Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel

Initial Response to an Extraordinary Document & The Left in Israel and the Danger of a Palestinian Civil War

“The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” (Future Vision) published by the Higher Follow Up Committee of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel last month is extraordinary in a number of senses. First, the 27 page detailed programmatic document was issued under the auspices of the Higher Follow Up Committee, which is by far the most representative body of Palestinian society. Second, the document is based on a wide consensus reached by scores of academicians and public figures who come from all sections of the Palestinian public in Israel. Third, the document presents, in addition to a clear bill of indictment against continuing discrimination by all Israeli governments, a radical reconceptualization of Palestinian collective rights and formulates bold demands in this area.

The Central Issue and the Usual “Liberal” Advice
With the exception of right-wing nationalists (and there is no shortage of this species around here) most of the political groups in the country accept, in principle, that the Palestinian Arabs in Israel ought to enjoy full rights as citizens. Of course, in reality, this principle is violated daily in every walk of life.

This is not the place to discuss the infinite list of evasions and arguments designed to justify why the principle of individual equality is a dead letter. Our discussion, which is based on the innovative contributions of the “Future Vision”, will center on the collective rights of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel.
The Fear of Collective Rights

The “Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” “succeeded” in evoking a storm of liberal disapproval. The (very illiberal) liberal message was quite clear, to the point of being menacing: I, as a liberal Jewish Israeli, am willing to support you, in principle in your battle for full individual rights. But the demand for collective rights arouses suspicion as to your real intentions. It is therefore catastrophic. If you were to abandon this fiction about collective rights, which would damage the nature of Israel as a Jewish state, we could make some serious advances on the path to equality.

The left in Israel, including sections of the Zionist left have held for many years that it is unjust and even impossible to separate between the two aspects of the struggle for equality – the fight for rights as a citizen and for collective rights for the Arab national minority. The Arabs in Israel have rights as individuals and rights as a national minority. There is nothing surprising or subversive about the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens are holding serious, in depth discussions designed to define their collective rights and the strategy for realizing them. It is the duty of the democratic forces in Israel to explain and emphasize that the recognition of collective rights is not tantamount to encouragement for isolationism or separation from the state. Collective rights are perfectly harmonious with democratic principle.

Comparison Between the Israeli Communist Party (CPI) Positions and the “Future Vision”
In order to analyze the newer elements in the “Future Vision” it is worth our while to compare the main features of the recent document with the more traditional policy on this question articulated in the CPI program. Even in they eyes of many opponents, the CPI, is recognized as the major force in the historical struggles of the Arab minority in Israel against discrimination, in exposing government policy and organizing political opposition to it. The CPI had raised the demands for recognition of collective rights since the 1970’s. Naturally, there are many common features in the two documents. But the differences are of significant importance.
Many of the new elements in the “Future Vision” are not dealt with in the CPI material and many of the concepts in the “Future Vision” are characteristic of terminology associated with the conception of ‘civil society.’ The “Future Vision” problematizes the question of identity, and calls for the “crystallization of the identity of the Palestinian minority in Israel.” The “Future Vision” defines Israel as an ethnocratic state and refuses to see the discrimination against the Palestinian Arabs in Israel as merely an expression of the weaknesses or limits of Israeli democracy. Those who composed the “Future Vision” emphasize the establishment of a broad network of independent, autonomous institutions as a central strategy in the struggle for collective rights.

The CPI decisions do not see the need for the “crystallization” of the Arab minority’s identity, but instead poses the need to build up a dominant political identity in the Arab sector. For the CPI, the question of identity exists in the realm of political struggle between the different currents within the Arab community and not as a requirement for expressing national unity.

For the CPI, the main instrument in the struggle for equality is mass public struggle with an emphasis on the qualitative role of united Jewish-Arab struggle. The CPI does not express any enthusiasm for the proliferation of independent institutions. This seems to be the continuation of its reservations regarding suggestions such as a parliament of Arabs in Israel or cultural autonomy. Moreover, the CPI for its part is concerned at the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab community and warns against isolationist trends. The “Future Vision”, by its very nature as a representative document of all the Palestinian currents, avoids the discussion of internal contradictions.

The “Future Vision” is built around a transitional program moving away from the existing system of organization of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, which is built on inter-party coordination, when possible, towards a level of unity that would minimize the differences within the Palestinian Arab community and seek to overcome these differences through a network of public institutions. It is necessary to say a word regarding the NGO’s which have a prominent role in the Palestinian public. The CPI has warned against a tendency to have the NGO’s supplant the role of the political parties and criticized their tendency to supply services which should come from the government. The CPI considered it necessary to remind the public that the NGO’s are not exactly independent organizations and that they are by and large dependent on funding from “philanthropic” sources. Indeed, for better or worse, the spirit of the Arab NGO’s is evident in the content and the style of the “Future Vision”. This in many senses is natural since these NGO’s have become the center of activity and political thinking among the Palestinians in Israel.

