Socioeconomic Improvements Won’t Bring Political Moderation to Israel’s Arabs

May 17, 2022 | Efraim Karsh
About the author: Efraim Karsh is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, emeritus professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He is the author most recently of The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2015).

In the past several years, Israeli Arabs have attained rising wages and standards of living as well as greater levels of education; they have also become more likely to learn Hebrew and to join the IDF. Mansour Abbas has led his Islamist Ra’am party into the governing coalition, and shifted attention away from the Palestinian cause—long the centerpiece of Israeli Arab politics—and toward the bread-and-butter issues facing his constituents. Yet there have also been less encouraging signs, particularly the riots that took place last year in cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, and the participation of Israeli Arabs in the recent wave of terror. Efraim Karsh sees in these last developments a disturbing trend that began with the Oslo Accords:

Within a month of his arrival in Gaza [in 1994, Yasir] Arafat had secretly ordered the extension of the Palestinian Authority’s activities to Israel’s Arabs, allocating $10 million in initial funding (in addition to $20-25 million for real-estate purchases in Jerusalem) and appointing Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli citizen, to head the subversive operation. In subsequent years, the interference of the PLO and its Palestinian Authority (PA) proxy in Israel’s domestic affairs would range from mediation of internal Arab disputes, to outright attempts to influence the outcome of Israeli elections, to the spread of propaganda calling for Israel’s destruction.

These incendiary activities had their predictable effect. By the time of the 2009 national elections, some 40 percent of Israeli Arabs were denying the existence of the Holocaust while one in two were opposed to sending their children to Jewish schools or having Jewish neighbors. Small wonder that the 1990s and 2000s saw the demise of Arab votes for Jewish/Zionist parties and their diversion to militant purely Arab parties that were openly opposed to Israel’s very existence, and this process gained considerable momentum in the 2010s.

Moreover, Karsh argues, increasing economic improvements are unlikely to change the Arab political trajectory:

If poverty and marginalization were indeed the culprits, why . . . did Arab dissidence increase dramatically with the vast improvement in the Arab standard of living in the 1970s and 1980s? Why did it escalate into an open uprising in October 2000—after a decade that saw government allocations to Arab municipalities grow by 550 percent and the number of Arab civil servants nearly treble? And why did it spiral into a far more violent insurrection in May 2021—after yet another decade of massive government investment in the Arab sector, including a 15 billion-shekel ($3.84 billion) socioeconomic aid program in 2015 in all fields of Arab society?

The truth is that, in the modern world, socioeconomic progress has rarely been a recipe for political moderation and intercommunal coexistence. . . . In 1937, a British commission of enquiry observed: “With almost mathematical precision, the betterment of the economic situation in Palestine meant the deterioration of the political situation.”

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