The controversy over the Begin-Prawer plan to relocate Bedouins from the “unrecognized” villages – replete with demonstrations, violence and charged Knesset debates – finally led to the suspension of the proposed legislation last week. This is but the latest in a series of failures to ensure a modicum of equity between Arabs and Jews in Israel and to lay the foundation for a shared society in the country. Over the years, no workable strategy has been designed or implemented to assure all citizens of Israel, regardless of national origin, religion, gender and ethnic background, a sense of civil security. Common civic spaces – the key not only to a robust democracy, but also to averting social implosion – are few and far between. A mainstreaming approach to constructing a foundation for shared citizenship can go a long way to filling this void.

Since its inception, Israel, unlike any other democratic country, has not distinguished between civic and national identity. Although every identity card does record the “nationality” of its bearer (Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian), in fact, religion and nationality have been conflated and the common Israeli citizenship of all is barely acknowledged. As a result, over the years the Jewish majority (in all its various manifestations) has been able to solidify its control over the public sphere, relegating the Arab minority to a secondary status in the state. Jews have almost always benefited at the expense of the other in their midst, yielding growing Arab disaffection from the system in its entirety (as manifest in diminishing participation rates in general elections).

For those who see Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, this situation is beyond problematic: it nationalizes the public arena, but does not allow for its civilianization. The only way to rectify this anomaly (and the built-in discrimination that it engenders) is to begin to promote a culture of citizenship in Israel – distinct from, but inclusive of the national, ethnic and religious identities it contains.

Such a culture not only requires reaffirmation of the basic values of equality, justice and tolerance for the other, but also a conscious effort to induce tangible change. This, in turn, cannot be achieved without a dramatic strategic shift. A mainstreaming perspective provides precisely such a vehicle.

Mainstreaming approaches, initially developed to overcome gender inequality but applicable also to other disadvantaged and disempowered sectors, shift the focus of activities from specific groups and supporters of their interests to inducing change at the state level for the benefit of all communities and individuals. In broad strokes, mainstreaming looks at how to best advance society as a whole through maximizing the relative contribution of all of its diverse components. It therefore looks at policy issues such as the economy, social services, education or security from the viewpoint of those who are affected and seeks to design plans that will ensure their equitable participation and distribution. In effect, employing such an approach requires a veritable leap from concentrating on advancing identity-based rights to promoting common civic objectives and the just allocation of their associated benefits.

The execution of mainstreaming strategies in the Jewish-Arab context encompasses three central components. The first involves participation of all those involved in the design and implementation of policy measures. This can be achieved through adequate representation in decision-making bodies and/or through continuous consultation with key sectors (something that Benny Begin now admits did not occur in the case of the Bedouin). The second entails the inclusion of various group perspectives in policy-making. Thus, no effective housing program or education plan can be set in motion without taking into account the needs, concerns and aspirations of both Arabs and Jews in the country (the results of the various international tests demonstrate the consequences of the failure to do so). The third calls for the analysis of the differential impact of potential measures on each group. For example, changes in transportation provisions may have a significantly different effect on Arabs as opposed to Jews, thereby increasing gaps between the groups and further delaying civic cohesion. Taken together, these three facets of mainstreaming are designed to enhance effectiveness and to insure greater social equity.

Official structures are the main – but by no means the only – mechanism for the implementation of mainstreaming strategies. Indeed, some such institutions already exist (the Commission for Equal Opportunities in the Workplace, for one). But there is a need to develop an entire series of similar bodies, especially a Civil Rights Commission, in order to ensure the full utilization of mainstreaming possibilities. This depends, to a large extent, on advocacy by both Jews and Arabs through political parties, civil society organizations and popular pressure.

The attractiveness of mainstreaming strategies stems from the fact that they offer benefits simultaneously to many different and even competing groups. One example, in the sphere of economic growth, is illustrative. Economic planners now agree that gross discrepancies between Arabs and Jews are the main constraint on the expansion of the Israeli economy. These are manifest by the fact that, in stark terms, Jewish Israel is an advanced technological country whereas Arab Israel is a flailing third world enclave with an uncertain economic future. A major new study by Eran Yariv and Nitza Kasir conducted within the mainstreaming frame details how, over the years, Arab citizens of Israel have been placed into a geographic, economic, social and cultural ghetto – to the detriment of the state of Israel in its entirety. The perpetuation of this situation is harmful to all citizens and can only be rectified by massive investments in Arab citizens individually and collectively. The full integration of Arab citizens of Israel into the labor force will mean the addition of over NIS 120 billion in the next few decades. What holds true for the material field of economics is even more apt in the more qualitative – but decisively more profound – areas of civil freedom and minority rights.

Mobilization around mainstreaming, however difficult and at times counter-intuitive, provides a significant tool for both Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel precisely because it offers so many advantages to broad segments of the population. Here is an interest-based instrument which may, if elaborated prudently, eventually incorporate currently antagonistic identity-based efforts into a meaningful joint citizenship culture. Mainstreaming strategies are therefore a particularly effective means for expanding the common civic space in Israel, augmenting Arab-Jewish cooperation and hence implementing a vision of an egalitarian Israel for all its citizens and communities.

Much of Israel’s future depends on its capacity to improve relations between the many diverse groups within its multi-cultural mosaic. In this context, the Jewish-Arab divide is by far the most challenging. Fleshing out the parameters of what is essentially a collaborative approach can alter current regressive trends and provide constructive avenues for attaining a just and equal future in the years ahead. The Bedouin conundrum is the place to start. This is a daunting, but eminently worthwhile and doable, task.