only ones who will benefit from this kind of approach; it is the only way to guarantee a safe future for the State of Israel itself.
How can it be achieved?
Israel has never formulated a real peace plan that took into account a just solution of the Palestinian problem. None of the strategic approaches taken in Israel, whether official or independent, have ever bothered to study the full implication of its confrontation policy – as concocted by the army and served up to all its various governments – for the future of the State of Israel in this volatile region known as the Middle East.
In the wake of the recent war in Lebanon, a trenchant debate has been conducted in Israel over whether it was a war of choice or not. What is clear, however, is that the plans to go to war had been prepared ahead of time. The results of the war, regardless of the debate over the reasons for its failures, have proven that abducted soldiers can only be released by negotiations. The war has also proven that only internal Lebanese actions or a regional settlement with the Syrians can weaken Hezbollah. Additionally, the war has strengthened the fundamentalist Islamist forces in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, sending its members into a state of post-war euphoria. And now we are hearing voices among the Palestinians that call for the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority so that the Israeli occupation can be restored, to enable all Palestinian resistance forces to unite under a single Hezbollah-like umbrella and work together to force the IDF out of their territory.
On the other hand, all the moderate forces in the Arab world have been forced onto the defensive. The pictures of the destruction in Lebanon, reminiscint of the pictures of World War II, place those Arabs who favor a negotiated settlement with Israel in an embarrassing position. The number of civilian victims of the war, according to Israeli estimates, is close to 900. According to the same estimates, about 500 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the war (an estimate denied in Lebanon), with 4,000 civilians injured and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees after thousands of homes were destroyed. These men, women and children were completely innocent of any crime. Even the fact that Hezbollah used their homes, or part of them, can in no way justify Israel sentencing them to death, especially in view of the fact that the same reasoning applies in reverse: After all, dozens of military facilities in Israel are located in populated areas. Does that then make it legitimate to target civilians? The claim that the Israeli army carried out these actions in order to exert pressure on the population so that they in turn would place pressure on Hezbollah could very well boomerang against Israel.
Perhaps these actions were taken based upon expert assessments offered by the generals. But the ensuing inevitable hatred directed towards Israel from the Arab population should also be part of the strategic considerations. Such actions serve only to strengthen Bin Laden and his ilk. They paint Hezbollah as the redeemer of Arab pride, which Israel has contemptuously trampled, only to produce yet another generation of terrorists.
Moreover, these actions also serve to advance al-Qaeda's six-phase plan, two-thirds of which the terrorist movement has already planned and carried out: the terror attacks on September 11th in the United States and the drawing of US forces into Islamic states (Afghanistan and Iraq) in order to strike at them from up close. The next steps are to stabilize its victory in Iraq and quickly move the Islamic revolution to the “infidel states” of Syria and Lebanon in order to create friction with the Zionist enemy. Sunni Muslims, and even the Arab national movement, find it difficult to resist the temptation to attack their sworn enemy, Israel. This plan is known to everyone, including Israel, as well as to those who drew us into the war in Lebanon.
And that brings us to the crux of the issue: Does it benefit Israel to further al-Qaeda's interests? Didn't Israel in fact play into Bin Laden's hands? And an even more incisive question: Couldn't things have been handled differently? Why, for example, don't we consider peace with Syria, knowing that both countries have a shared interest in joining forces against al-Qaeda, the scourge of our age? Neutralizing Syria in this battle would weaken Iran's forward base along Israel's border and obstruct al-Qaida's route into Israel from Syria or Lebanon, and even Jordan. Is it because the Syrian Golan Heights are more important to Israel? Or because no one is even considering this option?
And the most important question of all: What are the chances that the commission of inquiry or any other committee formed in Israel in the wake of the war will devote any thought to this aspect of the matter?
The damage done
Let us, however, get back to the main issue: The damage has already been done. The destructive results continue to reverberate, but we should not give up. Ultimately, we must move ahead, and better late than never.
It is not impossible to repair the damage in the Arab world, or at least to minimize it. The many people in the Arab world who condemned the abduction of the Israeli soldiers, who expressed their views openly even as Israel carried out its terrible attacks against Lebanon, have not changed their minds. While it is true that they are very angry at Israel for those attacks, they cannot forgive Hezbollah either and are very critical of it. Representatives of countries that are committed to the American agenda and Hezbollah's opponents in Lebanon are definitely among them; but Arab intellectuals, statesmen, former army officers, businesspeople, diplomats and many Arab patriots also comprise their ranks.
A new generation of Arab leaders has arisen in the past twenty years, and they currently represent the second and third tier of the governmental and media hierarchy. They are what we might call “proud Arabs,” in the full sense of the word. They are patriots and consequently refuse to accept the Arabs' current relegation to the Third World. They know that in other periods in history, Arabs occupied a respectable place at the top of the pyramid of human civilization, and they want to get back there. Those who espouse this view in the Persian Gulf states are seeking alternatives to oil, because the world is looking for energy alternatives, and they too want to remain wealthy after the oil age is over. Dubai's development is a good example of this trend. Dubai sends its students to study in the West, and those students return brimming with knowledge and information, and go on to invest in education and creative enterprises. Leaders from this generation are considering business partnerships with the finest and richest societies in the world. The proliferation of the Internet is changing the rules by widening authority; the Arab media is rearing its head and demanding freedom of expression to an extent previously unheard of in the Arab world.
