Josef Olmert
5 min readDec 9, 2020

Israeli Arabs stream along with the new Middle East

Making peace in the Middle East is always an art of diplomatic, as well as cultural and psychological acrobacy, and it also resembles a Yemenite dance. A step forward, and half a step backwards, or vice versa, but always something is happening, and this is something which reminds us all that ending a long, historic conflict is a difficult matter. Easy in the books of political scientists, complicated in reality. Saudi Arabia , for example, hosted Israeli PM Netanyahu for a meeting supposed to be secretive about normalization of its relations with Israel, a meeting which became public due to an unfortunate and damaging leak from Netanyahu, but then the Saudis took an important step towards full normalization, allowing Israeli flights over their territory. later they sent one of the prominent members of the Royal family to a conference in Bahrain where he unleashed a vitriolic attack on Israel in public, whereas behind closed doors, other Saudis dismissed the rhetoric as a lip service to those who still cannot digest the changes. So I leave it to the discretion of the readers to decide about what was the step forward as opposed to the one backwards. That said, the winds of change are blowing and the reverberations are felt all over the Middle East, and especially in Israel itself. Something is happening there, and it is important.

This something is the gradual, somewhat hesitant but still distinctly obvious departure of many Arab citizens of Israel from a purely Palestinian national narrative to a new line, one which emphasizes the Israeli togetherness. First, a couple of comments about the Arab citizens of the state. When Israel was established in 1948, its Arab population was 160, 000, and it is now 1,900,000, and it grew in a faster rate than the Jewish population [from 650,000 to 7,000,000], so much for the false propaganda about ethnic cleansing of Arabs . Today, the 20% of the population of Israel, are represented in the Israeli Knesset by 20 Mks, the only Arabs who are freely elected in the Middle East. Second, since 1948, Arab citizens of Israel have evolved politically in many ways, perhaps the most important indication of it was their preference as to how to be defined collectively. The definition moved from Arab citizens to Israeli Arabs and for few decades since the 1970’s it is Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. The change of name reflected deep socio-political changes, characterized by the growing emphasis on Palestinian nationalism as the most important symbol of collective identity, while, at the same time, there has not been a discernible move to show this solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against Israel in violent, subversive actions against Israel. Such actions existed , they still do, but have always reflected the actions of a small minority. Yet, politically it was a different story, as most of the Arab MKs have adhered to a militant pro Palestinian and anti Israel agenda. Definitions of this kind are always open for discussion and debate, but the fact is, that the vast majority of the Jewish population of Israel has consistently refused to enable participation in the government of the joint Arab Party in the Knesset , though there were Arab ministers in previous Israeli governments, people who were members of Jewish parties. It has to be categorically stated , that opposition for Arab representation in the government is racist, opposition to participation of anti Israel Arabs in the government is legitimate, part of the political process, though it is regrettable, that this is the case. All this belongs to the section of bad news , but a new section is developing, a much more positive and promising. Good news are coming, some light finally in the long tunnel leading to reconciliation and coexistence.

It has to do with the overall changes in the Middle East and their impact on the Arab citizens of Israel. Here is the most important change-Yes, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is still there, but no-it is not anymore the old, classic Arab-Israeli conflict, a conflict which is being pushed to the back burner of Middle East regional politics. What is happening has a profound influence on many Israeli Arabs, as it signifies the fact, that the State of Israel is becoming an integral part of the Middle East scene, and the old discourse of ‘’throwing the Jews to the sea’’ is being replaced by the discussion of cooperation and friendship . What is becoming so clear to so many Arabs outside of Israel, is becoming so clear to so many of them in Israel. Israel is here to stay, Israel is here to cooperate with and learn from, and if that is the cae, then the first ones to be able to benefit the most from , are the Arabs living in Israel itself, as they have a formidable tool in their hands, and this is their votes in the Knesset. Mansour Abbas understands it, and he may be considered the pioneer, the first to bring a major change.

Mansour Abbas Mk is the leader of one of the wings of the Islamic movement in Israel, and his faction has 4 seats of the 15 seats held by the Joint Arab Party in the Knesset. Abbas is in an unofficial , but very well-known political alliance with, guess whom?… no other than PM Netanyahu. Impossible to even think about that until recently, and yet a new political reality. Abbas remains a devoted Muslim, a supporter of Palestinian rights , in sum, he did not change his ideological convictions, but he changed his modus operandi, as he says now in clear language, in both Arabic and Hebrew, that he can and wants to realize his goals within the state of Israel as it is, and therefore a cooperation with a Zionist , even nationalist, Right Wing party like Likud is desirable. For him, the emphasis shifted from struggle for the realization of the Palestinian national narrative to realization of an Israeli narrative based on achieving the maximum benefits for his voters, and they are in Haifa, Yafo, the Negev and Galilee , not in Gaza and the West Bank. The fact, that he represents an Islamic movement is of potentially immense significance. If we can reduce even slightly the burden of religious tension which is so central in the overall context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then we did something so important and positive.Abbas took a bold step, Netanyahu on record promising to enact major reforms to accommodate Abbas, and we are all in the beginning of a process, and it is bound to be fraught with hurdes, but something has to start sometime, and it does. In the polls, the Arab Joint Party is losing ground, an Arab woman just declared now her candidacy for President of Israel, a symbolic gesture, but in this conflict, symbols have always been so important.

To be optimistic with regard to the Middle East in general, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular has almost always proved to be an unfulfilled fantasy.That does not mean however, that we should renounce the hope, and these days we have more reasons than almost anytime before to be optimistic.