The National Stream and the Jewish State: A Picture of the Current Situation

Arik Rudnitzky analyzes the current political / nationalist discourse in Israel's Arab society.

For more than a decade, Israel has sought to anchor its definition as a "Jewish state." The issue arose from the outset of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and culminated in the Israeli government's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" within the framework of a permanent arrangement between the parties. While the Palestinian Authority has so far received the demand with relative indifference, as revealed in its statement "Let Israel define itself as it wishes," the voice of the Arab public in Israel has been firm and consistent in its criticism of the matter.[1]

The Arab public is not made up of a single political and ideological unit, and therefore, there is no consensus vis-à-vis the definition of a "Jewish state." Of all the active political streams in Israel’s Arab public, the national stream is in direct confrontation with the very notion of a "Jewish state." In principle, its members do not take for granted the idea of ​​self-determination for Jews in the Land of Israel. Nor do they accept the situation in which the Palestinian people are split between "the Palestinians of 1948," "the Palestinians of 1967," and Palestinian refugees. They believe that ultimately all Palestinian people must unite in one political framework in historic Palestine. However, on a practical level, members of the nationalist stream recognize the right of Jews living in Israel today to self-determination, though they limit its application to "Israeli Jews" alone (i.e., not to Jews in the Diaspora).

In recent years, the national stream has been undergoing a process of political transformation under the influence of political processes in the Palestinian arena and in the Middle East as a whole. The crisis that’s befallen the Palestinian national movement is reflected in the absence of a clear Palestinian national vision following the collapse of the two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. The conclusion of the national stream is that the "Palestinians of 1948," who found themselves in a situation of "double periphery" owing to the Oslo Accords (1993) - that is, on the margins of the Palestinian national movement and on the margins of Israeli citizenship - have recovered from the crisis that visited them, reorganized, and became the pyre in a nationwide issue. To this we must add the influence of the events of the "Arab Spring" at the beginning of the current decade.

The collapse of regimes in neighboring Arab countries following the protests of the masses, fed by slogans such as "the will of the nations" (Eradat al-Shu’ub) or "victory to the nations" (Al-Nasr Lilshu’ub), exemplified the power of a united public to bring about revolutionary change. All this leads the national stream to adopt a more proactive approach than in the past. This trend is reflected on the ideological level in the discussion of the national stream’s worldview, and at the practical level, by presenting proposals for the realization of that worldview.

A recent discussion of the worldview of the nationalist stream appears in an article recently written by Dr. Bassel Ghattas, who until recently served as a member of the Knesset with the Balad party.[2] His point of departure is that the Arab minority suffers from discrimination and exclusion because it is part of the indigenous Palestinian people suffering from Israel’s colonial occupation. For this reason, Ghattas believes the time has now come to develop a "project for the liberation of the Palestinian Arabs ‘inside’ from the ongoing colonialism.” Ghattas raises some fundamental rhetorical questions in order to clarify the project’s strategic goal and vision: 

“What do we, the Palestinians ‘inside,’ really want and what is our project? Do we want a liberation project in order to be rid of the colonial occupation, or only to improve our living conditions within its framework? […] Will we accept the way in which the occupier shapes our connection to our homeland, in a way that completely denies this connection, and turns Palestine into a new colonial geography that reflects the control and narrative of the colonist and the defeat of the original people’s narrative? Must we accept this reality and accustom ourselves to this hidden geography, or do we want to return to the homeland, in a physical and mental sense, and return to it as masters, the rightful and original owners of this land?”

Ghattas explains that at the heart of the discourse of liberation from the occupation are the indisputable rights of the land’s original people of and their historical narrative. He calls for adoption of an outlook of liberation, one that rejects the existing reality and expresses of willingness to affect a fundamental revolutionary change. 

Ghattas moves from principle to the practical, recalling that from the outset the Balad party’s “State of Citizens” project - that is, a state that delivers full equality to all its citizens- and the idea of cultural autonomy developed in the wake of the Oslo Accords. The spirit of the times was marked by signs of a solution for peace between the sides, based on the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 territories and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. It should be noted that Azmi Bishara, the founder of Balad and the thinker behind the “State of Citizens,” argued in the 1990s that the framework of cultural autonomy would enable Arab citizens to cultivate Palestinian national identity within the framework of Israeli politics without assimilating into the country’s Hebrew culture.[3] Today, Ghattas contends that Balad's project proposes a just democratic solution for Arabs and Jews because it gives both groups full equality, equal citizenship, and allows each group the right to self-determination independently. Ghattas opines that as long as Israel exists as an invader state that is out of compliance with international law, there is no significance to Jewish-Arab partnership. Instead of leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Oslo Accords effectively increased settlement activity, divided the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Judaized Jerusalem. Therefore, Ghattas concludes, the time has come to rebuild the Palestinian national liberation project. This task rests on the shoulders of all Palestinians, everywhere, and at this point "this segment of the Palestinian people" - that is, the Arab minority in Israel - will play an important role in rebuilding the national project and in inter-Palestinian discourse.