Beginning the Debate
The framers of the “Future Vision” have stressed that its publication should be seen as a basis for opening the debate on its contents. We will have to follow the development of the debate and the implementation of various decisions by the Follow Up Committee. We will have to see the response from various sections of the Palestinian community and especially the left.

Though the “Future Vision” stresses that it has not dealt with all the relevant questions, it is disturbing that only a few words discuss the impact of the occupation and its relation to the development of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel. Of course, the Arabs in Israel have every reason and justification to look inwards in search for ways to influence their future, but any analysis that fails to deal with the impact of the overall struggle of the entire Palestinian people at this stage would be painfully incomplete.

The Left in Israel and the Danger of a Palestinian Civil WarThe Israeli left, with few exceptions, supported the two-state policy of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority under his leadership. The fact that the political formations to the left of Fatah supported this policy was yet an additional factor in shaping the views of the left in Israel.

As is well known, the recent democratic elections in the occupied territories resulted in a surprising but clear victory for Hamas, which proceeded to establish the Palestinian government. There are, of course, a broad variety of versions as to why Fatah’s prestige and influence waned. Moreover, the leftist parties in the Palestinian Authority did not do any better. It seems that they were seen by the Palestinian public as having been swallowed up by Fatah and the Authority.

The Traditional Orientation of the Israeli Left on Fatah
The major forces in the Israeli left, and specifically HADASH – the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (and its major constituent, the CPI (Communist Party of Israel) have a pronounced tendency to support Abu Mazen and Fatah in every aspect of the current crisis in the Palestinian Authority, a crisis that could deteriorate to the threshold of a full scale civil war between Fatah and Hamas.

But, as of now, one can hear voices challenging the traditional position. There are those who even demand a total reversal of policy on the Israeli left and call for support for Hamas in the current crisis. The arguments for this change are intertwined with reasons for withdrawing support from Abu Mazen.
  1. There are more and more clear indications that Abu Mazen has lined up with the United States and the Bush administration;

  2. Abu Mazen’s pro-US orientation so impresses the Israeli establishment that it is openly supporting Fatah in its struggle with Hamas;

  3. Abu Mazen is ready for negotiations with Israel without insisting on any minimal concessions to alleviate Palestinian suffering, as witnessed in the recent unfortunate meeting with Olmert;

  4. Despite its links with Iran and Hezbolla, Hamas has adopted a realistic position of readiness to negotiate a long-term cease-fire;

  5. Abu Mazen bases his hopes on exclusive coordination with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But these very countries have turned their backs on the Palestinians for years and are now involved in playing the latest US game designed to build a Sunni front against the Shi’ite alliance.

However, these factors all of which certainly undermine the credibility of Abu Mazen and the Fatah leadership, do not and cannot justify support for Hamas in its struggle against Fatah. One cannot ignore the local or regional ramifications of Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, the refusal to recognize Israel, even within the framework of a just solution of the conflict, would signify a Palestinian retreat damaging the hopes for peace. This sort of rejectionism can only help those who want to continue the conflict indefinitely.

Hamas’ support is considerable but its depth should not be exaggerated. After all, Hamas gathered some, or even much, of its support because of internal Palestinian considerations such as Fatah corruption and the electoral system inflated the scope of its victory. There is still ample evidence that the majority of the Palestinians under occupation would support a just two-state agreement were it on the table. Moreover, there is no reason to see Hamas as a consistent anti-imperialist force. It is one thing to do successful welfare work with Saudi petro-dollars and a totally different thing to support the interests of workers and farmers in clear opposition to neo-liberalism and US domination of the region.

None of the Hamas failings justify the Fatah-Abu Mazen strategy. The attempt to exploit US-Israel support against their Palestinian rival is transparent and dangerous. Abu Mazen bears major responsibility for the grotesque squabble over portfolios in the envisaged new government.

Is it necessary to emphasize that this is not really a sovereign government and that its main role is to lead the political struggle against the occupation. There is no shortage of honest brokers to work out a decent compromise on this and other related issues. Abu Mazen’s threat to call new elections seems like an act of desperation; it only increases tension without increasing hopes of an agreement between the sides.
The left in Israel should, in my opinion, refrain from supporting any side in the internal Palestinian conflict. Progressive public opinion should reflect the general aspiration of the Palestinians, as a whole, which is to overcome all the difficulties on the path to the establishment of a government of national unity. The confrontation between the two main Palestinian forces is horrendous. Civil war would be a catastrophe. Supporters and friends of the Palestinian cause should request from all sides maximum restraint, sincere moderation and genuine readiness for compromise. This is not the time for battles over prestige; this is the time for genuine, authentic statesmanship.