HARISH might have been Israel’s first city purpose-built for both Arabs and Jews. On the hilltops dividing the Mediterranean coast from the West Bank, bulldozers have been clearing the way to accommodate 60,000 inhabitants. Its first wave of Arab ones has already co-operated with ultra-Orthodox Jews to elect a mayor. And unlike neighbouring Jewish town councils, which went to court to stop Arabs living or burying their dead within their security gates, Harish’s officials portray a future where minarets and synagogues will coexist side by side. Yet if Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has his way, the city will be wrenched from its predominantly Arab surroundings.
When Yigal Shachar, who heads the city’s special planning committee, draws a putative border between the states of Palestine and Israel, he draws a loop around Harish, including its happily integrated Arabs, keeping it firmly in Israel–but draws a new line around a concentration of nearby Arab-Israeli towns such as Ara, putting them into the adjacent West Bank, where the Palestinians hope to build their state.
10 years ago, when Mr Lieberman first proposed moving Arab-populated Israeli towns near the present border into Palestine in exchange for Jewish settlement blocs in the Palestinians’ West Bank being incorporated into Israel, he was branded a racist firebrand. Liberals accused him of promoting the forcible “transfer” plan, akin to ethnic cleansing, proclaimed by a rabbi, Meir Kahane, who vilified Arabs while calling for a pure Jewish state.
Today, however, even some doveish Israeli left-wingers find such ideas reasonable. And when Mr Lieberman recently again proposed swapping Jewish-populated lands for Arab ones, not only did Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, stay silent, but American mediators declared that the foreign minister had joined the peace camp of those seeking a two-state solution. “No one will be expelled from his home, or have his property confiscated,” says Mr Lieberman. “We’re just talking about moving the border.” On his Facebook page, he recently mocked Arab parliamentarians who protested against the idea, teasing them as “lovers of Zion” for wanting to stay in Israel.
But a recent poll in a liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, found a growing number of Arabs backed it, too. Whereas 80% had decried it five years ago as another stage in the nakba, or catastrophe, as Arabs call their dispossession by Israel in 1948, over a third were now reported to be in favour.
Many reasons have been aired. Israel’s policy of letting its Arab, but not its Jewish, citizens holiday and work in the West Bank’s Palestinian cities has strengthened ties between Arabs on both sides of the current border. And some of Israel’s secular Arabs are keen to shed their Islamists, whose wellspring lies in Wadi Ara, part of the area Mr Lieberman wants to swap.
But the main reason Israel’s 1.7m Arabs increasingly identify with Palestine is the mounting rejection they face in Israel. Mr Lieberman’s dreams of casting them off and Mr Netanyahu’s drive for global recognition of Israel as a specifically Jewish state are alienating many of the more than 20% of Israelis who are Arabs.
This growing sense of ostracism has been reinforced by actions. Israel’s national bus carrier skirts Arab towns while serving Jewish outposts. The government builds industrial zones for Jewish towns but rarely for Arab ones. Though signposts are in Arabic as well as Hebrew, they are often spelt wrong. “We thought we were citizens in a democracy,” says Makbula Nassar, a fiery broadcaster on Radio Shams, an Arabic radio station in Israel. “Despite decades of dispossession, communal violence was minimal. But we discovered that we were always considered the enemy.” An Arab dentist in an Israeli hospital sees his hopes of coexistence wither, as the conflict that was largely about territory turns religious. An Arab lawyer fears her lifetime of trying to integrate into Israel will be worthless. “I’m an expert in Israeli law. How will I practise in Palestine?”
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