A substantive part of Ghattas' discussion deals with the connection between the general national project and the daily problems that preoccupy the Arab public: housing, education, violence in Arab society, house demolitions, employment and improving the standard of living. He draws an organic connection between the general concept of the liberation project and the demand for civil rights. His words clearly echo the discourse of the rights of indigenous peoples.[4] One of the salient features in the discourse of “indigenous rights” is based on indigenous people’s claim to their internal value system – that is, to what appears to them to be just, correct, and moral according to their perception. These rights are not necessarily derived from the laws of the country in which they live. Ghattas writes:

“We want an improvement in our living conditions because we have these rights and we are the sons of this homeland. We want housing and infrastructure because we are in need of them, and because these are our rights as people and as masters of their homeland, and it is not a kindness from any person. We want better schools, we want a better education system, and we want to run them because we have the rights of people and the rights of owners. We want Arab universities and research institutions because we have the rights of native sons in their land, and no man has more right than us on this matter. And at the same time, we want to return to our destroyed villages, and return to our expropriated lands, and to build new cities and settlements for ourselves. This is the discourse of the country's original people.”

Ghattas concludes that the discourse of the land’s original people is not supposed to be soft and refined. However, he urges against adoption of any violent revolutionary approach, since there are a variety of peaceful civilian strategies for achieving the goal. But first, he stresses, the Arab public must "behave as an original people with a project."

The spirit of the "national project" also characterizes the positions of other senior members of the national stream. Awad ‘Abd al-Fattah, formerly secretary-general of the Balad party and a member of the “Sons of the Village” (Abnaa’ al-Balad) nationalist movement before that, believes that in the absence of a solution to the conflict in the foreseeable future, every segment of the Palestinian nation must adopt a project particular to that segment which will ensure its safety.[5]  In the case of the Palestinians in Israel, the national project must be manifested in the reorganization of the Supreme Follow-up Committee, and its transformation into an elected institution of the Arab public. All parties, local authorities, and communal and professional organizations will come under the supervision of the Follow-up committee, and direct elections for the committee should be held thereafter. The Follow-up Committee, al-Fattah posits, should be a collective national framework that will be a source of constitutional and moral authority - a kind of "social covenant" – for the Arab public’s leadership. In his opinion, this is a basic prerequisite for protecting the existence of the Arab public as a national collective against the tyranny of the ruling majority in Israel.

Abd al-Fattah emphasizes that the right of the Arab minority to establish national institutions of its own is anchored in international law, as part of the right of self-determination. In theory, the right of a minority to self-determination may take several forms, such as separation and the establishment of an independent state, territorial autonomy or cultural autonomy.[6] From the outset, members of the nationalist stream rejected the idea of territorial autonomy because of its impotence (geographically speaking), and especially because of worry that the state would see itself as completely exempt from dealing with the affairs of the Arab public. Abd al-Fattah does not deviate from this precept. He points out that the majority of Arab political, academic and intellectual authorities believe that cultural autonomy is the correct solution. In his opinion, although “the Palestinians inside the green line” have come a long way in the establishment of cultural institutions, the absence of a collective political vision prevented the realization of cultural autonomy. The reorganization of the Follow-up Committee may therefore advance it substantially.

How do Balad's people deal with legislative initiatives such as the "National Law" which emphasize the Jewish character of the state? Dr. Amtanes Shehadeh, secretary general of Balad, presents two ways.[7] One way is to formulate a collective political platform that is agreed upon by the parties and the political movements in the Arab public, which will clarify the Arab public's position on the Zionist project and delineate its effects on Palestinian society in Israel. Such a platform would stand in opposition to the Zionist colonial project, as Shehadeh puts it, and would ensure the collective rights of all groups in Israeli society. Shehadeh’s intention is to present an initiative from the Arab public and lay it on the table of Jewish citizens, and not to wait for suggestions from Israeli authorities, which by their nature place limits on the political demands of the Arab public.