Among the general Arab public, it is widely believed that the wars with Israel represented an obstacle to the development of the Arab world. Some are convinced that Israel and the West continue to fan the fires of the conflict in order to perpetuate the weakness of the Arab world – so that it will continue to purchase arms and fight rather than invest in development and education. Some in the Arab world accuse Iran of being partner to this plot because of its aspirations to once again dominate the region.
The movement that supports resolving the conflict by peaceful means is especially important in this context.
In order to avoid having to sit in the same boat with the Arabs, Israel's policymakers are even willing to accept the support of the descendents of those who perpetrated the Holocaust in Germany and persecuted the Jews during the long years of the Diaspora in Europe.
These leaders realize that in order to throw off the yoke of war, they must accept Israel as part of the region. They do not like Israel, now even less so than in the past, and they have no confidence in its leaders. But now they are saying: If Israel wants to invest in its arms and army – let it choke on them. Or as my dear friend Imad Shakur says: “If Israel wants to be Sparta, fine; I prefer to be ancient Athens – the city of culture and philosophy.”
Israel must look for ways of encouraging this trend in the Arab world. Why shouldn't it support those people who take this approach? After all, Israel is sufficiently strong economically, militarily and culturally to choose this path. Can there be any more effective way to contribute to national security?
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel's Arabs represent about 20 percent of its population; however, this fact is hardly evident in the policies of its government. With the exception of the late Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Arab citizens have always been automatically suspect in the eyes of the government. Israel consciously implements a policy of discrimination against its Arabs, and all the government institutions treat them as inferior.
So why should it surprise anyone that Arabs respond to Israel in anger and frustration? And indeed, the commission headed by Justice Theodore Or to investigate the riots in October 2000, in which thirteen Arab civilians were killed, drew a direct connection between the outbreak of violence in those riots and Israel's policy of discrimination. That is why we should simply ask: Is it indeed wise to evoke the hostility of 20% of the country's citizenry? Can anyone who wants to increase Israeli national security afford to anger such a large bloc of citizens?
The Jewish public in Israel must internalize the fact that Israel's Arabs do not want to embrace this hostility. In the wake of the events of October 2000, they no longer demonstrate as often as they used to. They have launched positive initiatives involving reconciliation and improved relations with the police are even starting to take shape, despite the fact that the police force continues to be a bit too quick on the trigger. Close to 125 Arab intellectuals initiated a process aimed at getting to know Jews and Judaism better, in the context of which they traveled to Auschwitz and returned with a unique perspective on the importance of reconciliation. They have also established a movement that has recruited thousands of members.
Israeli Arabs are a precious resource for Israel's national security; they can make a huge contribution to bringing Israel and the Arabs, in particular the Palestinian people, closer to one another. Despite the inflammatory rhetoric of most Arab Knesset members, the majority of Israeli Arabs have tied their fate to that of Israel. Any attempt to drive them out by force will fail, because for them, this is their homeland, their country. The vast majority of Arabs living in Israel today were born after the establishment of the state. They like the life they have become accustomed to and are unprepared to give up life in the State of Israel. They know that whatever good happens here is good for them too, and anything bad that happens to Israel affects them too – be it the weather or war. The terror attacks that have been perpetrated inside Israel's borders have claimed their share of Arab victims too. And, in times of economic crisis, Israeli Arabs suffer just like the Jews do, if not more.
Moreover, Israel's Arabs have proven their loyalty to the state throughout all the years of its existence – in all its wars and formative stages. There hardly exists a building in whose construction Arabs have not been involved. They work everywhere and their “Arab” labor is appreciated. They are still building the country. In short, they are full-fledged Israelis. And through this status, they can contribute a great deal to the rapprochement between their people and their country. They are the only group in the Arab nation that has had the opportunity to obtain first-hand knowledge of Jews and Judaism. This is an overall Israeli interest that will benefit both Jews and Arabs. What can contribute more to Israel's national security than fostering this orientation amng Israel's Arabs?
Some will say: But they're Palestinians! Obviously. But it is because they are Palestinians. You will not find an Arab in Israel who does not have a relative across the border. Moreover, Israeli Arabs are proud of the fact that they are Arabs and Palestinians. Indeed, everyone should understand and internalize that true peace can only be made with proud patriots. Collaborators can be bought but they disappear as soon as someone willing to pay more or someone who scares them more comes along.
Israeli Arabs identify with their people and their country and see no contradiction between the two. Among them are those who say that to be both here and there is a gift that God gave Israeli Arabs. And the big question remains: Does the State of Israel want them to have that status? Is it aware of the potential role they can play? Is Israel even interested?
Nazir Majali is the Political Correspondent for the London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat