Former Speaker of the Knesset: The Way Forward, Full Citizenship for Israel’s Palestinian Minority

(Photo Credit: AP)

ISRAEL’S INTERNAL DISCOURSE on the conflict with the Palestinians suffers from a fixation on old paradigms that have long since become irrelevant. These paradigms are rooted in nineteenth century ideologies and the geopolitical upheavals of the twentieth century, including the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the events of World War II, and the outbreak of the Cold War. Very few of these factors are germane to the Israel of the twenty-first century and to the values it now upholds and represents.

A majority of Israeli Jewish society refuses to update its conceptions and agendas, however, prolonging Israel’s control over the lives and fates of millions of Palestinians, in complete contradiction to their wishes, both within the 1949 armistice lines and in the territories occupied since the June 1967 war. Many Israeli Jews regard the conflict merely as an extension of the 1948 war, when, in their view, what the Arabs wanted was to throw the Jews into the sea and be done with them—an attitude summed up by the late Yitzhak Shamir’s quip that “all Arabs are the same.” Others, usually centrists and leftists, are wholeheartedly convinced that the war of 1967 and the subsequent settlement of the occupied territories are the root of all evil. They contend that the events of 1967 are of a completely different nature than those of 1948. Such intellectual self-deception leads these liberal Zionists to want to write off the cost of ’48 (the Palestinian Nakba and the refugees) in exchange for the price of the ’67 territories (the settlements and Jerusalem). And a small handful of Israelis dare delve deeper and really examine the dynamic at work between the Israeli polity’s Jewish and Palestinian components trying to envision new paradigms that could eventually lead to a shared life in a shared space between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian issue resides in two distinct spheres: the first, inside Israel “proper” (that is, within the 1949 armistice lines), which involves the civil relations between the Jewish majority and the non-Jewish, mostly Palestinian, minority and the disparity in the quality of citizenship they enjoy; and the second, comprising the political dynamic between Jews and Palestinians everywhere else, whether in the occupied territories, amid the Palestinian diaspora, or in the international arena.

The aim here is to look more closely at the first of these spheres, that is, the internal relations between Israel’s Jewish majority (80 percent) and its Arab minority (20 percent), and the latter’s potential to influence the quality of Israeli citizenship, on the one hand, and to emerge as a leadership vehicle for the entire Palestinian people, on the other. Today, almost seven decades after the establishment of the State of Israel and the destruction of the Palestinian community in historic Palestine, Israel’s Arab citizens have little or no influence either on the lives of the rest of the Israeli population or on their own, much less on the lives of their people across the borders. But that outcome is not destined by fate and, this article contends, the more sensitive seismographs are already starting to pick up the first tremors of change on the land of Israel. . . .

Avraham Burg was born in Jerusalem in 1955 and educated in the Religious Zionist school system. He was an MK for sixteen years, served as the Speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, and was also the chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization from the mid- to late 1990s. Since retiring from politics in 2004, he has lectured widely and authored a number of books about Israel and the Middle East.

This article appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 44 No. 4. Read the full article online at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

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