Every so often the suggestion is raised that Palestinian citizens of Israel, like Jewish citizens, should do some form of national service. Since Israel effectively bars them from military service, and since most of them have no desire anyway to fight in an army that oppresses Palestinians, the proposed alternative is some sort of non-military national service. The claim has been heard recently because of the work of the Plessner Committee, which is recommending military and national service for the ultra-othodox.
A state that defines itself as a state of the Jews, and only of the Jews, and then foundationally discriminates in a myriad of ways against its non-Jewish citizens, cannot morally demand equality of obligations. The answer is to transform the State of Israel into a state of all its citizens, with equal rights and obligations for all. With 5 1/2 million Jews, and with Israel's history, it would still very much be a state in which Hebrew and Jewish culture would be dominant in the public sphere, a state that would look like an ethnic democracy rather than an ethnocracy. And in that case, we could have the philosophical and practical argument about whether national service is a good idea.
Some of my liberal Zionist friends will demur, and it's for them that I write this post. Some, like Peter Beinart, will claim that while Israel is a flawed democracy, it is a democracy nonetheless. They will say that it is indeed unfortunate that there has been a systematic, inegalitarian distribution of resources that favor Jews at the expense of Arabs. But Israel has, at least, in principle, the resources that can make the system more egalitarian. Who knows? Were the Palestinian Israelis to accept some sort of national service, perhaps that would make it easier for them to be accepted within the society, and then they could make the case for a more equitable distribution.
Akiva Eldar, a man whom I respect immensely, agrees with me that under the present circumstances, Palestinian Israelis should not be required to participate in national service. But he also argues today in Haaretz that Palestinian Israelis have more political power than they they think. Instead of staying home in droves whenever there are national elections (only a bit over 50% vote), they could promise to vote for a center-left coalition if some of their political demands are met. After all, and here I return to Beinart, during the years of the second Rabin government, because of coalition arrangments, there were significant steps taken to bridge the gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens. It is, theoretically, possible -- if only the Palestinian Israelis would vote.
Sadly, Eldar's stance is typical liberal Israeli self-delusion. Discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is not just institutional, it is foundational. They are 20% of the population, yet they have virtually no political power. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state.
Beinart's invoking the second Rabin government is illuminating. . Rabin was elected in part because of the Arab vote. Yet even Rabin did not have the political will or ability to bring the Arab political parties into the government coalition. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state. So Arab Israelis could expect to get further funding if they supported the government outside the coalition, and hence not control any ministries, which is the main source of resources for all parties.
Even this was too much for many Israelis, who claimed that the Oslo process was illegitimate because it rested on Arab votes. Attempts to require a Jewish majority on major issues in the Knesset failed, but narrowly. The one time that an Israeli government made some serious gestures towards its Arab citizens, it lost its legitimacy in the eyes of those who had been brought up to believe that Israel was a state of the Jews, not of its citizens.
The lessons of Rabin's failure was learned well by the next Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak. In the 1999 elections close to 75% of the Palestinian Israelis voted, and over 95% of them voted for Ehud Barak for prime minister. When Barak won in a landslide, he promised to the be prime minister of "kulam," everybody. What he meant was that he was going to be the prime minister of all the Jews, left, right, and center, religious and non-religious. He did not want to be perceived as the prime minister of the Arabs. So despite the fact that no sector supported him more than the Arab one, he refused to meet with the Israeli Arab political leaders after the election, not even extending them the courtesy of being invited to informal coalition talks. After all, he thought, they were in his pocket; who else would they support? After the fiasco of Camp David, the beginning of the Second Intifada, and the October police riots against Palestinian Israelis, leaving 13 Palestinian Israelis dead, and despite Barak's attempts to placate the Arab citizenry before the election with Or Commision report (whose recommendations were not implemented), only 18% of Palestinian Israelis voted in the 2001 elections. And why should they? Wouldn't it be more convenient for them to simply flush their ballot down the toilet?
From 1948 until the present, Palestinian Israelis have been effectively "present absentees," people who dot the Israeli landscape but who are not seriously noticed by Israeli Jews. When they were under military government in the 1950s and 1960s, voter participation was very high. As Karin Schefferman of the Israeli Democracy Institute reported in 2009
In the 1950s and 1960s, the voting rate of the Arab citizens of Israel was very high - from 90% in 1955 to 82% in 1965. Neuberger (1965) suggests that the high turnout during these years was actually imposed by the dominant Mapai party, which took advantage of the clan social structure of the Arab population and used the military government to pressure Israel's Arab citizens to vote for Mapai's satellite parties: "The Israeli Arab Democratic List", "Agriculture and Development", "Cooperation and Brotherhood" and "Progress and Development". Therefore, the high voting rates during these years do not necessarily indicate a desire to participate, but rather fear of the Israeli regime
I suppose that there is a certain amount of progress if some of the citizenry doesn't live in fear of the government, and unlike their Palestinian brethren on the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Israelis do not live in fear. As ethnocracies go, Israel is pretty enlightened and liberal.
But the idea that increased voter participation is going to significantly help the Palestinian Israelis is a liberal Zionist myth. A visiting professor of US Constitutional law recently asked me, "How many Knesset seats would it take for the Palestinians to be a member of the coalition?" I answered, "61, i.e., a majority -- because no Jewish prime minister will ever invite them into a coalition."
And why not? Because it's a Jewish state. The hand-wringing of the widening gaps between Jews and Arabs allow Israelis to sleep better at night.
But it is just more liberal Zionist mauvais foi