Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent policy speech at Bar Ilan University in which he underscored Israel’s character as a Jewish State and beseeched the Palestinian Authority to recognize the Jewish State has triggered a fast spreading rumor in Arab capitals. They are convinced of an Israeli government plot to cancel the Israel’s Arab minority right to vote as part of a larger plan to transfer Arabs eastward to the West Bank and even to Jordan.
Two Arab diplomats spoke separate meetings this past week of their fear that Netanyahu’s determination to ensure Israel’s Jewish character would result in Israel’s renunciation of the political rights of Israeli’s Arab minority. A Middle East based US diplomat confirmed the Arab fears, noting he has received emails and phone calls. The roots of this complete Arab misconception of Israel’s Jewish character may reveal less about Israel and more about Arab and Muslim political culture.
Arab colleagues noted that the Islamic Republic of Iran, and not their own Sunni Arab Muslim states, was the model for what they estimated Israel would emulate to ensure its Jewish character. Netanyahu, they reasoned, would surely not have mentioned Israel’s Jewish character half a dozen times in the June 15th Bar Ilan speech had he merely intended to refer to its current identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Rather, they asserted, he would necessarily sacrifice Israel’s democracy to assert its Jewish “DNA”, just as Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “mullocratic” enforced Sharia law as the shaper of Iran’s Islamic character.
It was a virtually impossible task to explain to Arab friends that Netanyahu’s emphasis of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state reflects the continuation of the state as it is today, and does not foretell radical changes to its free and democratic character. Israel is, in fact, the only state in the Middle East whose laws guarantee democratic freedoms and civil rights for all minorities.
“That is the point!” they retorted. “Israeli government ministers have spoken recently of Israeli Arab civil rights and purposely ignore mentioning Arab political rights. To them, this meant that Israel was about to rescind the Arab Minority’s right to vote. The election fraud in Iran provided the recent psychological context. The growing Arab suspicion is that the apparent focus on civil rights and omission of “political rights” in statements by Israeli leaders prophesied another looming disaster- a political Nakba -for Israeli Arabs. Add to this Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s demand for all Israelis to pledge allegiance to the flag, and his suggestion that Israel redraw its map and swap heavily populated Arab towns in northern Israel for Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (West Bank), and fears are fed of a larger Israeli conspiracy to carry out a major population Arab transfer.
While all this may seem silly, it is gaining traction in Arab circles; moreover, Israeli leaders have been completely unaware of what is percolating. This week Arab fears were inadvertently ratcheted up a notch. In an off-record briefing, a senior Israeli government official spoke of protecting Israel Arab “civil rights” in the Jewish state while denying Arab “national” rights such as supporting enemy groups such as Hizbullah in Israel.
The senior official also neglected to mention the notion of Arab political rights. When pressed on the omission, he clarified that these clearly included political rights to vote and participate in Israeli Arab political parties that Arab and Druse citizens of Israel have long enjoyed in Israel. In fact, an Arab MK Ghaleb Majadle, served as Minister of Sport and Culture in the previous Olmert government while Arab MK Dr Ahmad Tibi, a former advisor to Yasser Arafat, served as a deputy Knesset speaker.
But Arab diplomats have remained unconvinced that Israeli Arabs are politically secure in Israel. And now they believe the Israeli plot has a new dimension. They have begun to weave the Jewish State conspiracy against Israeli Arabs to a larger Israeli plan to transfer West Bank Arabs to Jordan.
As proof, they point to Israel’s erection of the anti-terror fence in the West Bank as well last month’s Knesset’s approval of a preliminary agenda item brought by Dr. Arye Eldad of the conservative National Union party that proposes Jordan as the Palestinian state.
The proposal passed by a healthy margin of 53 to 7. The surprise approval relied on Likud and right wing votes but also included support from Defense Minister Ehud Barak and five other members of his Labor party. Even five members of Kadima, the main opposition party, also voted in favor of the “Jordan is Palestine” proposal. The resolution had no legislative meaning; it was merely raised as part of the day’s call to order. Analysts further attributed the unexpected support by left wing parties to the result of reigning confusion in the plenum due to the scores of bills up for vote.
However, this did not help Israel’s Ambassador to Jordan, Yaakov Rosen, who was immediately summoned to the Jordanian Foreign Ministry to explain why it appeared to Jordan that Israel is still embracing the “Jordan is Palestine” solution as the alternative homeland for Palestinians.
These latest Arab “night sweats ” over Netanyahu’s re-branding Israel’s Jewish identity suggest that his strategy may be a very appropriate one in the context of Middle Eastern political culture, where conspiracy theories between Arab states are as common as hummus and pita bread. That means Israel is back in the Middle East clubhouse. The upside for Israel of political conspiracy chatter is that it also inspires a healthy dose of fear and uncertainty among otherwise overconfident neighbors.
In hindsight, Israeli Concessions to Palestinians at Oslo I, Oslo II Camp David, the Road map, the Gaza withdrawal, and the Annapolis peace process have severely debilitated Israel’s reputation among other Arab neighbors. Since 1993 and Oslo, the Arab world has increasingly seen Israel as the “kid on the run,” weak, and unsure of its rights. Israel’s premature withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon before winning those wars, launched upon it by Iran and its proxies, further intensified this view.
Netanyahu’s asserting Israel’s ancient Jewish identity, its rights and non-negotiable security requirements, while extending a hand of compromise to regional leaders, represents a firm step forward for Israel to recover its position of strength as a central regional player. Arab conspiracy chatter also indicates that they know well that the Jewish State is the only unofficial member of the Middle East Arab clubhouse that has been willing to get bloody fighting Iran and its proxies and if necessary, is prepared to do it again.