Last week, the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies released an important study on Arab Israeli relations inside Israel. The main purpose of the survey was to follow up on the work of Professor Yitzhak Reiter and a committee of academicians. Professor Reiter and the committee recently released a plan on how to better integrate Arab Israelis into Israeli society, while maintaining the overall Jewish nature of the state.  The committee developed and presented an impressive set of recommendations. The survey was the tool they used to assess how both Jewish and Arab populations of the Israel would receive these recommendations.

The results of Professor Reiter’s survey were comforting to those who feel Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs must find a way to live better together. The survey findings showed that 80% of Arabs in Israel would accept a package deal of rights and responsibilities. Among Jews, the acceptance numbers were lower, with 48% supporting the proposal, and 42% opposing it. This survey might never have gotten any of the publicity it deserved, if not for the fact that it asked a hot button question: Do you support universal National Service for members of the Arab sector? The exact wording of the question was: “Do you agree [with the proposal] that Arab citizens participate in voluntary Civil Service, that would become mandatory within five years?”(Given that Arab Israelis receiving the full rights that Jews who complete service receive). 62% of the Arabs and 61% of the Jews surveyed answered affirmatively.

This past week I was privileged to have lunch with Professor Reiter. At that time he shared his survey results with me. He emphasized those things that surprised him, highlighting the results above.  Afterward, I asked Professor Reiter the obvious question: How could it be that the polls show such positive results regarding Arab attitudes toward National Service, yet all we hear from Arab politicians is how much Israeli Arabs oppose any sort of mandatory National Service?

Professor  Reiter was not really able to answer  my question. To paraphrase his answer, he stated, “that is the million dollar question.” Professor Reiter hoped to get some answers later that day, as he was scheduled to be a guest on Dana Weiss’ TV show “Meet the Press”.  Joining him were two Arab Israeli leaders, including MK Jamal Zahalqa. After presenting the results of the survey, Dana asked the same question that I had posed in the afternoon: “Why do your survey results show that the majority of Israeli Arabs support compulsory National Service, under the right circumstances, while their leaders give us the impression that they uniformly oppose it?”

MK Zahalqa gave a two-part answer. The second part of his answer is the most illuminating. First, Zahalqa stated that Professor Reiter’s proposals were the sort that would only come along with the Messiah.  Thus one could not take these proposals seriously.  He then went on to state that in a previous poll, when Arab Israelis were asked the question – Would you support National Service, if your leaders were against it? The overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs answered that, under those circumstances, they would oppose National Service. Zahalqa further stated that he was a leader of his people, and not the representative of them. Thus, it was his job to lead them. In this case, it was his place to lead them away from agreeing to National Service, and away from agreeing to greater integration into Israel. This may be the core of the problem, both in regard to our relations with Israeli Arabs, and possibly to Palestinians, as well.

Over the years, numerous polls have shown the Israeli Arab population (and to a lesser extent the Palestinians) to be more moderate than many expect. While at the same time, their leadership (especially the Israeli Arab leaders) have become ever more radical. This, however, is not a new phenomenon. Even in the pre-state years there was a sense that the majority of the Arabs in Palestine were willing to co-exist with the Jews. It was their leadership then, as now, who pushed the other way. In the years leading up to Israeli Independence, the Arab leadership radicalized their population to fight against the nascent Jewish state. Today, they oppose most serious efforts to find a modus vindi that will allow greater and more successful integration between Arabs and Jews. At the same time, Israeli Arab leaders make such outrageous statements in support of the enemies of Israel, many Israelis are convinced that we do not have any partners among the Palestinians. It even seems, as if, our own Israeli Arabs might not be a long-term partners for co-existence.

There is another important result highlighted in Professor Reiter’s report. When asked: What type of political party would you support in the next elections? A plurality of Arab respondents said they would support a party that pressed for successful integration into Israeli society at large, whether it was an Arab or Jewish party.

Fuller results of the survey can be found here.

Why have Arab politicians in Israel become so radicalized over the past 20 years, while the average Israeli Arab seems not to be so? Why do the Israeli Arabs continue to elect politicians, who they seem to disagree with on some of the most fundamental issues we face? I do not have any answers, nor do I have any clear solution to propose but  I had a follow-up conversation with  Professor Reiter yesterday were he tried to explain the positive response to his survey.  He stated: “As long as there is no tangible change or hope for change the Arab sector has to vote to its leadership. But when you give them a window of hope as we did in the inclusive citizenship project they opt for pragmatic positions.”   The work of Professor Reiter and his committee provide a blueprint of what can be done.

I fear that if we obsess only over the Haredi problem we will not deal with a problem that may actually be easier to solve.