Netanyahu’s Obsession and the Palestinian Uprising

By Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a founding director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and the Global and the National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government, Nakhleh has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh is a retired CIA Senior Intelligence Service Officer and founding director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program Office. Nakhleh is currently a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico.

OPINION – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failing policies and demonization of Israel’s Arab citizens have inflamed the current conflict, caused the deaths and injuries of hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis, and seriously undercut the so-called Abraham accords between Israel and a few Arab countries. In order to remain in power and shield himself from the legal jeopardy he is in, Netanyahu has used his air force to bomb Hamas and Gaza into total destruction.

Over the years, America’s unfettered support for Netanyahu’s anti-Palestinian policies have empowered him to jettison the peace process and continue his aggressive settlement projects in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank. With American support, Netanyahu has advanced the false narrative that the “Arab street” has gotten tired of the Palestinian issue, thereby giving him the excuse to ignore the core issue of the Israeli occupation and deep-seated Palestinian humiliation and misery. Arab reaction to the destruction in Gaza and the Arab uprising in Israel have unmasked the falsehood of Netanyahu’s narrative.

The Biden administration has the opportunity—and the support of a significant segment of the Democratic Party in Congress—to right this imbalance. Biden should tell Netanyahu, in word and in deed, that he sees a distinction between Israel as a state, which we support, and Netanyahu as a politician, whose policies we have the right to question. America’s support for Israel’s security doesn’t automatically extend to Netanyahu’s anti-Palestinian policies—domestically and regionally.

The domestic Arab uprising led by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the long run, poses a more serious threat than Hamas. Intercommunal violence across Israel has laid bare the fallacy of Jewish-Arab coexistence and has belied Netanyahu’s flimsy narrative that Israeli Arabs were satisfied with their minority status.

Diplomacy will likely help settle the latest Israel-Hamas conflict, but the domestic ethnic disintegration poses a challenge to Israel’s viability as a democratic, multi-ethnic state. Biden should hold Netanyahu accountable for his divisive and discriminatory policies toward Israel’s Arab citizens.

Regionally, Hamas and Netanyahu have operated from the same political calculus: they both wanted to remain in power and relevant. Hamas wants to show the world that they, not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are the true defenders of the Palestinians.

Netanyahu, by contrast, wants the Israeli public to believe that he alone could form a government. Not only did he fail to form a government; he has worked feverishly to undermine the opposition’s chances of forming a government, especially one that could include an Arab party.

Much has been written in the past week about the Israel-Hamas confrontation and the growing global reaction, including within the Democratic Party in the United States, against Netanyahu’s continued bombardment of Gaza. Little, however, has been written about the grievances of Israeli Arabs and their festering frustrations with the state’s anti-Arab policies.

Recent events have affirmed what many of them believe that unless the Israeli government dramatically changes these policies, Israeli Arab anger will grow, and Jewish-Arab communal confrontations will become bloodier. If the situation persists, Israel could devolve from a democratic, inclusive state for all of its citizens into an exclusionary, undemocratic Jewish entity for only 75-80 percent of its citizens.

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Israel’s Arab Minority a More Activist Community in Search of a National Identity

The recent violent confrontations in Israel between the Arab minority, which constitutes over a fifth of Israel’s population, and the police, highlight the growing sense of alienation and marginalization among Israel’s Palestinian minority. The immediate catalysts of the communal violence include the high-handed treatment by Israeli police of Muslim worshippers at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest mosque, the attempted evictions of Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and the horrendous Israeli bombardment of Gaza City.  This is in addition to the Arab community’s growing assertiveness, defiance, poverty, and marginalization.

Israel’s Arabs are viewed by many Israeli Jews, especially the ultra-Orthodox religious sector, as a demographic time bomb and a threat to Israel’s Jewish identity. Many secular Israelis have advocated for a meaningful policy of engagement and coexistence. But Netanyahu has refrained from pursuing such a policy because of the influence of small but politically powerful religious parties in his government.  Some of these parties have advocated expelling the Arabs from Israel or moving them to a future Palestinian state if one is established.

The recent deadly confrontations, especially in ethnically mixed cities–including Akko, Haifa, Lod, Ramleh, and others—have shown that Arab youth, like their Jewish Orthodox counterparts, can quickly become radicalized. Born in Israel and speaking Hebrew and Arabic, the Arab community for decades has been able to reconcile its four interconnected identities—Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, and Israeli—reasonably well. In the current uprising, the four identities have disentangled from each other with the Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian identities superseding the Israeli identity. The balance that has existed among these identities economically, educationally, culturally, and politically can no longer be assumed.

Arab demands for equality and fairness have been ignored by successive Israeli governments, especially in recent years under the Netanyahu regime. These demands have included allowing Arab towns and villages to expand their corporate limits in order to ease crowding; granting the community more building permits for new houses; allowing Arabs to buy and rent homes in Jewish towns and ethnically mixed towns; and increasing per capita student budgetary allocations to improve educational programs in Arab schools. They also want to improve the physical infrastructure of Arab towns and villages and recognize the “unrecognized” Arab towns in the Negev.  For the most part, the Arab community has never gotten its demands. Mostly cosmetic infrastructural improvements have been implemented.

My analysis of the economic, educational, political, and social status of the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel over the years has shown that not much improvement has occurred since the bloody events of October 2000, in which 13 Arabs were killed during demonstrations in support of the al-Aqsa intifada. In fact, in welfare, health, employment, infrastructure, public services, and housing, the situation of Israeli Arabs has retarded in the past decade and a half.  Half the Arab community lives below the poverty line compared with only 15 percent of the Jewish population.

Although Palestinians in Israel have learned to navigate their demands for citizenship rights using their multiple identities, they have shed some of the “subservient” terminology used by the state to describe them, including “Israeli Arabs,” “the Arabs of Israel,” “Arab citizens of Israel,” or “the Arab sector.” They have replaced them with “Palestinians in Israel,” “the Palestinian Arab community,” “Palestinian minority,” or “the indigenous Arab minority.”  This minority has become more numerous, younger, and squeezed. They literally live on top of each other in crowded neighborhoods and towns with inadequate public services lacking equal rights in comparison with Jewish citizens. Their “citizenship” barely extends beyond voting in local and national elections.

The Arab community is scattered across Israel. Most of them, however, live in Galilee, the Triangle—in the middle of the country—and in the Negev.  A few thousand live in mixed coastal cities. In addition to Rahat, the largest Arab city in the Negev, nearly 70,000 Sunni Muslim Bedouins live in “unrecognized villages,” in a fenced area in the northern Negev, known as “al-siyaj” or the “fence,” akin to a Native American reservation in the United States.

It’s encouraging that the Biden administration is beginning to take note of the rising significance of the Palestinian indigenous national community in Israel and to the growing militancy of many of its youth. During a recent meeting, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs, Hadi Amr had with several senior figures in the Israeli Arab community, they shared their grievances with him.

In order to address these systemic grievances, Washington could engage this community through educational opportunities, including scholarships, grants, and technology programs. Engagement could also extend to community development projects in Arab towns and villages. The community would benefit from entrepreneurial and micro-investment programs that promote job creation and employment opportunities, especially among high school graduates.

The futures of Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and Israeli Arabs are inextricably linked. unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, Israel’s domestic stability and regional peace will remain problematic.

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