Naomi Chazan
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Five steps for regaining equilibrium

Alternatives to the use of vitriol, brutal punishments, stonewalling and anti-democratic laws

Israeli policies have not been able to prevent the current nadir in Arab-Jewish relations within and beyond the Green Line; they may be contributing directly to their deterioration. The measures set in motion following the obscene attack in Har Nof last week threaten to further exacerbate an already volatile situation. Based on the profoundly misplaced notion that “Arabs only understand force,” they are spurred by a noxious mixture of fear, anger and revenge. Beyond a vague call for calm, they lack any precise vision for the future. And if the past few days are any indication, they are adding religious and racist fuel to the already flaming national conflict.

This situation is not inevitable. Alternatives do exist. Here are five concrete steps which, cumulatively, can go a long way towards reversing the course of acrimony and violence and set the stage for long-term accommodation. Two crucial assumptions lie at their core: first, that there is, indeed, an urgent desire to rein in violence and restore a modicum of order; and, second, that there is a sincere commitment to resolving the conflict (and not, once again, to finding a way to merely prolong its management without any hope in sight).

The first step towards altering the current trajectory requires a change in public discourse, first and foremost at the official level. Social networks have become incubators of racial and religious hatred on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide. These sentiments have been echoed (and at times further nurtured), by elected representatives not only in the Knesset, but also in the government. Sadly, Israel’s leaders, in their effort to combat Palestinian incitement, themselves frequently engage in diatribes against Palestinian leaders, their policies and their aspirations. When the line between freedom of speech and incitement is violated regularly, it is only a small step from words to unspeakable actions.

Establishing a different language code in the public sphere is long overdue. This requires immediate denunciation of the verbal buildup to the stream of hate crimes that are taking place daily — as well as swift prosecution of their purveyors. It is the government’s job to set the standard in this regard and to adhere to it unequivocally.

The second step calls for the suspension of controversial legislation that limits basic rights or alters the fundamental rules of the game. The insistence on passing a new basic law declaring Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people at this juncture is a glaring case in point. Such a move, which highlights the ethnic character of Israel at the expense of its democratic ethos, upends the constitutional framework of the country, based since its inception on its Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws. When no agreement exists in broad segments of the population on essential precepts, nothing can be more profoundly destabilizing to relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority inside Israel or, for that matter to the image Israel projects at home and abroad, than entrenching one interpretation at the expense of others.

Additional legislative initiatives now under consideration are also extremely disturbing, seeking in various ways to curtail minority rights or limit civil liberties. The proposal to strip families of Palestinian Jerusalemites charged with acts of violence of their residency is one example. Another is a draft bill to deny social and health benefits to relatives of Israeli citizens convicted of acting against the state. These are but the tip of an iceberg of blatantly discriminatory proposed laws now before the Knesset.

Common to all these efforts is a desire of certain coalition members to use their parliamentary majority to promote norms which fly in the face of the principles of equality, liberty, justice and peace enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — proving yet again that what is legal is not always just. Hyper-legislation on delicate issues must be halted before it further damages the increasingly fragile foundations of Israel’s democratic character and its waning international legitimacy as the embodiment of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people.

The third step in creating a different security climate demands a reassessment of the methods being used to reduce violence. The events of the last month alone demonstrate the severe limitations on the excessive use of force. This lesson has yet to be internalized: in the last week alone new measures — mostly of a collective nature — have been introduced. These include house demolitions, which were discontinued over a decade ago because the IDF itself decided that they were counterproductive. They also involve blockades on certain Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and limitations on the mobility of its non-Jewish residents. And now especially stringent sentences against stone-throwers and their families have been adopted.

These, and other, heavy-handed measures do nothing to calm raw nerves. When no distinction is made between perpetrators and innocent civilians, confrontation becomes inevitable. Differentiating between those responsible for acts of violence and others is much more prudent in these circumstances. The latter should be encouraged to go about their daily pursuits unimpeded; the former should be dealt with to the full extent of the law.

The fourth step, a logical progression of its predecessor, entails the application of an obvious, but increasingly ignored, principle: the equal treatment of provocateurs, rioters and assailants on both sides of the communal divide. Jewish offenders are all too frequently treated with kid gloves; their Palestinian counterparts are denied basic rights. Arab protestors within Israel have been rounded up; Jewish extremists, with few exceptions, continue to operate with impunity.

Systemic inequality breeds frustration, anger and discontent. Once set in motion, it gradually penetrates into the inner core of society, infiltrating every corner of Israel’s being and affecting every segment of its population. Insistence on the equitable implementation of the law is elementary in any society that expects to sustain itself over time.

The fifth, and final, step in averting violence-induced chaos involves the consolidation of direct channels of communication between Israeli decision-makers and the Palestinian leadership. For several years, the key to some quiet in the area rested on the close coordination between the IDF and Palestinian security forces. Since April, this cooperation has begun to unravel, allowing for the rise of random acts of terror and for increasingly harsh Israeli counter-measures. The restoration of such a back-door mechanism is now critical. It can be further enhanced if a genuine effort were made to revive discussions at the official level.

The reconstruction of workable communication channels may be achieved through direct contact or via the good offices of the United States or European countries or, on the regional level, Egypt and Jordan. Such discreet modes of exchange (as demonstrated just a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the meetings between King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu) are necessary for crisis control and, when solidified, for conflict aversion.

This form of consultation has now become imperative within Israel as well. Ongoing discussions between the government and the elected leaders of the Arab community in Israel could signal to extremists that there is a common wall against religious and ethnic hatred. The absence of such visible communication, especially in times of emergency, has — protestations aside — contributed substantially to fomenting prejudice and sanctioning discrimination.

Setting in motion such a five-pronged problem-solving dynamic that quells violence and enhances the prospects of conflict resolution is not beyond the realm of the possible. It is essential not only for Israel’s relations with its neighbors and its global viability, but also for the cohesion of Israeli society and its survival as a democratic state with a Jewish majority in the future. So why does the present government persist in doing exactly the opposite?

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.