Another option Shehadeh proposes is to strengthen unified parliamentary activities and to strengthen the power of the Joint List. According to Shehadeh, until the 2015 Knesset elections, voter turnout in the Arab public had been 55 percent on average, with some boycotting the election for ideological reasons and others abstaining due to indifference. Either way, Shehadeh emphasizes that the boycotts had no political effect. Today, he recommends reversing this trend by encouraging the Arab public to participate in election in order to achieve voter turnout of 70 percent. He is convinced that not only will it produce a positive political influence, but also that such a move would convince Israel that it cannot be “a nation-state exclusively for the Jews.”

In conclusion, the discourse of the members of the national stream emphasizes the fact that the Arab minority is an indigenous minority and strengthens its perception that the state is the fruit of a colonization process on their land. The research literature documents a series of cases of nation-states in Asia and Africa where tension exists between a minority group that sees itself as original and a majority group that is not perceived as original in the minority’s eyes. At its core, this is a conflict over social and economic resources such as land, employment, education, and services provided by the government. The intensity of the conflict increases when, on the one hand, there is a process of modernization, development, and an increase in the level of education that increases the minority's expectations of equality, but on the other hand the government (in the eyes of the minority) does not serve as a fair broker for the distribution of the country’s resources. It is from these influences that the concept of “sons of the soil” grew: the members of the minority group adopt for themselves the nickname “sons of the soil” to express their collective right to the territory in which they live. They emphasize that they are indigenous people and add legitimacy to their demand that the government give them priority in the distribution of resources within their territory. The conclusion that emerges from the literature is that the indigenous minority adopts political tools to address the chasm between its level of socioeconomic development and the majority group.[8]

These conclusions are also applicable in the case of the Arab minority in Israel, and even more specifically in the story of the national stream. In fact, one of the factors that contributed to its rise in Arab society during the 1970s was the discrepancy in the level of economic development between Jewish and Arab communities. At first, members of the national stream volunteered for municipal level activity as a basis for emphasizing their authenticity and as a political path for remedying the maladies of Arab communities. In the 1980s, the question of participation in the Knesset elections created internal divisions and polarizations among them. However, for the past two decades (since 1996) members of the Balad party have decided to participate in parliamentary politics, and they continue to adhere to the parliamentary option. Their intensive preoccupation with the rights to which the Arab public is entitled as an indigenous minority, the promotion of the idea of cultural autonomy within the state, and the discussion of the rights to which the Jewish majority is entitled (according to their view) – all make clear that the “indigenous discourse” they promote is not intended to undermine the existing political framework, but to obtain substantive equality within it.


[1] Arik Rudnitzky, The Arab Minority in Israel and the Discourse on “The Jewish State” (Jerusalem: Israel Democracy Institute, 2015) [Hebrew].

[2] Dr. Bassel Ghattas, "Qira'ah fi waqi' filastiniyi al-dakhil wa-darurat tajdid al-mashru' al-watani" ("An analysis of the reality of the "Palestinians inside" and the need to renew the national project")., 25 March 2017.  [Arabic]

[3] Azmi Bishara, “The Arab in Israel: A Study in a Splitted Political Debate,” in: Avi Bareli and Pinhas Ginossar (Editors), Zionism: Contemporary Polemics – Research Approaches and Ideologies (Ben Gurion University of the Negev: The Ben Gurion Heritage Center, 1996), pp. 312-339. [Hebrew] 

[4] For discussion on “indigenous rights,” see: Duncan Ivison, “Indigenous Rights,” in: William A. Darity (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Farmington Hills: MacMillan (2), 2007, pp. 614–617.

[5] Awad 'Abd al-Fattah, "Filastiniyu Al-48 - Jardat Hisab wal-Din al-Mu’allaq" ("The Palestinians of 1948: Account and the Hanging Debt"), , March 25, 2017.  [Arabic]

[6] For further details, see Ruth Lapidot, "Autonomy," Law and Government 1 (1992), pp. 37-79.

[7] Amtanes Shehadeh, “Musahamah fi subul al-Tasaddi li-Qanun al-Qawmiyah” ("Contribution to the discussion of ways to oppose the national law"),, May 12, 2017.  [Arabic]

[8] See: Myron Weiner, Sons of the Soil: Migration and Ethnic Conflict in India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978); Morten Boas, “’New’ Nationalism and Autochthony: Tales of Origin as Political Cleavage”, Africa Spectrum, 1 (2009), pp. 19-38; James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Sons of the Soil, Migrants, and Civil War”, World Development, 39/2 (2011), pp. 199-211.