The Palestinian intifada, which erupted in September 2000, not only destroyed relations between Jews and Palestinians, it has also badly damaged relations between the Jews and the Arab citizens of Israel.
The spate of suicide bombings that hit Israel in the first years of the intifada convinced many Jewish citizens that all the Arabs are out to destroy Israel.
This feeling was enhanced as a result of the actions and statements of the Israeli Arabs' representatives, especially those who were elected to the Knesset. Some of the Arab parliamentarians are responsible for the fact that many Israeli Jews no longer see a difference between a loyal Arab citizen of Israel and a Palestinian suicide bomber from the Gaza Strip.
As far as many Israeli Jews are concerned today, we are all just a bunch of Arabs who seek Israel's destruction. Some see us as a 'fifth column” and an “enemy from within.” Others, such as right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Israel Beiteinu, have even been talking about the possibility of getting rid of the 1.3 million Arab citizens by redrawing the border so that we would end up under the jurisdiction of a future Palestinian state.
The Arab Knesset members, unfortunately, have played into the hands of Lieberman and his supporters by issuing provocative statements and openly siding with some of Israel's worst enemies, namely Hamas and Hizbullah.
The Arab Knesset members are often elected on a platform that promises their constituents better services and equal rights. But once they come to the Knesset, most of them start acting as if they had been elected by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority.
Instead of focusing their efforts on improving the living conditions of the Arab citizens, many of the Arab representatives prefer to deal with the Palestinian issue as a way of drawing the attention of the media. A Knesset member who deals only with schools and unpaved roads knows that he will never appear in the mainstream media.
But a Knesset member who travels to Beirut or Damascus to meet with Hizbullah and Hamas leaders is fully aware of the fact that he will appear on the front-page of one of Israel's leading newspapers. The same applies to those Arab Knesset members who have been issuing fiery statements against Israel or expressing sympathy and understanding for suicide bombings. In this case, they are following the saying, “I don't care what you write about me as long as you spell my name right.”
The case of former Knesset member Azmi Bishara, who fled the country after being confronted with evidence that he had been operating as a spy for Hizbullah and had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from “hostile” parties, has further exacerbated tensions between Jews and Arabs inside Israel. Bishara not only betrayed his state, to which he pledged allegiance when he was sworn in to the Knesset, but he also proved to be unfaithful to many of his followers.
Bishara's supporters are unhappy with the fact that he chose to live in exile rather than sit in an Israeli prison for charges that would have certainly turned him into a “hero” in the eyes of many Arabs. Ever since he fled the country, Bishara has become one of the Arab world's leading inciters against Israel. He is aided in his anti-Israel drive by Al-Jazeera, the Arab world's most popular TV station, which has turned him into its prominent commentator on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Bishara's actions and words have undoubtedly boosted Lieberman and the right-wing camp in Israel. They have also served as a reminder to the Israeli Jews that the Arab citizens, the majority of whom are loyal to the state, are actually the biggest threat to the future of Israel.
Today, many Israeli Jews are afraid to visit Arab villages and cities in the Galilee and the Triangle. Since the beginning of the intifada, many of them have been boycotting Arab restaurants and businesses inside the country.
Instead of trying to reach out to the Jewish public, Bishara's colleagues in the Knesset, including Ahmed Tibi, Talab al-Sana', Jamal Zahlakah and Mohammed Barakeh, are continuing to behave as if Israel were their enemy. Their actions and rhetoric are now threatening to totally destroy relations between Jews and Arab in Israel.
Of course there is nothing wrong about identifying with your people who live on the other side of the border, particularly as most Israeli Arabs consider themselves part of the Palestinian people. But by openly siding with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Hizbullah against their state, the Arab representatives of Israel have put the Arab citizens in a very uneasy situation.
The incitement against Israel has also driven more Arab citizens into the open arms of radical groups such as the Islamic Movement. This movement is regarded by many Israelis as the Hamas of the Arab citizens. Like Hamas in its first years, the Islamic Movement, headed by Sheikh Raed Salah, has long been providing the Arab communities with a vast network of social, economic, health and educational services, thus winning the hearts and minds of many people.
The process of radicalization among the Israeli Arabs may also be attributed to what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently described as a policy of systematic discrimination against the Arab minority. Radical Israeli Arabs find fertile soil among disgruntled people suffering from lack of employment and proper infrastructure.
Until two decades ago, the majority of Arab citizens used to vote for Zionist or joint Jewish-Arab political parties. But then Bishara and the Islamic Movement came and easily persuaded the Arabs to vote for them instead because the state, they said, had done almost nothing for them.
Yet it would be unfair to say that Israel has not done anything to improve the living conditions of the Arabs. The public and private sectors are beginning to open more to the Arab citizens and there is growing awareness among the Israeli establishment about the need to endorse a policy of “affirmative discrimination” toward the Arab citizens.
While the Israeli establishment is strongly urged to work harder toward investing more in the Arab sector, the Israeli Arabs are advised to start searching for new leaders who would put their interests at the top of their list of priorities. We need representatives who would spend more time fighting Israeli bureaucracy than meeting with Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar al-Assad and Khaled Mashaal.
Hizbullah and Hamas are not going to build schools and hospitals in Nazareth and Umm al-Fahem. Nor is the Ba'athist regime in Damascus going to solve the problem of the bankrupt Arab municipalities inside Israel. Assad, Nasrallah and Mashaal hardly care about the interests of their own people.
What is needed today is a new leadership for the Israeli Arabs that would work hard to repair the damage done to relations with the Jewish public. The good news is that there's still a majority of Arab citizens who are loyal to Israel and would rather live in the Jewish state than in Ramallah or Cairo or Amman. We must start working toward persuading the Israeli Jews that the Arabs are seeking integration, not separation, from Israel. It's the Palestinians on the other side of the border who are fighting for separation.