Is oath a step towards the transfer of Arabs?


THE BIG PICTURE:Relations with Israeli Arabs are being stretched on the rack with a pledge of loyalty to a Jewish state, writes DENIS STAUNTON

THOUSANDS OF Israelis marched through Tel Aviv last Saturday night under the slogan “Together against racism – Arab and Jewish March for Democracy”. They were protesting against a government proposal that would require new, non-Jewish citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Some carried signs saying “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”, while others condemned what they see as a rising tide of racism in their country.

An amendment to Israel’s citizenship law, which has been approved by Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet but must still be passed by the Knesset, would oblige new citizens to say: “I declare that I will be a loyal citizen to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and I obligate myself to respect its laws.”

Until now the wording was simply a pledge of loyalty to the State of Israel. Jews coming to Israel under the Right of Return would not be required to take the new oath. Nor would non-Jews who are already Israeli citizens.

Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman insists that the change is necessary because of attempts to question Israel’s Jewishness but critics see the loyalty oath as the latest move in a campaign with the ultimate aim of transferring Israel’s entire Arab population into a future Palestinian state.

One in five Israeli citizens is Arab and although most support the aspiration to statehood of their fellow-Palestinians, few want to give up their Israeli citizenship or to leave the place their families have lived in since before the foundation of the State of Israel. Lieberman has long identified Arab-Israelis as a potential fifth column but Netanyahu has also spoken of the threat they could pose to Israel’s identity.

“We have a demographic problem, but it is focused not on the Arabs of Palestine but on the Arabs of Israel,” he told the Herzliya security conference seven years ago.

“If the Arab residents become wonderfully integrated and their numbers reach 35 per cent to 40 per cent of the total population, the Jewish state will be cancelled out and become a binational state. If their number remains around 20 per cent as it is today, or even declines, but relations are harsh and contentious, then, too, the democratic fabric of our argument will be impaired.”

Netanyahu was in the political wilderness when he made those remarks and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was widely viewed until recently as a far-right fringe group. Now both men are in government, the rhetoric has not toned down and, earlier this month, Israeli security forces conducted a large-scale exercise that simulated a scenario in which Israeli Arabs riot in the wake of a population exchange agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

“Two years ago, the idea of population transfer was a slogan of extreme right-wing parties. A month ago, it was the subject of an official speech by the foreign minister in the United Nations,” Dov Khenin, a left-wing member of the Knesset, told Saturday’s rally. “The population transfer has turned from a nightmare into an operational plan.”

The row over the loyalty oath comes as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are stalled following Netanyahu’s decision not to extend a partial building freeze in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Last week, Israeli authorities authorised the building of nearly 240 new housing units in East Jerusalem, prompting Palestinian charges that Netanyahu was deliberately wrecking the possibility of a return to direct talks.

Israel claims the settlements issue is a distraction and that it has shown in the past that it is willing to uproot settlers as part of a peace deal. Palestinians point out that the number of settlers has tripled since the early 1990s to more than 350,000, and that Israel made a formal commitment to a full settlement freeze in 2003 as part of the road map negotiated by the EU, US, UN and Russia.

Netanyahu last week offered to extend the temporary building freeze if the Palestinians agreed to recognise Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. He explained that recognition of the Jewish character of the state of Israel is essential for building the Israeli public’s trust in their Palestinian neighbours.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) recognised Israel in 1993 but the Palestinians have refused to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, fearing that this would compromise the rights of Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens and negate the right of return of Palestinian refugees laid down in UN general assembly resolution 194 of 1948.

Palestinian negotiators acknowledge privately that, in any future negotiated settlement, few if any Palestinian refugees will return to the state of Israel but they are unwilling to concede the principle in advance of final status talks. Netanyahu cannot have been surprised by their rejection of his offer last week.

It’s hard to find anyone on either side who holds out much hope for the current round of talks, despite their sponsorship by Barack Obama’s administration and the central role of former senator George Mitchell. A poor result for Democrats in next month’s mid-term congressional elections and the start of the 2012 US presidential campaign shortly afterwards are likely to push the Middle East further down Obama’s agenda.

On the face of it, the conditions for making a deal have seldom been better. Relations between the Israeli government and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad are excellent, not least because of the effectiveness of the Palestinian security forces in suppressing Hamas in the West Bank and preventing terrorist activity.

Fayyad has been working to build up the infrastructure of statehood in the West Bank and Israel has eased some of the restrictions on movement within the territories so that life has improved for many West Bank Palestinians, although the occupation continues to cause immense suffering.

Meanwhile, life in Gaza remains wretched, blockaded by Israel and governed by an increasingly oppressive and socially conservative Hamas.

Netanyahu’s political position within Israel is unassailable and, even if he loses his current, right-wing coalition partners, he has an easy alternative in the centrist Kadima. Israel enjoys friendly relations with its authoritarian Arab neighbours, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, all of which share Israel’s alarm at the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear capability.

The Arab states have promised to fully normalise relations with Israel in the event of a peace deal with the Palestinians, and Israel’s most important ally, the US, has identified a Middle East peace deal as an American national security interest.

Netanyahu himself took an important step last year when, for the first time, he endorsed a two-state solution, abandoning the right-wing dream of a “Greater Israel” that would include the Occupied Territories.

Most of Netanyahu’s supporters have followed the same path and even Lieberman, who lives in a settlement, has said he would be willing to leave his home if necessary as part of a peace deal. The 10-month settlement building freeze had no political cost for Netanyahu and his government didn’t lose a single parliamentary vote because of it.

So why is the Israeli prime minister pussyfooting around the peace process? The fashionable explanation in Israel is that Netanyahu is emotionally incapable of doing a deal as long as his 101-year-old father is alive.

Ben-Zion Netanyahu is a historian of the Spanish Inquisition and a hardline Zionist who described Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2004 as “a crime against humanity”. Amateur psychologists in Israel believe the prime minister is afraid that, if he makes any further territorial concessions to the Palestinians, his father will think he is weak.

The explanation for Netanyahu’s approach to the peace process may lie, however, as much in politics as in psychology. Israelis were outraged recently when Time magazine ran a cover story titled “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” but opinion polls suggest that making peace with their Palestinian neighbours is well down the list of most Israelis’ priorities.

With a booming economy and little terrorist activity, the status quo is a happy one for many Israelis, making Netanyahu a solid bet for another term in office. Substantive negotiations with the Palestinians on final status issues are unlikely to win the prime minister new friends at home.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu knows that Lieberman could swiftly turn from political ally into rival and the foreign minister’s party is gaining ground fast, especially among younger Israelis.

Making peace with the Palestinians is, of course, in Israel’s long-term interest and an agreement would do much to counter the country’s unpopularity abroad, particularly in Europe. Israelis complain that Europeans are engaged in a campaign of “delegitimisation” against Israel but initiatives such as the loyalty oath can only fuel anti-Israeli feeling.

Among the cliches of the Middle East peace process is the nostrum that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Palestinians say the charge was never fairly applied to them because they never had much of an opportunity to miss. It would be a pity if it were to become true of the Israelis.

Denis Staunton is Foreign Editor