A Return to Coexistence

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Eli Bahar says we must not accept this state of affairs as a fait accompli. He reminds that we can change the situation even if it seems that it has almost reached the point of no return.

It seems that the events of recent weeks are threatening to move backward relations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. They are damaging the efforts being made toward civil integration and partnership – in employment and education, first of all – and deepening the alienation, lack of understanding and mistrust between both groups.

Yet we must not accept this state of affairs as a fait accompli. We can change the situation even if it seems that it has almost reached the point of no return.

First: We must draw a clear line between holding protests, strikes and demonstrations, which the Arab sector has as much of a right to do as any other segment of society, and resorting to violence and terrorism. The Jewish public must accept that Israel’s Arab citizens have the right to demonstrate and protest, and not view these acts as harmful to the state. Without minimizing the severity of violent acts by Arab citizens, such acts are relatively few and far between. Some are the result of incitement (mainly by Islamist elements), while others stem from a feeling of constant deprivation and inequality, as well as solidarity with the Palestinians living in towns over the Green Line, who are in conflict with Israel.

Second: Unfortunately, years of cooperative work, mainly among civic and social groups, can provide only partial healing to the rift in the fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs. The crux of the problem, and the main obstacle to its containment, is political behavior. That the Israeli Arab population is not a full and equal participant in the Israeli government (nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future) fans the flames of alienation and strengthens this sense of deprivation. It also prevents the formation of mechanisms of dialogue and resolution at the government level – the most important level -- for stopping the situation from getting worse.

This lack of preventive methods and effective crisis management means there is little way to create incentives for responsible behavior that protects and maintains basic relations. Instead, it leads to the opposite, in which the vacuum is filled with words and deeds that escalate into violence. The existence of the Joint List, which brings together all the Arab political parties, gives the government an opportunity to form a permanent mechanism of dialogue with representatives of Arab society without entering the internal competition that a multiplicity of parties creates.

The crumbling of some of our neighboring states and their free-fall into chaos and bloodshed not only demonstrates the effects of violence and fundamentalism, but serves as a minder of how important it is to maintain the framework of a functioning state with clear rules and the ability to resolve conflict.

It is also vital that social relations be strengthened at the level of local-authority leaders, both in mixed-population areas and in neighboring ones. The heads of the local-authorities have tremendous power to turn down the rhetorical heat and maintain good relationships. At times, they are better equipped to do so than those who serve in the political system at a national level. Intensive work on the municipal level – often more practical than on a national level – could in general prove an effective means toward lowering tensions.

Above all, recent events strengthen the realization that we must develop and instill in both Jewish and Arab society the notion of cooperative civic relations as a basis for living together. Whatever the agreement with the Palestinians in the territories may be – and there will certainly be such an agreement, even if it is long in coming – the Arabs in Israel are an inseparable part of Israeli society and will remain so. A visionary approach on the government’s part, including a plan for practical action, together with the development of the concept of joint civic relations based on equality and involvement in decision-making at the national level, is a matter of vital importance. It is also a shared and attainable goal for both populations.