TEL AVIV (Dec. 15)
The packed hall at Tel Aviv University was not quite ready for the offensive.
Professor Sa’id Zeidani, a young, amiable-looking gentleman, went up to the podium during a recent two-day symposium on Israeli Arab identity and launched a full-scale invective.
His message: It is time for Israel’s Arabs to enjoy full, equal rights as full, equal partners in the State of Israel.
"We have entered the post-Zionist era," he said. "One must talk of a uniform Israeli identity."
The idea is not new. Nor was it the first time Zeidani spoke about it.
What was novel was the magnitude and manner in which it was being presented.
No longer was it a theoretical idea to be discussed on an academic level, no longer a thought whispered in closed rooms.
Instead, it was presented as a straightforward demand, one to be placed loud and clear on the Israeli national agenda.
The demand portends a debate — about the long-term status of Israel’s Arab citizens — that is likely to heat up after the conclusion of the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.
A conference of Israeli Arab political leaders and activists held during the weekend in Nazareth concluded with a resolution calling for recognition of the country’s Arab citizens as equals in a state in which Jews would not have extra privileges.
The audience at the Tel Aviv symposium, mostly Middle East scholars with a pronounced interest in the problems of the Arab minority in Israel, moved uncomfortably in their seats as Zeidani spoke.
Zeidani, born in the village of Tamra near Haifa and educated at Israeli universities, is now the dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
The mostly Jewish audience was torn between the desire to listen with academic politeness to the provocative presentation and the feeling that a prominent Israeli Arab citizen was tearing apart the fundamental idea of Israel as a Jewish state.
A counteroffensive was inevitable.
Professor Yehoshua Porat, one of Israel’s most senior Middle East experts, challenged the sincerity of Zeidan’s desire for "equal partnership" with Israel’s Jews.
Porat spoke of the "growing identification of Israel’s Arabs with the Palestinian people."
Referring to the position of Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli citizen, as special adviser to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, he said, "There is no other example in the world in which an ethnic minority identifies so clearly with the other party. Therefore, the demand to create a state `of all its citizens’ amounts to creating a binational state."
Zeidani has in the past presented a detailed plan for territorial autonomy for Israeli Arabs in the Galilee and in the country’s central region, known as the "Triangle," the two regions where most of the Arab population in Israel lives.
The plan, based on the Swiss canton system, would create areas within Israel in which the Arab population would enjoy wide-ranging autonomy.
Zeidani’s colleague at Bir Zeit University, Azmi Beshara, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, went a step further at the conference.
He called for an independent Arab representative council that would represent Israel’s 835,000 Arabs in dealings with the national authorities.
Beshara ran on a ticket of "cultural autonomy" in the May elections and won a seat in the current Knesset.
The issue of Israel as a state "of all its citizens," in contrast to its definition as a Jewish state, as suggested by some of Israel’s Arab leaders already has sounded alarm bells in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a recent series of talks with European leaders, warned them that granting the Palestinians in the territories full sovereignty would "entail similar demands by the Arabs in the Galilee."
The very mention of Israel’s Arab population in this context was an expression of no-confidence by Israel’s premier in his Arab citizens — and prompted two Arab Knesset members to accuse Netanyahu of slander.
True, there is no love lost between Netanyahu and the Arab population: A full 95 percent of them voted against Netanyahu in the May elections.
But ever since the establishment of the state, despite occasional confrontations, Israel’s Arabs have never presented a security or political problem.
Indeed, Israeli security officials have stated that 99.9 percent of Israel’s Arabs have never been involved in any anti-Israel activities.
Professor Sammy Smoocha of the University of Haifa, who for the past 20 years has tracked the attitudes toward Israel among the country’s Arab population, discussed some of his survey findings at the symposium.
Two years ago, he surveyed a group of Israeli Arabs, asking them whether they thought that Israel had the right to exist as a Zionist state.
Thirty-five percent of the respondents responded negatively, down from the 57 percent who answered no in a similar survey in 1980.
In the latest survey, Smoocha also asked two groups of Arab and Jewish interviewees: "Do you agree to the statement that Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish Zionist state, whereas its Arab population would enjoy full democratic rights, would receive their proportional share in the state budget and would enjoy cultural autonomy?"
Sixty-six percent of the Israeli Arabs replied positively. Some 70 percent of the country’s Jews also agreed with the statement.
In other words, Smoocha said on a hopeful note, there appears to be a national consensus, both among Arabs and Jews, for a framework for Jewish-Arab coexistence within the borders of Israel.
Smoocha’s most recent survey was conducted during a successful period of the peace process. A similar survey, held in the shadow of the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, might produce different results.
Despite the ups and downs of the peace process, Israeli Arabs still suffer from a deep sense of discrimination.
Last week, for example, a group of Arab mayors initiated a sit-in under a protest tent they erected in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. The protest continued this week.
They claimed that the government had not honored the budget allocations that had been promised to Israel’s Arab municipalities by the previous government.
The group also planned a meeting with ambassadors serving in Israel to "bring the plight of Israel’s Arabs to the knowledge of world public opinion," said Hussein Suleiman, spokesman for the Committee of Arab Mayors.