Emanuel Shahaf

Brexit and the Arabs of Israel

Both British and Israeli societies are dealing with conundrums they don’t seem to be able to handle but resolving them will be absolutely critical for their continued success: The British must overcome their ambivalence about Europe – do they really want to be part of it, like they have been for years, or not; and Israeli Jews have to reach, once and for all, a decision if they want Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to be part of Israel’s society or if they prefer to reject or even eject them.

Both issues are guided, more than anything, by strong feelings of nationalism and/or xenophobia and have little basis in rational thinking or solid foundations in anything but fear (which is a formidable basis and not wholly unwarranted) and both problems aren’t going anywhere: Europe will remain a constant challenge to Britain, just across the channel, just like Arab society is to Israel, in its towns and villages, just a very short ride away. And both dilemmas are deadly serious, do or die or at least decay – if the British public and Israeli Jews happen to do the wrong thing, make the wrong call or keep diddling, an inevitable decline of their respective countries and societies will be the result. There is no question if there will be a decline, it’s only a question how steep, how fast and how painful it’ll be. To make the situation even more problematic, both governments are presently headed by charismatic Prime Ministers who are pushing with all their not inconsiderable capacities for the wrong approach while the opposition forces are weak, divided and uncertain.

The truth is that both societies do not really have a choice and deep down inside they do know what has to be done, it’s just that their societal mindsets haven’t quite managed to digest reality and their populist leadership is either fighting reality or else, cannot make up its mind which isn’t much better. Britain is in Europe, it’s part of it, always has been, definitely after it joined the EU. The fact that it is an island gives it an illusion of separation but an illusion it is. It certainly can continue to exist but just as surely can’t really thrive, exploit its true potential and prosper without continued integration into the European Union. That reality is beginning to dawn on the British if not their government.

And Israel? The fact that we are a Jewish state with a large and overwhelming Jewish majority has given us, for many years, the illusion that the Arabs who live here aren’t really part of it. They aren’t really here. For many years they weren’t part of the public sphere, rarely seen or heard and only infrequently depicted in the media. Almost invisible. Only in recent years they have become more prominent, taking up  more and more positions in public health,  in commercial retail stores, in the high-tech industry and in Israel’s universities. They could not be ignored anymore. The seeping integration was beginning to show considerable benefits, socially and economically and would certainly have to become a basis for commensurate political empowerment.  Sure enough the change was duly noted by Jewish patriots or nationalists, you be the judge. Legislating the Jewish Nation State Law was the not so subtle response to the ever increasing presence of Arabs in the Israeli public sphere, in a way the equivalent of the British Brexit vote being a response to the influx of a just a bit too many mainland Europeans. All in all a last ditch effort to prevent the inevitable, as if one could legislate Israeli Arabs or Europe away.

And now, in the present Israeli election cycle, those pesky Arabs have raised their heads: how dare they raise their voice, how dare they want to be part of the government of the Jewish Nation State ? And the Jews ? They quickly made sure to clarify that nothing is further from their minds than letting Arabs participate in the government,  give them the political empowerment they are due, nothing. Arabs ? No way !! Not in the Zionist enterprise. Zionists only !  And all that while there is nothing further from the vision of the founders of the state as it found expression in the Declaration of Independence. As any socially minded economist will tell you, Israel cannot really thrive without the full integration of its Arab population, it can’t continue to grow its economy without the equitable participation of, among others, its Arab minority. More importantly, it can’t even consider to claim the moral high ground as the only democracy in the Middle East if it keeps a well sized ethnic minority away from economic and political opportunity. And let’s not forget – the large presence of an Arab-Palestinian population in Israel is a constant reminder that the Palestinians in the occupied territories are not going anywhere and that the conflict with them as well needs to be resolved in an equitable way.

The present Jewish leadership in Israel has to make way for more visionary individuals who understand that the approach to integrating two societies that have been at each other’s throats for decades needs to be holistic, comprehensive,  spiritual and more than anything, realistic. Just as economic psychologist Prof. Dan Ariely said at a recent INSS conference – one cannot arrive at the most suitable solution if a priori not all options are on the table. That would have to include options that are not considered legitimate at this time, at least not among the left, like one state scenarios or hybrid proposals like a federation without Gaza.

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is Vice Chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Vice-Chairman of the Israeli-German Society (IDG), Co-Chair of the Federation Movement (, member of the council at and author of "Identity: The Quest for Israel's Future".