Civil Trends in Israel’s Arab Society in Light of the "Arab Spring"

Yusri Khaizran sheds light on recent civil and political developments in Israel's Arab society, against the backdrop of the significant events that took place within the larger Arab world at the beginning of this decade.

Arab and Jewish youth at a negotiation seminar hosted by the U.S Embassy in Israel, 2013
Arab youth, illustrative.  Photo credit:  U.S Embassy, Israel, via Flickr.  Available under  CC BY-SA 2.0

Arab public figures recently announced the establishment of a new party – min ajlina (“For Us” in Arabic) – which boldly declared its willingness to partner in the future government coalition.[1] In tandem, the Abraham Fund published a survey demonstrating that 64 percent of Arab society in Israel supports the participation of Arab parties in the coalition.[2] These trends clearly indicate the intensification of civic discourse in Arab society and are consistent with the insights presented in a forthcoming book from the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, which examines the effects of the "Arab Spring" uprisings on the internal dynamics of Arab society in Israel as well as their effect on the attitude of the state and its positions toward the Arab population.[3]

The outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” aroused great enthusiasm and expectation for democratization in Arab society in Israel, but it gradually dissipated following NATO intervention in Libya. The uprising in Syria divided Arab society in Israel in an unprecedented way, and the divisions deepened as the uprising deteriorated into violence; as the war in Syria worsened, it exposed along with it not only the fragile fabric of the Arab state, but the fragile fabric of Arab society as well. In contrast to the prevailing approach found in much of the research on Arab society in Israel, which focuses only on relations between the Arab minority and the state, the forthcoming book offers a new perspective, weighing the impact of ongoing trends in the region – namely instability and the disintegration of the Arab region – both in terms of the internal dynamics within Israel’s Arab society and in its relationship to the state.

Neither the Israeli state nor the Israeli public has remained indifferent to what is happening in the Arab world. Although from the outset the state adopted a policy of minimal intervention in the surrounding region, its attitude toward the "Arab Spring" was not consistent at all. In Israel, the outbreak of the revolution in Tunisia did not garner much interest,[4] while the outbreak of the revolution in Egypt naturally aroused great interest, both because of its peace treaty with the largest Arab state and because of its justified fear of the Islamist alternative. The outbreak of the uprising in Syria somewhat eased Israel's fears because it was perceived as a development that could lead to the fall of the Ba'ath regime in Syria, which from an Israeli strategic standpoint, could lead to the weakening of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the weakening of Iran's power in the region.[5]

For Israel, the importance of the "Arab Spring" is not limited to politics or strategy; the "Arab Spring" also impacts internal factors, namely the Arab minority and its relations with the state. This insight is reinforced by leading research on Arab society in Israel. Amal Jamal describes the political experience of the Arab minority in Israel as “a dual consciousness”: the Arab minority has cultivated a sense of emotional and national attachment to the nation of Palestine and the broader Arab world, yet it is instrumentally and rationally bound to an Israeli reality.[6] This description supports the core assumption of the aforementioned research, which notes that the Arab minority in Israel maintains a close bond with Arab space despite its rational attachment to Israeli space. The 2016 I’lam Center strategic report by Arab researchers and academics[7] emphasizes the organic connection between Arab society in Israel and the surrounding region, and even views this as a natural and rational phenomenon that is essential to Arab society, in which the minority’s belonging to the broader region is an inextricable aspect of its political, cultural, and social identity. The rational explanation for the Arab minority’s attachment to the surrounding region stems from its attempt to break free from the bonds of structural weakness placed upon it as a national minority in the Jewish nation-state.

The Arab Spring: Divisions in Arab Society
The perception of space as a cultural and moral anchor among the Arab minority largely explains the schism in Israel’s Arab population that was precipitated by the uprising in Syria. The Arab Spring, and especially the Syrian uprising, divided the Arab political community in two – between a camp which supports the current regime (or at least has reservations about the insurgency), and a camp that supports the opposition and longs for the fall of the regime that plunged Syria into a brutal, bloody, and prolonged civil war. At the head of the dissenting camp, which is opposed to the term “Arab Spring” and supports the Syrian regime, is the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash Party) and its constituents. Leading the opposing camp is the Islamic Movement, which adopted an unequivocal position calling for Assad’s overthrow. The discourse of the Islamic Movement with regard to Syria is consistent with the discourse of other Islamist movements throughout the Arab Middle East.

