FV presents a strategic perspective for the next twenty years. It tries to answer the question, “Who are we and what do we want for our society?” It brings out a new and even bold dialogue concerning the essential nature of the state. Here, for instance, is one of the opening sentences: “One cannot classify or define Israel as a democratic state, but rather as an ethnocratic one like Turkey….” Its policy “guarantees the hegemony of the majority, in which ethnicity (or religion)—and not citizenship—becomes a fundamental principle in the allocation of resources.” As an alternative, the document proposes a governmental structure in which each ethnic group, the Arab and the Jewish, would have veto power over all legislation and decisions that affect it.
From the moment of its publication, FV was lambasted by Jewish politicians, including some on the Left (Colette Avital, Micha’el Melchior, Avshalom Vilan, Haim Oron). Shin Beth head Yuval Diskin also attacked it in a closed meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Hebrew daily Maariv revealed part of that meeting’s details on March 13: “Some senior security officials, in private conversations, describe what is happening among the Arab minority as ‘the real long-term strategic danger’ to the Jewish character of Israel and indeed to its very existence as a Jewish state.”
FV has also come under criticism from Arab politicians, although more because of internal rivalries than for reasons of substance. The lack of an Arab consensus is a problem for a document that opens with the phrase, “We the Palestinian Arabs…” This, we shall see, is one of several flaws.
Before we criticize, however, we should mention an important positive aspect. FVpresents a realistic if incomplete critique of present Arab society as corrupt and patriarchal. Within this critique it puts major emphasis on the need to raise the status of Arab women. We owe this emphasis, perhaps, to the unusual fact that the committee included women: 8 of its 37 members.
An indigenous national minority
FV presents a new definition of the Arab citizens: they are “an indigenous national minority.” This is no coincidence. The definition separates them from any context that would include Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The document does indeed affirm the right of Arabs to maintain contacts with them, but “without harming the unique position of our society on the local and regional level.” This represents a retreat from the position taken in the 1970’s by the Arab leadership in Israel, then headed by the Communist Party. The consensus until now tied the fate of the Arabs in Israel to the Palestinian national liberation movement. There was an understanding that equality and full citizenship would only occur when the Occupation was ended, giving way to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The assumption went like this: if Israel accepts the Palestinian national movement and agrees to its sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, then it will also reconcile itself to the Arab minority within its borders.
FV mentions the Occupation only once, parenthetically in a historical survey (and in the Arabic version not at all). A reader might easily conclude that the Palestinian issue had been solved, or alternatively, that the document’s drafters had given up on any possibility of solving it, choosing therefore to concentrate on the Arabs in Israel.
Prodigious demands with no means to achieve them
The document’s big problem, however, is its utter disconnection from current Israeli reality, as well as its disconnection from the people it presumes to represent.
The document presents six demands at the start. Israel is to recognize its responsibility for the Palestinian catastrophe (naqba) of 1948 and compensate those of its victims who are citizens, individually and collectively. It will recognize them as an indigenous national group that has the right to maintain cultural and religious autonomy, to choose its own representatives for handling matters unique to it, and to establish national institutions in all walks of life. The two main ethnic groups in the land, Jews and Arabs, will maintain mutual relations based on the principles of consensual democracy, led by a broad coalition containing members of both groups. Each side is to be represented according to its proportion in the population. Each side will have veto power over legislation and decisions pertaining to it. The Arab citizens will be allowed to maintain contacts—national, civil, cultural and social—with the rest of the Palestinian people, as well as all parts of the Arab and Islamic nation.
The drafters of FV in effect ask Israel to abandon the Zionist version of history and adopt the Arab one. They propose a future vision not to the Arabs in Israel but rather to Israel itself. They demand, basically, a bi-national state within the 1949 borders, in which they will be able to participate fully. Beside them, in the West Bank and Gaza, will be a Palestinian state. In the view of—and to the anger of— Israeli Jews, they are demanding two states for one people.
FV offers no response to the urgent questions with which the Arabs in Israel wrestle. Beset with unemployment and poverty, they have little interest in future visions. And here is the problem. The document is pie in the sky. It doesn’t grow out of a popular struggle—only 5.5 % of the Arabs have read it (Haaretz January 10)—nor does it reflect the current balance of forces. It lacks, therefore, any mechanism of implementation.
What strategic weapon can possibly succeed where both negotiations and armed force have failed during forty years of struggle? What external power do the visionaries think will compel Israel to grant the downtrodden Arab population their civil—not to mention their national—rights? In the end, FV assumes a willingness on Israel’s part to commit hara-kiri as a Jewish state.
The drafters of the document find Arab society torn by egotistical divisions of class, gender and clan; it is patriarchal, they say, and rife with corruption; organizational capacity is weak, overshadowed by private and family interests “in all local and country-wide organizations.”
Who then can bring about the future vision? The drafters, we should bear in mind, are the Committee of the Heads of the Local Authorities. A Local Authority is the governing council of a locality. Most such councils in the Arab sector are corrupt or have gone bankrupt. Many haven’t paid salaries for months. Will these Heads implement Future Vision?
If the drafters admit, in their critique of Arab society, that no political force exists to do the job, then why put the cart before the horse? Before writing so ambitious a document, wouldn’t it be advisable to do the necessary groundwork, however tiring and frustrating it may be, to get the society on its feet? Can arcane academic formulas take the place of deep change from below?
