One Small Step For Bi-Nationalism

Israel’s Central Elections Commission has, in its infinite wisdom, decided that this year (unlike in prior elections where similar petitions were submitted) it will ban the participation of Arab parties.

I can’t comment on the technicalities of the decision; I don’t know Israeli election law and none of the stories I read explained why the commission came to this decision this year.

But I can say this: I’ve said for years that Israel’s true existential crisis does not relate to the territories but to relations between Jewish and Arab citizens. And this decision could be a major milestone in turning Israel into a bi-national state, regardless of how things develop in the territories.

Israel’s Arab sector has been considerably radicalized by the situation in the territories. Or, rather, I should say that while a minority segment has assimilated more fully than ever before into mainstream Israeli life, the unassimilated majority is more oppositional and hostile to that mainstream than ever before.

In theory, Israel has four directions it could go in dealing with the fact that it is an avowedly Jewish state with a large non-Jewish (Arab) minority.

Israel could argue that there is no problem with being an ethno-national state with a large ethnic minority population, provided that the ethnic minorities have protection against certain egregious kinds of discrimination. The Israeli Arab population currently suffers under considerable layers of discrimination, which are justified based on the security situation Israel finds itself it; if that situation were to be resolved in the context of a regional peace, Israel would have to eliminate these restrictions, or have a problem meeting this standard. Supposedly, this is what the average Israeli liberal sees as the end-game.

Israel could transfer the Arab-dominated portions of the country (e.g. the Triangle region in the Galilee) to an Arab country. This would only be legal under international law if the population in question voted for it in a plebiscite and dissenters had the option to retain their Israeli citizenship. While I can imagine (unfortunately) circumstances where this could happen not in accordance with international law (as, indeed, some far-right Israeli political parties already call for), I don’t see a plebiscite being held any time soon.

Israel could disestablish itself as a Jewish state and become a “state of all its citizens.” I’ve never been very clear on what this means, nor on what the model is for such a state (I’m guessing “America” which reflects a poor understanding of this country), but in any event this isn’t going to happen. Europe is full of ethno-national states – e.g., Germany, Hungary, Greece – and so is Asia – e.g., Thailand, Korea, Japan – and I don’t see why Israel would choose to voluntarily disestablish itself even if I could see how.

Or, finally, Israel could grant the Arab-dominated portions of the country the status of a national minority, as opposed to an ethnic minority, which would mean considerably more autonomy for those regions and might require changing the electoral system to assure representation for these regions in the central government. In other words: Israel could become a bi-national state, with the Arab areas having a status somewhat analogous to Quebec.

This is a very plausible end-game scenario, but it’s not something the Israeli center has ever embraced. Indeed, avoiding bi-nationalism is part of what separation from the Palestinians was supposed to be about. But if Israel’s Arab sector gets even further alienated from the mainstream, a national-minority “solution” is going to look relatively good compared to the uglier outcomes that one can imagine.