It is unsurprising that the National Democratic Alliance (Balad Party) adopted a stance that identifies with the "Arab Spring" given the views of its spiritual founder, Azmi Bishara.[8] For years, Bishara kept close ties with the Ba’ath regime in Syria as well as with Hezbollah, but eventually broke his ideological alliance with them by consistently expressing support for the uprising against the Syrian regime.[9] Bishara’s change of heart is closely linked to his residence in Doha and the connections he forged with the Qatari monarchy, who has unreservedly supported the popular uprising in Syria. The same Qatari regime that provided political, diplomatic, financial, and media support (vis-à-vis Qatari-owned al-Jazeera) to rebel movements in Syria helped Bishara was able to establish the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, perhaps the most consequential research center in the Arab world.[10]

The confusion, bewilderment, and divisiveness of the "Arab Spring" did not miss Israel’s Arab intelligentsia. It is possible to distinguish three groups with different patterns of discourse surrounding the Arab Spring. The first group of intellectuals views the "Arab Spring" in a positive light and characterizes it as a historic opportunity to bring about democratic change in the Arab world. The second group judges the "Arab Spring" according to the chaos it has instigated since 2011 and views the popular uprisings as a reprisal of Western conspiracy against the Arab world, a conspiracy that has reached its peak in Syria. The third group places morality at the center of its determinations; it identifies with the popular dynamics of the "Arab Spring" and with the Arab peoples’ right to rise up, but it has reservations about the uprising in Syria and the anarchy that the "Arab Spring" provoked.

It would be a mistake to try to divide Arab intellectuals between those who support or sympathize with the uprising and those who oppose it on religious or ethnic grounds. The dispute over the uprising crosses ethnic and religious lines and is stranded between two camps of intellectuals with different religious and ethnic affiliations. As such, this appears to be disagreement of principal, related not only to reciprocal relations with the Arab space, but to the ideological orientation and moral compass of Israel’s Arab society.

The division of the Arab political arena has generated ideological and moral confusion in the Arab intellectual community. As previously discussed, the discourse focuses on two central issues: the historical importance of the "Arab Spring"on the one hand, and on the other, the degree of morality to be applied in taking a stance on the war taking place in Syria. Here, morality was instrumental largely because it was linked to claims of the immorality of Israeli occupation and the struggle against the state in the name of civil morality. Ideological confusion was overshadowed by the question of how to support the Ba’ath regime, which spared no cruelty in its repression of the popular uprising, while placing the issue of morality at the center of the discourse opposing Israel’s policies toward the Arab minority and the continuation of the occupation in the Palestinian territories. Even those who hold sympathetic positions toward the Ba’ath regime link it to the Palestinian issue, however, from another perspective – opposition to Israel. These attitudes toward the issue of Syria therefore reflect the ongoing dialectic in Palestinian society in Israel between instrumental morality and national commitment to the Palestinian struggle. The third position among Arab intellectuals is one of frustration and disappointment in the Arab region; it expresses reservations both about the destructive influence of the "Arab Spring" and rejects the Ba’ath regime, which it perceives to have lost its legitimacy. The contentious discourse between Arab intellectuals and political circles attests to a feeling of severe crises in Arab society, to a sense of the loss of the moral anchor that the Arab world once provided the Arab minority in Israel. Even if these feelings of confusion and disappointment in the Arab world do not exercise real influence on the official discourse of the intellectual and political elite regarding the state of Israel, they do have recognizable influence among Arab citizens.

The Young Generation and Society in the Shadow of the “Arab Spring"
The "Arab Spring" drew attention to the crucial role of young, educated people in the Arab world. The political events that unfolded in the Middle East – the protests and patterns of organization, the clever use of social networks and technological developments and their mobilization for the purposes of protest movements – are all legacies of the younger generation. The technologies and social networks that broadcast the on-goings in the Arab world introduced young Arabs in Israel to the discussions that preoccupy the Arab world at large and its young people in particular. Indeed, many of the organizations and youth movements established in recent years were directly influenced by the connection between the Arab population in Israel (especially its young population) and the turmoil that has engulfed the Arab Middle East since 2010.