Half the Arab public is poor. Beneath the shadow of Israel’s neo-liberal economic policy, people struggle for the basic right to work. Yet this document asks them to put aside their daily cares and, despite empty bellies, join in the demand for cultural autonomy. The latter would no doubt supply the drafters and their friends with positions in Future Vision University, but the people with the empty bellies would remain behind.
The vision of Future Vision is one of political and cultural separation between Jews and Arabs. If we ask why it appears at this time, we may find the watershed in the Intifada of October 2000, which FV barely mentions. The shock of that uprising was tremendous. Arab demonstrators paralyzed much of the country. Thirteen were killed by Israeli police.
Until the events of October 2000, the tendency of Arab leaders had been toward merger with the rest of the state. The Oslo Accords of 1993-95 had raised their hopes of serving as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. To the main part of the Arab population, however, the Oslo years brought more unemployment. Despite massive Arab support for Israel’s Labor Party, no merging occurred. Triggered by the Intifada in the Occupied Territories, the uprising of October 2000 expressed the feeling of being cheated. And so the pendulum swung toward separatism.
This uprising was a turning point in the relations between Israel’s Arab citizens and “their” state. It is remarkable that Arab intellectuals, plotting a future vision for those relations, would omit it so completely from their deliberations. One wonders where they think they are living. They disregard the feelings of mutual mistrust and hatred, as if both sides could bathe in the River of Forgetfulness, sit down at a table and practice “consensual democracy.”
National allegiance versus class
FV defines Israel as an ethnocracy, but that is so only in a limited sense. The state has undergone deep changes. To its nationalist, racist, Zionist character has been added a dimension of raw capitalism and privatization. This new Israel has been dubbed “post-Zionist.”
The rupture between classes is evident in the division between the country’s rich center and its poor periphery. The latter includes the Arabs, but it also includes many Jews. Out of 5.5 million Jews in the country, more than a million are classified as poor. Israel’s rich center, ruled by eighteen wealthy families, has exercised economic autonomy ever since the state chose to globalize.
FV, however, draws no connection between the growing socio-economic gap, on the one hand, and, on the other, the deterioration in the situation of the Arab citizens during the last twenty years. One would expect Arab academics to confront the question of how to cope with gloves-off Israeli capitalism. Instead, the economic section of FV adopts a conciliatory position. It concludes, after long research, that “the best choice available to the Arab citizens is to merge with the new economic order.” One even detects a tone of admiration for Israel’s achievements in the field of globalization: “The state has come a long way in the processes of privatization. It has won real achievements from globalization, into which it has merged as a strong and promising producer in one of the world’s leading economic branches.” [Namely, hi-tech—A.A.]
This economic chapter brings the drafters down from their pipe-dreams of veto-power and back to solid earth. In sharp contrast with their political and cultural separatism, they concede that there is no way to end the Arab sector’s economic dependence on Israel—no way, that is, to create an independent national Arab economy. “The position of the state and the Jewish majority toward the Arabs does not make possible such a development [economic separation—A.A.]… The economic opportunities provided by the Israeli market are infinitely greater than those provided by the Arab market.” Once again the drafters contradict themselves: if Israel remains the master of the purse strings, how can the Arabs build cultural independence and gain their political rights?
This is FV‘s deepest fault. It adopts the existing capitalist order, which for more than a decade has been plunging Arab workers into poverty. In the same breath, the document calls for strengthening the functions of Arab businessmen, most of whom systematically violate the rights of Arab workers. Here is revealed the deep gulf between the committee members and the Arab public. The document represents the interests of the middle class, which longs to be recognized by state institutions and win a place in the bright Israeli sun.
Deeds, not despair
The legal gimmicks that preoccupy FV show how much the authors despair of an effective political fight. The delusory demand, disconnected from reality, that Arab citizens be given cultural autonomy as an indigenous minority (rather than as part of a people with a larger struggle) puts those citizens in an inferior position vis-à-vis the state, as if they wanted to seal themselves into a ghetto.
The call for national introversion is utterly opposed to what the Arab workers in Israel demand, as well as those from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel blocks their access to jobs. It blocks those in the Territories by erecting the separation wall. It blocks its own citizens by bringing in foreign workers.
The gap between the Arab population and those who claim to speak in its name was revealed to its abysmal depth in the sequel to the October Intifada. The uprising broke out partly because of economic strangulation, the feeling that all doors into Israeli society were blocked. Arab jurists chose to bury the events in the Orr Commission, which ended in a smokescreen of monetary compensation on a case by case basis. Those jurists did not use the Intifada as a lever for organizing the masses. They did not present the masses’ real grievances in the framework of a broad-based political movement that could tackle the causes of the uprising.
The problem is not merely one of law, and it cannot be solved by petitions to the Israeli High Court or The Hague. The problem is political. Needed are realistic political programs that can address the questions that matter to the Arab public. For instance, the problem of employment (to which FV addresses a few scant comments) is an immediate, burning issue. Unemployment is paralyzing Arab society. It causes political apathy. It lessens interest in national issues that are pregnant with consequences. It pushes the jobless toward otherworldly solutions and perpetuates the society’s patriarchal character. Economic hardship forces the individual to depend on his or her extended family, preventing freedom of choice. On the other hand, a working society, a creative society, will find the energies to define its goals from within the grass roots.
Without doubt we stand today before a decisive struggle over national and social questions. We can win it by winning each human being to the side of justice—and not by forging a separation barrier out of national differences.