Increasingly on US campuses Israel is vilified as an apartheid society ruled by colonial settlers, leading to an increasing share of Jewish student facing harassment. According to a newly released ADL-Hillel report, one-third of Jewish students experienced anti-Semitism last school year. Better actions by college administrators might reduce the personal attacks but it will do nothing to weaken the anti-Israel attitudes without changing the narrative on its treatment of Arabs. While most critics of Israel do not accept the excesses of the anti-Israel movement, they do not pushback against its false rhetoric because of a broad belief in the oppressive nature of the Israeli regime.
Fortunately, the situation of Arab citizens of Israel has improved dramatically in the last decade and Netanyahu’s removal has been beneficial in a number of ways. As a result, I believe, we can present the actual situation of Israel’s Arab citizens in a very positive manner. The problem has been that there has been no sustained media presentation of these advances. Major media, particularly the New York Times and Washington Post, never publish anything about the positive changes and when the Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks internationally, he only mentions the shortcoming, never the advances. And with Netanyahu’s electioneering anti-Arab rhetoric, it was easy to accept the view of Arab oppression.
In contrast to his electioneering, Netanyahu actually instituted aggressive affirmative action policies. This seeming contradiction, similar to President Nixon, reflected a broad set of reasons: (1) some traditional revisionist Zionists, including Naftali Bennett took seriously the view that Zionism should provide equal opportunity to its Arab citizens; (2) to fulfill the goal of Israel being a leading hi-tech country it must seek talent everywhere including from its Arab population; and (3) given that Arab’s represent one-quarter of the country’s population, the cost of poverty would place an unacceptable burden on the state’s welfare system.
As a result of these efforts, there has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for the Arab community: improved employment opportunities, better infrastructure in Arab towns, and rising levels of education, particular in the hi-tech and medical areas. This caused a “problem” for the Arab Joint List. On the one hand, they helped navigate many of these reforms through the Knesset but, on the other hand, they still contained forces that strongly believed in solidarity with Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. This caused a political cleavage that resulted in Ra’am bolting the Joint List and running independently in the 2021 election.
Ra’am made clear that its only focus was on improving the situation of the Arab citizens of Israel and would even join a Likud-led government to fulfill its goal. Despite considerable vilification, Ra’am received 75 percent as many votes as the Joint List, making its way into the Knesset, becoming part of the ruling coalition. The New Israel Fund leader, Daniel Sokatch said: “for the first time in Israel’s history, an independent Palestinian-Israeli party will sit in the government. This is a precedent that cannot be undone. Palestinian representatives will no longer be related to as token partners, but rather as power brokers.”
Almost immediately Ra’am won commitments for many of its policies. An unprecedented $10.3 billion in funding was allocated for a wide range of improvements in the Arab sector, dwarfing the $3.8 billion allocated five years earlier. Fulfilling another pledge, three new Bedouin towns were legalized. The government also advanced a proposal for a new planned Bedouin municipality in the south, one not affiliated with any particular tribe. Finally, $746 million of the budget included funds to fight criminal activity and violence in Arab town.
It is important to stress that these efforts are not a concession but part of a strategic policy: “Shrinking the Conflict.” It was first enunciated in the New Hope platform: There will be no permanent settlement that will end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the foreseeable future. But we can implement policies for shrinking the conflict without compromising Israel’s security… [by] improving the conditions of border crossings for [Palestinian] workers using new technologies, streamlining the Palestinian employment system in Israel, regulating the electricity and energy sector, streamlining Palestinian imports and exports, and more.
This was easily approved by the new government as Bennett has long been in the forefront of improving the Arab educational and occupational situation. Even Palestinian nationalist now believe that the new government’s determination to enact policies to better the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank is real.
They are, however, unwilling to accept some of the efforts, most recently the attempt to resolve the housing dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The Israeli court offered a compromise by which the Palestinian residents could live there for at least 15 years for minimal rent if they relinquished their ownership claims. While some of the Palestinian families affected had tentatively agreed to the compromise, under intense pressure from Hamas and other nationalist organization, they relented and rejected the compromise. Thus, at least in this instance, Shrinking the Conflict was unsuccessful.
The main point remains: that when confronting the demonizing of Israeli treatment of Arabs, we must emphasize the strong arc of progress. While inequalities remain, these advances should be highlighted and must form an important part of our response.