Sunday, February 18, 2007

Israel reaping fruit of its treatment of Arabs

A la intifada comme a la intifada

By Uzi Benziman

When the leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, Sheikh Raed Salah, calls for launching an intifada against Israel, he is defining the state of which he is a citizen as the enemy. Salah is urging Israeli Arabs to begin an armed revolt against their country. He thus leaves the state, and its Jewish majority, no choice but to defend themselves against him, in the spirit of the old saying "a la guerre comme a la guerre."

It could well be that this was the sheikh's intention: He wants to worsen majority-minority relations and bring them to the point of an explosion, and he has chosen to do so, predictably, by using a religious pretext. He is cynically fanning the flames of the false accusation that Israel is harming the Temple Mount mosques, and in this way, he hopes to crown himself the guardian of Islam's holy sites in Israel.

Salah appears to be the local emissary of fundamentalist Islam; his Israeli identity is a mere fig leaf. He also has a personal score to settle with the state: Two years ago, it sent him to jail for 42 months for having been in contact with a foreign agent (after withdrawing charges of more serious security offenses that it had initially leveled against him).

From a Jewish perspective, Salah's worldview is a dangerous threat: He is harnessing popular religious sentiment to the national struggle that is still being waged between Israel and the Palestinians. His behavior joins the uncompromising "future vision" that was recently published by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and the appeal to United Nations organizations, lodged by the Adalah organization, to protect Israel's Arab minority. These moves reflect a genuine radicalization of both Arab Israelis' demands and their representatives' modes of action, and they arouse the Jewish reflex of self-defense. In the eyes of most of the state's Jewish citizens, Israel is a place of refuge, God's little acre that was granted to them to enable them to exist as a nation - and they have no intention of giving it up.

Thus far, most of the state's Muslim citizens have refrained from following the sheikh to his demonstrations near the Mugrabi Gate. But even if Salah's call for starting an intifada goes unanswered, the state would be making a grave mistake if it continued to rely solely on deterrent power in its relations with the Arab sector. Israel must cultivate a strong motivation among its Arab citizens so they will see themselves as part of it, and thereby neutralize the foundation of bitterness and frustration on which Sheikh Salah and his ilk build their incitement.

All Israeli governments have treated the Arab sector shamefully, and now the state is reaping the bitter fruits. Master plans are not enough to eliminate the blatant discrimination against Arab citizens, and this is all the more true of vague promises. What is needed is genuine, large-scale action, in order to instill Israel's Arabs with the feeling that the state is shaking off the inertia of the past and redefining its relationship with them, with the goal of seeing them as citizens with equal rights.

This vital change must occur, first and foremost, at the conceptual and psychological level - namely, by getting rid of the view that the Arab minority is a fifth column and by accepting it as a community with its own national, organizational and cultural needs. This would naturally lead to a new practical policy with a new purpose, which would be implemented, inter alia, via legislation and budgetary allocations. Israel needed 40 years to understand that it must change its fundamental ideas in order to contribute to solving the Palestinian problem; 60 years have not sufficed for it to formulate a correct approach to the Arab minority that dwells within it.

Nevertheless, the way to respond to Salah's verbal rebellion is not by shutting his mouth. Freedom of expression is everyone's right, and aside from rare cases of blatant incitement that entail a clear and present danger of public disturbances, no one's freedom of speech should be restricted. Just as Salah's views, and lies, outrage Israel's Jewish citizens, the racist views of Avigdor Lieberman and Esterina Tartman scorch the ears of its Arab citizens. As long as Salah's fiery theories do not cross the line into a clear violation of the law, the appropriate way to handle them is through public discourse: Israel's citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, should hold a public discussion of this matter and draw their own conclusions from the state of mind this exchange of views reveals.

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