Relations between Jewish Israelis and citizens of the Arab minority are plummeting, with each side losing faith in coexistence and becoming less tolerant of the other, according to a key survey.
The latest poll overseen by Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha, who has chronicled the attitudes of Israeli Arabs and Jews toward each other annually since 1976, found Arabs increasingly questioning the legitimacy of the state and Jews were more wary of having Arabs as neighbours compared to results two years ago. The survey of 700 Jews and 700 Arabs was taken between May and August 2017.
While 60.3 percent of Arab respondents accepted Israel as a state with a Jewish majority in 2015, in the new survey only 44.6 percent did. And those accepting Israel as a state with Hebrew as the dominant language dropped from 63.4 percent in 2015 to 49.7 percent in 2017. Those who accepted Israel’s application of the Law of Return, which confers automatic citizenship on Jewish immigrants, also dropped from 39 percent to 25.2 percent.
The poll appeared to confirm that policies of the right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not only undermining chances of a peaceful solution with the Palestinians in the occupied territories, they are also further fraying the intercommunal fabric inside Israel itself, creating uncertainty about the future of relations between Arab and Jewish citizens.
But defenders of the government instead say it is incitement by Arab leaders and violence by Arabs that are harming relations, saying steps to improve the latter’s economic situation have been taken.
Moreover, worsening prospects for ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel do not augur well for relations between Arab and Jewish citizens. The two communities veered in opposite directions over Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with most Israeli Jews celebrating or welcoming the move while thousands of Arab citizens turned out for a protest in the northern town of Sakhnin.
The Arab minority – one fifth of Israel’s population – comprises Palestinians who did not flee or were not expelled at Israel’s creation in 1948 and their descendants. They have the right to vote and have representatives in parliament but have traditionally faced discrimination in planning, land use, employment and government budgets. In recent years verbal attacks against Arabs, such as an infamous comment on election day in 2015 by Mr Netanyahu saying they were flowing to ballot stations in “droves”, a legislative push adversely affecting them and threatening to implicitly define them as second class citizens are seen as contributing to a hardening of Arab attitudes. The demolition of Arab homes built without permits – which are difficult or often impossible to obtain – also breeds bitterness.
Sami Abu Shehadeh, a former member of the Tel Aviv—Jaffa municipal council, said: “Unfortunately, we are seeing the current government leading us into a much worse situation in relations with continuous incitement against Arabs that affects the way the Jewish majority deals with the Arab minority. So things don’t look promising.”
Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives that promotes equality for Arab citizens, said that although the government’s “political discourse is very poisonous” the overall situation is more complex.
“There are more Arab doctors, nurses and pharmacists, 70,000 Arab students are studying in Israeli colleges and universities,” he said. “Members of the Arab middle class are moving into Jewish cities. We have to see the complex picture and point to the good that is happening. I think we are heading in the right direction.”
But Mr Smooha, an Iraqi-born Jew and laureate of the Israel Prize, in sociology, termed as “grave” what his poll shows as the negative shift in Jewish perspectives on Arabs.
The percentage of Jewish respondents who recognise the right of Arabs to live in the country as a minority with full citizens’ rights declined from 79.7 percent in 2015 to 73.8 percent today. The number of Jews willing to have Arab pupils in their schools dropped from 57.5 percent to 51.6 percent. Those refusing to have Arab neighbours rose from 41 percent to 48 percent and the percentage of Jews who decline to enter Arab communities climbed from 59.3 percent to 63.7 percent.
“Over the years I didn’t see such a tangible change on the part of the Jews. And here there is a real turn,” he said, faulting the government for verbal attacks on minority Arabs, such as when public security minister Gilad Erdan blamed them for a spate of forest fires in 2016.
But he also said the diplomatic stalemate, a surge of Palestinian violence in 2015 and actions by Arab members of parliament such as MP Basel Ghattas’s attempt last year to smuggle mobile phones to Palestinian security prisoners had contributed to a hardening of Jewish attitudes.
An alarming finding in the survey was that 67.3 percent of Jewish respondents support efforts within the ruling coalition to pass the Israel as Nation State of the Jewish People bill seen as prioritising the Jewish aspects of Israeli statehood over democracy.
“It appears that most of the Jewish public except for a small minority supports subordinating democracy to the Jewish character of the state and thereby worsening the status of the Arab minority.” Mr Smooha said.
Passage of the law would “strengthen the message to Arabs that they are second class citizens and that the state belongs to the Jews.”
Despite the survey’s findings “a strong infrastructure for coexistence continues to exist”, according to Mr Smooha.
The number of Arab respondents who thought Israel is a good place to live remained high – 61.9 percent compared to 64 percent in 2015. And those who said they prefer living in Israel over any other country actually rose, from 58.8 percent in 2015 to 60 percent in 2017. Asked whether they would be willing to move to a future Palestinian state, 77.4 percent said no in the current survey, compared with 72.2 percent in 2015.
“Neither side wants to break the rules of the game,” Smooha said.
“The Arab minority continues to attach its fate to the state.”