It is possible to point similarities between political and social movements in the Arab world and the movements among Palestinian citizens of Israel through a considerable number of patterns of action and organization as well as in slogans. Such similarities attest to the close connection between Arab space and the Arab public in Israel and prove their reciprocal connection.[11] The founders of protest movements and activists who initiated demonstrations, especially those who mobilized against the Prawer Plan,[12] succeeding in establishing new political discourse in the public arena by importing alterative protest patterns and demonstrating their ability to mobilize the masses. New political movements built new politics, bypassing established, traditional politics and a considerable amount of their activities were conducted through non-traditional channels. Some created local civil rhetoric that was a-political and anti-partisan in nature, while other movements chose to participate in the political arena, running for positions in local councils in Arab towns; Shabab al-Taghyir (“Youth for Change”) ran in 2013 in Nazareth, and Kifah (“Struggle”) ran in Taybe in 2015.[13]

Unlike the protest movement in the Arab world, and despite the success of the young Arab protest movements in instilling a new political discourse, mobilizing many young people, and challenging traditional political frameworks, they failed to bring about meaningful change in the situation of Israel’s Arab minority. The change in public space was limited in scope and faded over time. Today, these movements have nearly disappeared from the public sphere and have no real presence or influence. The youth-led movements inspired by the "Arab Spring" failed to survive or develop into organizations or political organizations, nor did they challenge the existing political parties. Nevertheless, their importance should not be trivialized. They presented a new model of political activity and protest centered on simple political slogans, with intelligent use of spoken Arabic, by means of new media and social networks. The causes of the failure of any social or protest movement may be rooted in internal and even external factors; in this case, it seems that the external factor that produced these movements may also explain their rapid decline. Despite the fact the protest movements of the younger generation failed to bring about substantial or structural change in Arab public sphere, in essence, the rise and fall of these movements reflect the reciprocal connection between Arabs in Israel and Arab space.

Fear of anarchist tendencies, combined with disappointment in the Arab world’s failure to transition to democratic rule has led to the strengthening of realist-pragmatic trends in the Arab public. The strengthening of these trends was reflected in a survey conducted by Ha'aretz in February 2015, which found that 70 percent of Arabs in Israel assign greater importance to improving their socio-economic situation than they do to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, more than 60 percent of Arab citizens are interested in seeing Knesset members from the Join List partner in the coalition, and around 70 percent believe that improving the economic situation is preferable to digging around for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[14] Another survey carried out by the Statnet Institute in 2016 revealed that 61 percent of Arab citizens agreed to support the political party seeking partnership in the government coalition. Moreover, the findings of a 2016 survey conducted by Injaz – Center for Professional Arab Local Governance in Israel – showed that 71 percent of Arab citizens want Arab Knesset members to work on issues related to the living conditions of the Arab public more often than they deal with political issues or the Palestinian issue.[15] These figures indicate that the Arab public has grown accustomed to the fact of Israel’s existence, and has found that its integration into the country is preferable to other options, especially in light of the breakdown of sovereignty in various Arab states and the civil wars in some of them since 2010. The findings of a survey conducted in the autumn of 2015 by Mano Geva and Mina Tzemach in cooperation with Statnet on behalf of Channel Two revealed a similar trend: 54 percent of respondents believe that the Arab members of the Knesset do not represent the Arab public faithfully, while 42 percent agree that they do faithfully represent it.[16] Furthermore, the resignation of Ta'al from the Joint List in January 2019 and its leader, Ahmed Tibi’s attempts to recruit Arab public figures to his list – even people without political affiliation – also attests to the mood in the Arab public. Tibi's announcement at his party's general conference last month in Arara that he is willing to partner in blocking the future government coalition in exchange for a 64 billion shekel development budget for the Arab population, is consistent with the recent trend that most of the Arab public wants to see its elected officials as partners in the governing coalition. Such trends clearly indicate strengthening in civil discourse toward the state.

