Israel’s Missing Link

Israeli Arabs Are Key to Negotiations—So Why Are They Still on the Periphery?

JAFFA, ISRAELIs this mess ever going to end? It's like living in the midst of millions of squabbling children, all screaming, "It's mine!!! It's mine!!!"

Most of us are really fed up with the infantile behavior of those who profess to speak for the 6.4 million Israelis, the 2.1 million Arabs on the West Bank, and the 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza.

But instead of moaning about the situation and having to endure an international chorus of pompous tut-tuts, we should use simple logic to find a solution.

Who can unearth the magic formula? Who understands the mentality of both sides? Who can build a peace bridge between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors?

Certainly not Ariel Sharon, Yasir Arafat, or George W. Bush.

The answer has been right in our own backyard for more than 50 years.

Among her citizens, Israel counts 1.2 million Arabs, nearly 20 percent of the country's total. These people are an amazing untapped resource, despite the fact that they must suffer from a serious identity crisis bordering on schizophrenia.

They are Israelis, and they want to remain Israelis. But their roots, their language, and their mentality are Palestinian. They have a foot in both camps. They belong on the peace negotiating team.

Dr. Faisal Azaiza, a soft-spoken professor of social work at the University of Haifa, would make a major contribution to such a team.

"Israeli Arabs should play a role in building the bridge to peace," says Dr. Azaiza, 44. "But Israeli Arabs are still on the periphery of society. They must become part of the decision-making process in Israel. They must be empowered as legitimate citizens of Israel. Then Israel's dealings with its Arab citizens would be a positive model for its future relations with the Palestinians and, ultimately, with Middle East society as a whole."

He adds, "Right now Israeli Arabs are not part of the game. And if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem."

It will be a big job to bring Israeli Arabs back from the periphery. Israeli Arabs have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country. "But they are far from the leaders when it comes to success in education," Dr. Azaiza notes grimly.

Dr. Azaiza uses terms like "trust" and "fairness" to describe what he believes is the right approach to negotiating the division of the land. He believes the talks will go more smoothly once the Palestinians have an independent state, economic opportunities, and freedom of movement.

But he also believes we must move quickly. "This conflict is now between nations; it is about land," he explains. "But there are fanatics on both sides, and if we delay, it could become a conflict of religion. That kind of conflict is much harder to resolve."

Kfar Qara, 40 miles north of Tel Aviv, is a good place to find more team members. The village is better off than most Arab towns. It is home to 3500 families who got smart in 1948 and hightailed it back to Israel before the infant Israeli government nationalized their land. The village is an architectural hodgepodge of gingerbread mansions, each more ornate than the next.

"It's a prosperous village," says Nabil Totry, 39, manager of the Hapoalim Bank here and another likely nominee. "The people are hardworking . . . moderate, not so political."

Nabil says the villagers are ambitious both academically and about keeping up with the Walids.

"They come into the bank and boast about their kids' grades," he says. "If someone buys a new car or truck, a week later, 10 will also have bought."

They sound like genuine Israelis to me.

Nabil, one of Israel's 106,000 Christian Arabs, believes Israel could go a long way toward solving the problem if it would agree to a genuine Palestinian state.

"Israel makes a big mistake refusing to give a state just because of a few stubborn people living on the West Bank," he says, referring to the 176,000 Jewish settlers there.

"Palestinians on the West Bank are becoming poorer and poorer, and that makes them more violent," he says. "Palestinian fanatics now believe that only force works with Israel."

A major sticking point between Israel and the Palestinians is the "right of return" refugee issue. There are more than 3 million Palestinian refugees in the region, with 2 million scattered across Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The other 1.2 million are on the West Bank and in Gaza, including half a million in camps. Israel balks at the idea of return and worries that a large influx of Arabs would irreparably alter the country's character as a Jewish state.

Nabil points to the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants the country has absorbed over the past 10 years even though many are not Jewish. They have brought the country a breath of fresh cultural air and a hefty dose of crime.

"If Israel can take these people, why not take the Arabs?" says Nabil, who believes most of the refugees will be just as happy to receive monetary compensation and stay where they are.

Nabil believes Israeli Arabs who are members of the Knesset should be taking a bigger role in the peace process. "Who is happy with the way these MKs work?" says Nabil. "They are not working to bring the two sides together. You see, the more fanatic the MK, the more popular he is. And that is true with the Jewish MKs too.

"Leaders should follow their beliefs and not the street," he says. "Street people are not clever. Real leaders do what is right."

Back in Jaffa, Adib Jahshan, 43, the artistic director of the Israeli-Arab Theater, has ideas that should earn him a spot on the team too.

"Unfortunately, both Arabs and Jews think with their emotions and not with their heads," he says. "They both act as if it were possible to destroy the other side. But that is not possible, so we have to agree that this land is for both."

"The land is like a piece of cake," says Adib. "We have to share it. If we offer the Palestinians a slice that is too small, they are not going to eat it."

Adib already has a solution to the settler issue.

"The Palestinians should follow the example of Nelson Mandela and say 'we want the settlers to stay and we will live in peace . . . but only if they are Palestinians, with a Palestinian ID card, like the rest of us.' "

Once a Palestinian state is established, Adib says, "We have to send home all the foreign workers here and give good jobs to Palestinians." People who make a decent living do not become suicide bombers.

"Times change; things are much different now. And we have to stop living in the past," Adib says.

"The Israelis and Palestinians will keep fighting, but they should do it with words, not with weapons. That way no one dies."

Rihab Bhatimi, a 19-year-old college student, would be terrific on the negotiating team because she has no patience with either propaganda or politicians.

"What really makes me angry is that they spoke to each other in the past and even made progress," she says. "Now neither side wants to hear what the other has to say. It is so ugly."

Rihab, who has nine brothers and sisters, takes the pragmatic approach to peace.

"The best way to start the peace process is to have a country for Palestinians and a country for Jews," she says.

"You know, if you don't give children what they want, they grow up hating you."

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