The pragmatism of the Arab public in Israel and its rationalization of coming to terms with its relationship with the state against the backdrop of the "Arab Spring" does not solve the problematic nature of the existence of a national minority within the framework of a Jewish nation-state. This pragmatism does not indicate the Arab public’s recognition of the ideological basis of the state or acceptance of Zionist ideology. To put it simply, this pragmatism reflects the internalization of reality, but not the internalization of Zionism. The Arab minority demonstrates impressive pragmatism in its behavior and its patterns of political and popular discourse, but this pragmatism does not negate its national identity or its basic positions towards the Zionist narrative. In response to the disintegration of Arab space, Israel’s Arab minority is aiming to strengthen the discourse of citizenship on the basis of utilitarian considerations, since the national discourse has not led to an improvement in its status or to a fundamental change in its relations with the state and the Jewish majority.[17]

In view of ongoing deadlock and the discord in Arab space, the Arab minority in Israel is attempting to derive as much utilitarian benefit from its civic identity as possible. The emboldening of civic discourse stems from frustration and from a growing sense that Arab space surrounding Israel has ceased to be a mental or moral anchor.

[1] Kull al-Arab, 15 January 2019.

[2] Haaretz, 40 January 2019.

[3] Yusri Khaizran and Muhammad Khlaile, Left to its Fate: Arab Society in Israel Under the Shadow of the "Arab Spring" (Tel Aviv University: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Moshe Dayan Center, 2019) [in print].

[4] Elie Podeh, "Do Not Underestimate Tunisia," Haaretz, 26 January 2011 [in Hebrew].

[5] Lior Lehrs, “Egyptian Darkness or Window of Opportunity? Israeli Discourse on the Arab Spring,” in: Elie Podeh and On Winkler (editors), The Third Wave: Protest and Revolution in the Middle East, Jerusalem: Carmel, 2017, pp. 224-246 [in Hebrew].

[6] Amal Jamal, The Arab Public Sphere in Israel: Media Space and Cultural Resistance, Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009, p. 131.

[7] I'lam – Arab Center for Media Freedom, Development and Research, Strategic Report: The Palestinian Arabs Inside the Green Line (Nazareth, 2016), p. 19 [in Arabic].

[8] Amal Jamal, “Dual Consciousness and Delayed Revolutions: On the Political Dilemmas of Palestinian Citizens in Israel in the Shadow of the Arab Spring," The Public Space, 13 (2017), p. 114 [in Hebrew].

[9] See Azmi Bishara's comprehensive account of the uprising in Syria: Azmi Bishara, Suriyya: Durub al-Alam nahwa al-Hurriyyah [Syria: The Path of Suffering towards Freedom], Doha: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2013 [in Arabic].

[10] For more information on the research center that Bishara heads, see here

[11] Jamal (Note 8 above), p 102.

[12] Prawer Commission was established in 2009 by the government to arrange Bedouin settlement in the Negev. The report’s main innovation was to extend only 50 percent compensation for land that a landowner holds. For claims on land that was not in possession of the claimant, it was decided that monetary compensation would be paid, and that it could be converted for the purchase of residential land plots in Bedouin towns. For more information, see Thabet Abu Ras, "The Arab Bedouin in the Unrecognized Villages in the Naqab (Negev): Between the Hammer of Prawer and the Anvil of Goldberg." Adalah, Vol. 81 (April 2011).

[13] For more on the youth movements, see: Hemat Zuabi, "Al-Hirak al-Shababi al-Filastini" ("Protest Movements of the Young Palestinian Generation"), Jadal, 22, Haifa: Mada al-Carmel, 2015. See also: Jamil Hilal, Al-Harakat al-Shababiyyah al-Filastiniyyah (“Movements of the Young Palestinian Generation”), Ramallah: Masarat, 2013 [in Arabic].

[14] See: Jacky Khoury, “Most of the Arab Public in Favor of Joining the Government,” Haaretz, 20 February 2015 [in Hebrew].

[15] Wadea 'Awawdy, “A Survey of Palestinian Citizens of Israel Reveals Two Important Facts." Al-Quds al-Arabi, 16 February 2017 [in Arabic].

[16] See Youtube (in Hebrew), here.  [in Hebrew]

[17] Jamal (Note 8 above), p. 135.